It is a truism to note that all Jewish communities, in all times and places, to a greater or lesser degree reflect the context in which they live. In the case of South Africa, the segregationist policies of the colonial authorities, the Boer republics and the Union, followed by the formal apartheid system after 1948, constitute the inescapable frame for all who live in South Africa. The complex processes involved in the post–1990 unravelling of the apartheid regime constitute the country’s current socio-political reality. This article attempts to situate what is known about South African Jewish women in relation to the Jewish community and the wider society at a time of rapid socio-political transition and transformation in the country.
The South African Jewish community is a highly organized, relatively affluent community, estimated at between eighty thousand and ninety thousand Jews in 2001—less than two percent of the total white population and 0.5 percent of the total population. At its zenith in 1970, the community numbered 118,200, or 0.6 percent of the country’s total population of 21.4 million and 3.1 percent of the 3.7 million whites. The largest cities, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria, are home to eighty-five percent of all Jews, with small and diminishing populations in Durban and Port Elizabeth and tiny scatterings elsewhere. Despite these small numbers and continuing emigration, the South African community remains one of the twelve largest Jewish communities in the world.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, a national organization modeled on the equivalent British body, is the umbrella representative organization of the community. It was founded in 1912 as an amalgamation of the previously separate Board for the Transvaal and Natal created in 1903, and the Cape Board created in 1904. Women’s organizations, which affiliate to the Board through their own national structures or through the Board’s provincial committees, constitute approximately eleven per cent of its affiliates.
The community resembles other (especially western) diaspora Jewish communities in many respects—in its relatively recent immigrant origins, in its pro-Israel stance, in its vigilance against antisemitism, in its concern to promote Jewish cultural continuity and counter assimilation. It differs from other diaspora communities in several respects, for the most part in degree rather than substance. In addition to the particularities of the apartheid context, it differs with regard to its origins, its relative internal homogeneity, harmony and cohesion, the level of its Zionist commitment and its low intermarriage rate.
Two fundamental “social facts” have underpinned the community since its inception. The first was the heterogeneity that greeted the nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrants. The sheer linguistic, racial and cultural diversity of the local population provided a particular social space for minorities, a space that both facilitated and reinforced Jewish collective identity and identification. Second, by virtue of their skin color, all Jews found themselves beneficiaries of a social system built on race and exploitation. Despite a brief moment when their “whiteness” was questioned, they were inevitably members of a “pigmentocracy”—a minority, but privileged and part of the dominant class, an unprecedented experience for Jews. Anglo-German Jews established the first congregation in Cape Town in 1841 and Jews were prominent among those who responded to the mineral discoveries of the 1860s and the 1880s. However, it was the arrival of some forty thousand East European Jewish immigrants in the three decades between the 1880s and the outbreak of World War I that consolidated the community. This wave of immigrants was certainly not monolithic—it contained the familiar array of socialists, pietists, Zionists and Bundists to be found in many of the east European societies of the period. Despite this considerable internal diversity, however, the disproportionate numbers from one region, Lithuania, gave the community an unusual degree of homogeneity relative to other diaspora communities. This was reflected in the virtual absence of Hasidism (until the 1970s), in the particular form of Yiddish spoken, and in a variety of foods and customs particular to Lithuanian Jewry. In addition, the east Europeans’ lack of exposure to Reform Judaism meant that Reform or Progressive Judaism was established in South Africa only in 1933, far later than in most diaspora communities.
Between 1910 and 1948 a further thirty thousand Jews arrived in South Africa, despite the Quota Act of 1930 which, it was well known, aimed at restricting Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe even though the word Jew was not mentioned. Germany was one of the countries not restricted by the Quota Act and this provided a loophole for 3,615 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany to enter South Africa between 1933 and 1937, about seventy percent arriving in 1936 alone. The Aliens Act of 1937 effectively stemmed Jewish immigration for many years.
Two additional small immigrant populations—Sephardi Jews originally from the Aegean island of Rhodes, and Israelis, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi—added to the internal diversity of the community over time. Those from Rhodes (in 2003, approximately 270 families in South Africa) had migrated to the then Belgian Congo (now Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo), to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in the early decades of the twentieth century and continued to South Africa during the periods of instability that marked the end of the colonial period in those countries. While the Rhodeslis have established Sephardi congregations and maintain many Sephardi traditions, and the Israelis (estimated at between nine and fifteen thousand) are not highly visible in communal organizations, both groups are fully integrated into the largely Ashkenazi South African community and arrived too late to affect the ways in which the unusual degree of homogeneity helped shape the community.
