Having previously lived in Amsterdam and Shanghai, I always sought out the “Jewish experience”’ in my temporary hometowns. Having moved to Cape Town in 2009, I wanted to find out more about the local Jewish community and what Jewish life looks like in the Mother City, considering that so many young Jewish people have left the country in the past few decades.
I had the opportunity to sit down with David Jacobson, Executive Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (Cape Council), the community’s political arm and umbrella organisation.
I asked him how he perceives Judaism in the city. “These are interesting times to be Jewish in South Africa”, said Jacobson.
“Given the vast anti-Israel sentiments in South Africa, it is not always easy to maintain one’s Jewish identity here. Judaism in South Africa is intertwined with Zionism and love for Israel. With our current government, it is almost impossible to openly express solidarity and loyalty to Israel. Being Jewish in South Africa is automatically associated with being a Zionist, which in this day and age is not popular.”
Jacobson called this era “challenging” and “frightening” for the Jewish community, and spoke of “a big threat” to South African Judaism.
“Nonsense”, countered Dan Brotman, Media and Diplomatic Liaison for the same Board of Deputies. “Cape Town is by far one of the best places in the world to live as a Jew.”
Although these two gentlemen differ greatly in some of their views, their shared love for the Cape Town Jewish community is evident, as well as their strong desire to improve it. Working together is no problem, since their differences enable them to complement each other.
Jacobson, 45, was born in Zimbabwe, grew up in Cape Town, single (“I have given up hope”), very liberal and an avid Zionist. Brotman, 25, was born and bred in the United States and lived in Israel for three years before moving to Cape Town to live with his South African partner.
As a Dutch-Jewish journalist who moved to Cape Town nearly three years ago, I am very aware of people’s associations with South Africa: Crime, poverty and HIV/Aids. Once these sceptics have arrived in the Mother City, not much of these preconceived images remain.
“Sure we see poverty, but we are blown away by the beauty of the city and its people”, say John and Hannah, an older Jewish couple visiting from Britain. They just enjoyed a tour through the Gardens Shul and thought it was “absolutely stunning”. They tell me about the beautiful things they have seen over the past four days of their visit, and do not once mention the words “safety” or “danger”.
I wonder why this sense of danger, which apparently does not bother John and Hannah, or me, still leads so many young Jewish people and families to emigrate? Do they really have more opportunities and earn higher salaries elsewhere?
“Not necessarily”, according to Brotman. As an educated American professional who chose to move to Cape Town, he sees the glass as half full. Besides his firm conviction that Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, he is just as convinced of the abundant opportunities available for young Jewish people in the country.
“I am only 25 years old and work as a direct representative of the Jewish community, enabling me to communicate with the media and government on a daily basis. Do you think I would have been given such an opportunity at my age in the US?”
The opportunities for younger people within the Cape Town Jewish community that he speaks of are partially due to the fact that there is a “missing generation” that left the country over the past few decades. From the mid-1970s onwards, many young white people (including Jews) aged 30 and over fled the country and were encouraged to do so by their frightened parents.
“It is such a shame that many young people do not see what they can achieve here. After having emigrated, many expats speak badly about South Africa to people who have never been here.”
Brotman’s ideology plays a huge role in moulding the way he looks at his life. “We have been given the chance to rebuild the Jewish community within a new, democratic South Africa. I sometimes feel that we are not unlike what the chalutzim (pioneers) were to building Israel.”
While Israel’s pioneers were greatly inspired and driven by their beliefs, is it exactly this ideology which is problematic in contemporary South Africa, according to Jacobson. He brings the issue of Jewish youth to the table.
“While our youth are very actively Jewish during their childhood, their Jewish identity begins to fade away when they grow up. Once they have left their Jewish school and attend university, they just want to fit in with their peers, so they ‘Jew out’.”
Are the Jewish and South African identities that difficult to merge? Jacobson shakes his head, “Sadly not.”
This is exactly why he has set up several initiatives to begin changing the Jewish community’s mindset. Together with friends, he organises a monthly evening open to all to discuss and debate how to improve the local Jewish community.
“In today’s South Africa, it is a great freedom we have to be able to think outside of the box. Our parents did not have that opportunity, but we do. Let’s reinvent the South African Jewish community.”
While anti-Israel sentiments do exist in the country, South Africa has one of the lowest rates of reported anti-Semitic incidents worldwide. In 2011, only 70 anti-Semitic incidents were reported, with very few manifesting in physical violence.
“This government strongly confronts racism against any group in society”, explains Jacobson. Cape Town’s Jewish population of 16 000 is juxtaposed against a Muslim community of over 500 000. In contrast to what the Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe experience regularly, there are seldom tensions between the two communities in Cape Town.
While the debate rages on about how to rebuild and reshape the Jewish community, its foundation is most definitely there. Facilities are plentiful – the eight Jewish schools in Greater Cape Town are attended by roughly 85% of Jewish children. According to Jacobson, this is not always because parents are seeking a religious education for their children, but rather because the Jewish schools offer the best secular education in the city.
The Jewish schools also attract some non-Jewish pupils, especially from expat families. Nod, a very blonde four-year-old son of a non-Jewish Dutch friend of mine, still greets his mother in the morning with a cheerful “Shalom Mommy”.
Up until he recently left his Jewish school, he would put on a kappa every morning. Even now, he still sings Jewish songs flawlessly, and can even play some of them on the piano.
Other Jewish facilities in the city include the McCabe Sports Club, the Jewish old age home, Highlands House, the Jewish recruitment company, Staff Wise, and weekly organised events, such as bridge, yoga, pilates, Hebrew/Yiddish classes and lectures.
Although Jacobson believes there still is much room for improvement, the Cape Town Jewish community already offers a lot compared to other Diaspora communities.
When I first arrived in Cape Town, I was pleasantly surprised to see the huge kosher section in some of the city’s supermarkets, such as Checkers and Pick ‘n Pay in Sea Point. Up until that point, I had never seen such an abundance of kosher food anywhere else in the world, besides in Israel.
If Cape Town has so much to offer its Jewish residents, then why leave? “Not me”, says Elan Burman, 29, who moved back to South Africa from the United States with his American wife two years ago. Elan spent most of his childhood in Cape Town, and wishes the same for his two year-old daughter.
“There are uncertainties all over the world, no more here in South Africa than anywhere else. In the US, I watched my friends lose their jobs one after another. Is that certainty? The Cape Town Jewish community is exceptionally organised in terms of welfare services, schools and events. Also, the quality of life here is remarkably good. Look around you… the city is absolutely stunning!” DM
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