Historians have explored almost every aspect of Jewish life in South Africa, but one of the most notable omissions has been a critical history of the role of the Progressive (or Reform) movement. In this detailed study, to be published in the second half of 2019, Irwin Manoim shows that the movement expanded rapidly across the country for four decades after its founding in the mid-thirties, but was hard-hit by Jewish emigration from the late seventies onwards.
Innovations included the first batmitzvahs, substantial outreach projects to African townships, women on synagogue management committees, women rabbis and the first same-sex marriages. Certain Progressive rabbis spoke out against apartheid despite a backlash from government officials and the wider Jewish community.
Right from the start there were clashes with Orthodox rabbis over issues ranging from access to cemeteries to recognition of marriages and conversions, and the right to say prayers at communal events. South African Reform evolved its own forms of religious practice which were more Zionist and more conservative than those in the USA.
By the late nineties, “Classical Reform” had been largely abandoned across the world, and Progressive and Conservative Judaism moved closer together. A central theme is why South African Jewry did not follow American precedent, where non-Orthodox denominations are far and away the majority.