Another difference from other diaspora communities is the very high level of commitment to Zionism and to Israel. The strength of the Zionist movement had been evident since the formation of the first Hovevei Zion Society in South Africa in 1896 and the resolution in 1898 to establish the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), just one year after the first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. It is noteworthy that the Zionists were the first to create a country-wide organizational framework, preceding the formation of a representative Jewish organization to liaise with the authorities. That the majority of recent South African Jewish emigrants have chosen to settle elsewhere in the diaspora and not in Israel has caused some disappointment among Zionists everywhere. Nevertheless, South African Jewry demonstrates higher per capita rates than most diaspora communities on a range of “Zionist” or pro-Israel indices: number of olim, proportion affiliated to Zionist organizations, financial contributions to Israel, number who have visited Israel and frequency of visits, and, at least until very recently, the number of youth involved in Zionist youth programs.
A further difference of degree, clearly related to the previous two, is the high level of cohesion within the community. Overlapping organizational memberships result in relatively little organizational tension or competition. The deep divides between non- or anti-Zionists and Zionists, reported for many Jewish communities, whether from an earlier period or currently, have never been a major feature of Jewish life in South Africa. The overwhelming identification with Orthodoxy, measurable by affiliation irrespective of practice, and the correspondingly small proportion of Progressive Jews (still popularly called “Reform” and estimated at twelve percent), together with the virtual absence of any other Jewish “denomination,” have also kept religious tensions to a minimum through most of the community’s history. From the results of three national Jewish socio-demographic surveys, carried out in 1974, 1991 and 1998 respectively (and although not comparable in all respects), it is clear that Johannesburg, the city with the largest concentration of Jews, has shown a significant increase in the number of observant Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox in the last two decades, with Cape Town beginning to manifest similar tendencies more recently. While synagogue affiliation has remained virtually unchanged over the quarter century and acts as a sign of positive Jewish identification, regular synagogue attendance has increased markedly. It is noteworthy that forty-five percent of the fourteen percent who classified themselves as “strictly orthodox” in 1998 were under thirty-five years of age. Yet despite the growth in the ba’al teshuvah movement and some very visible changes in religious practice, sixty-one percent of the total population defined themselves as “traditional” in 1998. It is therefore still accurate to characterize South African Jewry as “non-observant Orthodox” or “three-times-a-year” Jews.
An additional feature that contributes to communal cohesion and distinguishes South African Jewry is the very high proportion of Jewish school-age children who attend private Jewish day schools at both the primary and secondary levels. The majority attend schools which are part of a national network self-styled “national-traditional”—essentially Zionistic and “traditional” rather than Orthodox. Other well-established schools include the (modern Orthodox) Yeshiva College and the ultra-Orthodox network of schools run by the Lubavich movement. The 1998 survey of one thousand adults (a sample that closely matched the most recent census in terms of gender and age representivity) showed that ninety-four percent of the male and seventy-seven percent of the female respondents had received some form of Jewish education.
One conclusion that can be deduced from the above is that South African Jews share a high degree of ethnic group consciousness and manifest strong Jewish identity. Yet it may be that the consensus, the cohesion and even the rise in levels of observance, are less a product of internal Jewish forces and impulses than they are a response, albeit not always self-conscious or acknowledged, to apartheid’s threats and constraints. For example, the local diversity in the early twentieth century might have been irrelevant for Jewish communal cohesion, indeed might have facilitated assimilation, were it not for the segregationist, and later apartheid, policies which actively and purposefully differentiated the general population and encouraged separate group identities and identification. Post-Holocaust consciousness and post-apartheid uncertainties, as well as growing global antisemitism and anti-Zionism, also affect Jewish identity. Heightened ethnic consciousness thus acts as both cause and consequence.
In addition, and congruent with an authoritarian (national) regime and notions of exclusivity, it was not surprising that in the past the organized Jewish community showed little tolerance for internal dissent. It was also, and with considerable historical justification, sensitive to its own vulnerability. Since the liberalization of South African society, with its efforts towards democratization and its embrace of diversity in all spheres, Jews too are beginning to express their internal differences more openly and tensions, conflicts and even intermarriages are on the rise. In short, as South African society “normalizes,” so South African Jewry undergoes a diaspora normalization and becomes more like other diaspora Jewish communities.
South Africa is both a very religious society and very patriarchal, with considerable ramifications for all women in the country. Christianity is dominant, with many denominations represented among all classes and “racial” categories. Years of relative isolation from world trends tended to exacerbate the existing tendency towards conservatism so that although there are some women clergy in South Africa this is still an exceptional, and in some cases contested, phenomenon. The position of women is little different in Islam, Hinduism or African traditional religions although some African women have achieved relatively high status through participation in women’s church groups. Beyond religious institutions and despite progressive legislation—and some improvement—regarding women’s rights and status, the metaphorical glass ceiling for women remains intact in most spheres of social life. Indeed, many authors have noted that black African women suffer triple discrimination, that is, in terms of race and class and gender.
