It was a matter of kol yisrael aravim zeh bazeh - all Israel is responsible for one another. Jewish history is replete with tales of Jews expelled or fleeing from one country or another, with other Jewish communities extending helping hands. The Jews from the Congo epitomise that history. First settled by East European immigrants, their community was joined by French-speaking Jews from Rhodes Island, then by German Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe and later by Auschwitz survivors from Rhodes Island (of the 1674 deported from the island, 151 survived). Next to arrive were the French-speaking Sephardi Jews deported from Egypt after the 1956 Suez crisis. By 30th June 1960 when the Congo became independent from Belgium, the Jewish community numbered 2,500, half of whom lived in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) where they had a synagogue.

Independence was followed by political upheaval and conflict between 1960 and 1965, during which 100,000 people are believed to have been killed. Ten days after independence was declared, the English Consulate and the Italian Embassy called for immediate evacuation. The Jewish community fled in convoys escorted by Belgian troops, refugees once again, often fleeing with only the clothes they wore. By July 600 - 700 Jews, mainly women and children, had crossed the border into Rhodesia.

Europeans Arrive In Bulawayo From Belgian Congo (1960) - YouTube

Refugees from the Congo arrive in Bulawayo

The South African Jewish community sprang into action. Public funds were established and the Jewish community was asked to contribute generously. Namie Philips, the SAJBD Chairman, reported to the Board that some intended to settle in Rhodesia, some in South Africa, others in Israel with the Israeli Consulate speeding facilities for their aliyah. He paid tribute to the South African Government for “open hearted steps taken to assist the refugees. The South African Government’s policy was a completely open door for the Congo refugees with no distinction concerning race or creed.” Remembering the lack of generosity that South Africa had shown to the Jews from Eastern Europe, from Nazi Europe, to the Holocaust survivors, to the Hungarian refugees, this volte face was unusual, unless it was to demonstrate the danger of black independence and hence the correctness of apartheid policies.

From Rhodesia, many came down to Cape Town, which they knew from summer holidays. Eighty refugees appealed to the Board for assistance and the community extended shelter to the Congo refugees, giving them medical attention, clothes and accommodation in private homes and hotels, in Highlands House and Oranjia. Learners were sent to Herzlia and employment found for the men.

The Congolese Jews attended the G&SPHC. As a French- and Ladino- speaking Sephardi community, they found the Ashkenazi Minhag strange to their ears so the G&SPHC allowed them to use one of the Weizmann classrooms for their own 1960 High Festival services conducted by lay leaders under Joseph Rahmani and Moise Israel. The rest of the year they worshipped in Marais Road. In 1970 50 representatives of the Sephardi Congregation approached them wishing to become members – they did not want seats as they would arrange their own services (24.11.1970). When the community grew to sixty families, the G&SPHC committee let them use the Weizmann School assembly hall and lent them Sifrei Torah and prayer books (28.9.1967).

In 1971 Rhodesia declared UDI, a Bush War began and the Rhodesian Sephardi community pulled up their roots and started all over again, this time in Cape Town where many of their fellows had already settled. With a community now numbering 180 families (600 souls), the assembly hall was too small and the G&SPHC let them use the Minor Weizmann Hall. Five years later they became a properly constituted body and began to hold services on Shabbat as well, and it became tedious to set up and take down the synagogue every time it was required. In 1979 the G&SPHC gave the Sephardi community permission to use the Minor Hall as a synagogue on a permanent basis and they were given the go ahead to appoint their own rabbi, Rabbi Reuben Suiza, to redo the hall, and to pull up the stage to make extra space for the women.

Kehila Shalom – Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town

In 1980 G Breskal presented a memorandum to the G&SPHC committee in which he pointed out that its association with the Sephardi community went back twenty years, its members coming originally from the Congo and Rhodesia with very little money. Most of them joined the G&SPHC and paid full membership fees. As their numbers grew and as their synagogue services were conducted in a different style to the Ashkenazi service, they wished to conduct their own services and the G&SPHC agreed to provide them with facilities to do so at the Weizmann Hall. During this time the Sephardi community continued to pay membership fees and the G&SPHC gave it the use of its office staff, secretariat and its rabbi helped out when required. As the numbers of the Sephardi community continued to grow and they became more established and affluent, they built their own shul in the Weizmann Minor Hall, employing its own rabbi and administrative staff. At no time, Breskal pointed out, did they ask the G&SPHC to waive the affiliation fees in lieu of a nominal rental and the Sephardi Congregation had always been part and parcel of the G&SPHC. They now wished to embark on a building programme and wanted the assurance of the G&SPHC that, if it were to sell or demolish the Weizmann Hall, the Sephardi Congregation would be reimbursed in some way, A letter was sent to them on 9.12.1980 formalising the arrangement between the two congregations in respect of the front part of the Weizmann Hall complex and reassuring them that it would be compensated if the G&SPHC decided to sell the complex.

Synagogues of South Africa

Sephardi Synagogue

The Sephardi rabbi, Rabbi Suiza, who was taught for his smichah by Rabbi Steinhorn, has remarked on the spirit of brotherhood and unity that exists between the Sephardi Synagogue and the G&SPHC which was a shining light, both of them forming part and parcel of the tapestry of Jewish life, doing their share not only for Jewry in this city and sub-continent but for Israel in particular.[i]

[i] Suiza, Rabbi Ruben, “The History of the Sephardi Congregation’, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual Golden Jubilee, 1983 - 5744, 88