The London Jewish Chronicle reported on the 1901 synagogue services in the Sea Point Hall.
Regarding High Festival Services in the Townhall Sea Point in the Year 1901[i]
Rev Hertz, back in Johannesburg after the war, reported to his congregation at its 1904 AGM that he had instituted a Friday evening sermon which he described as a new feature in South African synagogues.[ii] This English sermon, foreign to Eastern Europe, remained an important factor in maintaining orthodoxy. He explained that orthodoxy was geographical; thus, there was English orthodoxy, German orthodoxy, Russian orthodoxy and so on and the orthodoxy in his congregation was that in vogue “amongst English speaking orthodox Jews”.[iii]
Orthodox Judaism as practiced today is not the same as it always was through the centuries of dispersion and even beyond that to ancient times. Religious practices were influenced by emancipation and enlightenment as well as by the environment in which Jews were living. South Africa was part of the British Empire, therefore the services that would be followed here would be those of English orthodoxy. However the liturgy followed in all South African synagogues including in the Green & Sea Point Hebrew Congregation once it was established, was taken over almost entirely from the English Minhag, and as there was little variation in orthodox liturgy all over the world, even the Lithuanian Jews would have little difficulty in adjusting themselves to the services conducted by ministers trained in or appointed from London[iv], the only ones available until Rabbi Mirvish, the first rabbi in the Cape Colony to have full smicha was brought out in 1908 by the Beth Hamidrash Hachodesh to serve the Yiddish speaking orthodox Jews who did not approve of the halachic standards of the Cape Town synagogue.
With the end of the war, and the British victory (the defeated Boer republics were incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1910), Eastern European immigration could begin again and the population began to spread outside Cape Town into the suburbs. Many Jewish businessmen moved from their homes in town to new homes in Sea Point which by then was well serviced both with trams along the Main Road and trains along the Beach Road. Marischal Murray,[v] with carefully disguised disdain states that “after the Great War new people were coming to Green & Sea Point and they continued to flock here in increasing numbers. In 1929 the Hebrew congregation bought a part of the former Graaf property at Bordeaux and on the site a synagogue was erected.”
From that passage one can presume that the “new people” flocking in increasing numbers were the same people who in the following sentence erected the synagogue. The Graaf’s home Bordeaux had at one time been the smartest house in Sea Point - they had established the South African - later the Imperial - Cold Storage Company.
There were many attractions to living in Sea Point. The location near the ocean and mountain offered opportunities to go swimming, sun bathing, hiking or fishing, with a pavilion at the bottom of Clarens Road with outdoor cinema, tea-room and stage. One could catch a train from work stopping at Cape Town, Monument, Ebenezer Road, Hospital Crossing, Varneys Corner, Three Anchor Bay, Hall Road, Milton Road and Clarens Road stations, each with a booking office and station master. There were subways under the railway line to the beach at Rocklands, Marais Road below Bordeaux, St Johns Road and Cassell Road. The Sea Point Railway was the first to be driven by electricity in the Cape Province but with competition from the Electric Tramway Company, it never paid and the last train left for Sea Point on 16th April 1929, with more than 1,200 people crowded onto it, mourners lining the route and packed stations. At the Sea Point terminus, a wreath was hung onto the train in memory of the line. The terminus and intermediate stations were demolished and railway tracks pulled up and a lawn planted over it which now runs along the beach.[vi]
Map showing Sea Point railway line
The 1904 Census lists 8,114 Jews in Cape Town with a further 2,568 living in its suburbs of which 743 were in Wynberg (Wynberg Hebrew Congregation established in 1905), 797 in Woodstock (Woodstock Synagogue built in 1910), 382 in Green & Sea Point, 225 in Maitland (Maitland Hebrew Congregation established in 1896) and 251 in Claremont (Claremont Hebrew Congregation established in 1904).
An unanswerable question is why with more Jewish inhabitants than Maitland and Claremont did it take so much longer for the residents in Green and Sea Point to motivate for a synagogue of their own? They had the example of the successful services held for the refugees in 1900 and 1901. It was a long walk to the Gardens Shul and those walking there on Kol Nidrei night used to return home in a group. Were they, like Saul Solomon, more assimilated, wealthier or secular than the newly arrived poorer immigrants?
Was it the economic depression that followed the war with the British armies and the Witwatersrand refugees returning to whence they had come? Dr Ivan Waynik stressed that life was difficult for most people living in Sea Point who had to cope with financial hardship. People were primarily concerned with their livelihood and daily necessities.[vii] Yet the same would hold for congregations in poorer areas like Woodstock and Maitland and they had managed to establish congregations and synagogues. Was it because Sea Point lacked committed and motivated leaders wanting regular minyanim and services? There were certainly in Sea Point knowledgeable East European Jews, who later attended daily Mishnah shiurim and a Chevrah Loomdei. There is no one alive today to give an answer.
Ironically the Woodstock, Maitland and Wynberg Synagogues have closed their doors and the late starter has become the largest congregation in South Africa. There are more synagogues today in Sea Point than anywhere else in Cape Town.
In the 1926 Population census there were 11,705 Jews who lived in the Cape peninsula.[viii] But the plentiful pages given to the Who’s Who section of The South African Jewish Year Book 1929, 5689-90[ix] only lists seven who provided Sea Point as a home address although others might only have provided business addresses. These include solicitor Arthur Eli Abrahams, dentist Joseph Berman, John Carasov, editor of the SA Jewish Chronicle, furniture merchant Isidore Cohen who was to develop Camps Bay, Dr Jack Moir Gordon, furniture company managing director Abraham Morris Jackson, merchant and director of companies Israel Mauerberger, (corner Cassel and Regent Road), secretary of the National Council of Women Toni Saphra and Ackerman’s director Leon Segal. (Both Jackson and Segal were to become chairmen of the Jewish Board of Deputies.) Judging by their occupations Green & Sea Point must have been a wealthy residential suburb.
Surprisingly no Green & Sea Point Hebrew Congregation (G&SPHC) is listed as existing among the congregations in this 1929 Who’s Who although Abrahams, Jackson and Mauerberger all mentioned in their brief cvs that they served on the Green & Sea Point Hebrew Congregation, Abrahams as chairman, Jackson as an “ex-member” of the committee, Mauerberger as the treasurer.
[i] “Regarding High Festival Services in the Townhall Sea Point in the Year 1901”, London Jewish Chronicle, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Bulletin, 40th Anniversary issue,1974 – 5735, 9
[ii] Simon, John, op cit, 85. The Cape Town Jewish Museum had large boards on which are inscribed prayers for Queen Victoria, the princes and princesses.
[iii] South African Jewish Chronicle, 8.11.1911
[iv] Simon, John, op cit, 85
[v] Murray, Marischal, op cit, 66
[vi] Murray, Marischal, op cit, 93
[vii] Quoted in Levy Sarzin, Anne, “I remember it well – Focus on the Thirties”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual Golden Jubilee, 1983-5744, 31-33
[viii] De Saxe, Morris, Ed The South African Jewish Year Book 1929, 5689-90, The South African Jewish Historical Society, Johannesburg
[ix] Ibid 268