Yet at the same time, several women’s organizations have played prominent roles among different sectors of South African society. In the 1920s and 1930s in particular, Afrikaner women’s organizations were effective both in welfare work and in mobilizing support for Afrikaner nationalism. The ANC’s Women’s League has been a powerful political and social force among African women in particular, and the Black Sash is a well-known civil and human rights monitoring group with a well-established record of protest against the former apartheid state. Jewish women were prominent in the founding of the organization and in its continued activities. During the 1980s, and especially after the unbanning of the ANC (African National Congress) and the SACP (South African Communist Party) in 1990 and the beginning of the liberalization of South African society, a variety of women’s organizations—liberal, feminist, Marxist, religious, party-political—both in principle and on the basis of lessons learned from revolutions elsewhere, insisted on women’s liberation together with, and not after, political liberation. The sentiments expressed in the “struggle” slogan of working for a “democratic, non-racist, non-sexist society” were incorporated into the new constitution and the Bill of Rights. As a result, South Africa has some of the most progressive gender-related legislation, constitutional clauses, and even dedicated structures and procedures in the world. As in many places, however, there is a gap between intentions, even when enshrined in law, and implementation, and the 1998 CEDAW (Convention Against Discrimination Against Women) report to the United Nations documents that gap for South Africa.
How have these historical processes and conditions of existence impacted on Jewish women in South Africa?
For the east European immigrants, supporting their families and fashioning a cohesive communal structure were of primary importance. To this end, congregations were established and consolidated throughout the country and a proliferation of Jewish organizations catered for a wide range of interests and needs in both rural and urban areas. “Ladies’ Guilds” were attached to most congregations and their activities, particularly in the smaller rural communities, often extended well beyond synagogue matters. However, seldom, then and now, did women serve on the main synagogue committees.
As in most immigrant communities, welfare organizations of various kinds were among the earliest to be established. As might be expected, women were active in all of these wherever they were to be found. Welfare societies to help new arrivals, to look after orphans (and later, the aged and widows), hevrot kaddisha, Bikkur Holim societies and soup kitchens were among the many kinds of association formed and/or run by women. Women were also active in the Zionist movement. Indeed, according to Shimoni, “from the beginning, women conducted the bulk of Zionism’s practical work in education, fund-raising and organization” (1980, 29). Yet it was not until 1928 that one of the leading women Zionists, Katie Gluckmann, became a member of the SAZF Executive in her own right.
The Bnoth Zion Association (Daughters of Zion), a women’s Zionist organization whose membership grew from sixty to one hundred and sixty in the first two months of its existence, was established in Cape Town in 1901 as an affiliate of Dorshei Zion, an all-male Zionist society. Among other things, the BZA took responsibility for the distribution of the Jewish National Fund “blue boxes’, contributed to the newly formed WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) in Palestine, initiated Hebrew classes for girls and started the first Hebrew Nursery [pre-primary] school—but its funds were controlled by the men! However, by 1930, the year white women in South Africa gained the vote, the Bnoth Zion finally took control over the monies it raised and gained representation on the Dorshei Zion.
In 1932 the (national) Women’s Zionist Organization of South Africa was formed; by 1967 its membership had grown to seventeen thousand and it had become “by far the most numerous and active component of South African Zionism” (Shimoni 1980, 252). In addition to fund-raising for a variety of Zionist funds and for their own projects, all branches offer wide-ranging educational and cultural programs.
Of course Jews also engaged in broader societal processes, beyond specifically Jewish interests. Their contribution to the economy, the arts and sport has been documented in a variety of publications, though with little focus on women. The painter Irma Stern and the novelists Sarah Gertrude Millin and Nadine Gordimer are possibly the only Jewish women in their fields known outside of South Africa. Nevertheless, Jewish women (and men) have made valuable contributions to the full range of cultural activities in South Africa as producers, consumers and sponsors. For example, in addition to acting and directing, Taubie Kushlick (1911–1991) made her name in theater through her forceful personality and her presentations of the songs of Jacques Brel. The unique style and irrepressible humor of Molly Seftel (b. 1930) are unforgettable, and Cecilia Sonnenberg (1912–2000) and Rene Ahrenson (1904–1990) developed an open-air venue for Shakespearean productions that are today, more than forty years later, still notable and well-attended annual events on the Cape Town entertainment calendar. In the early decades of the twentieth century, with the arrival of many east Europeans and the popularity of Yiddish theater, the actress and theatrical entrepreneur Sarah Sylvia was a household name, while Chayala Rosenthal (1927–1979), a Holocaust survivor, re-invigorated Yiddish theater and song in the 1950s. A younger generation of Jewish women in theater includes director/producer Phyllis Klotz (b. 1945), one of the first to work with young people in black townships using drama as a medium of potential empowerment, director Barbara Rubin, playwright Sue Pam and actors Jacqui Singer, Jennie Reznek (b. 1959), Yael Farber and Ruth Levine.
In the art world Francine Greenblatt (b. 1951), Aileen Lipkin (b. 1933), Lorraine Edelstein (b. 1929), Rhona Stern (1914–1998) and Eris Silke (b. 1947) are well known, as are many Jewish art critics, historians and gallery-owners. Novelist Rose Zwi and poets Helen Segal and Riva Rubin are among those whose works engage directly with the substance of Jewishness, though Jewish writers of course address a wide array of topics. Beverley Chait (b. 1973) has made a career in opera, Aviva Pelham (b. 1948) is a renowned multi-genre singer and an active contributor to community events, and Fay Singer (b. 1939) has made Klezmer music her specialty. Jewish women have also made their mark on the world of dance in South Africa. Phyllis Spira, Adele Blank (b. 1943), Mavis Becker (b. 1940), Sylvia Glasser (b. 1940), Sharon Friedman (b. 1946), Sonja Mayo and Robyn Orlin have each contributed both performance prowess and teaching skills across a wide variety of dance genres.
Many Jewish women have also succeeded in business and in the academic world. Of the latter, Edna Bradlow (b. 1924, history) Jocelyn Hellig (b. 1939, comparative religion) and Marcia Leveson (English literature) in particular have included Jewish foci as major topics in their research and publications. Among the very many Jewish women in business, Joan Joffe (b. 1938) and Louise Tager are probably the most public figures.
It should be noted that, according to the community surveys, the proportion of Jewish women with tertiary education rose from twenty-four percent in 1991 to thirty-four percent in 1998. And while only thirty-one percent were economically active in 1974 and thirty-eight percent in 1991, sixty percent were economically active in 1998. Furthermore, sixty percent were full-time self-employed in 1998 as against only twelve percent in 1974. However, although the proportion of Jewish women with professional or managerial status has risen over the past three decades and has always been greater than among the general white population, it has not risen substantially and the gap between male and female in this regard seems to have grown somewhat (in 1998, thirty-four percent were women and fifty-nine percent men in this category). And although the professional and managerial proportions for both men and women are highest in the 25–34 age group, the gender discrepancy remains: forty-five percent women, sixty-nine percent men. Gender distribution with regard to personal income is also uneven: the proportion of women at the lower end of the scale is almost double that of men, while four times as many men as women appear in the top half of the scale. Although emigration is a relevant factor when considering overall Jewish educational and occupational status, it does not affect gender.
Despite their upward mobility through the century, Jews in South Africa have never constituted a significant political force. Their small number, the “English” control of commerce, and the constituency-based parliamentary system within a Westminster framework from 1910 to 1994, precluded their access to real power. Yet their involvement in political processes, most particularly opposition politics—liberal and/or left-leaning—has always been disproportionate to their number. In each era, and in each political “space,” Jewish women have been among the activists. Bertha Solomon, liberal parliamentarian and noted advocate on behalf of the underdog, Ray Alexander, communist and indefatigable trade unionist, Ellen Hellmann, social anthropologist and one of the most authoritative liberal critics and president of the Institute of Race Relations in 1954–1955, Beulah Rollnick (b. 1926), tireless worker with the Black Sash, Audrey Coleman (b. 1932), co-founder of the Detainees Parent Support Committee, and Anne Marie Wolpe (b. 1930) were just six of the most prominent. In a later period Ruth First was murdered as a direct consequence of her willingness to confront the apartheid state, and Helen Suzman gained international recognition as a champion of the oppressed.
The Jewish individuals who participate actively in the cultural and public domains in South Africa clearly do so as individuals and not as representatives of the Jewish community. Indeed, many of those noted for their (radical) political activism were, in Isaac Deutscher’s term, “non-Jewish Jews.” Of the earlier generation, several “leftist” Jewish women—for example, Esther Barsel (b. 1924), Ray Harmel (1905–1998), Hilda Bernstein (b. 1915) and Pauline Podbrey (b. 1922)—born in Lithuania or raised in communist homes, were severely harassed by the security
police and detained (without trial), jailed and/or banned for their political activities. Some felt that their politics had roots in Jewish ethics or morality and some, like Esther Barsel, had been members of Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir, a Zionist youth movement. All had rejected the religious aspect of their Jewishness and, in addition, felt alienated by and from the broader Jewish community. Others, like Pauline Podbrey, who had identified strongly as a Jew as a young girl in Lithuania, in later life saw themselves more as cultural than as religious Jews. In recent years she has participated in Jewish community-sponsored public debates on anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
Of a later generation, Gill Marcus, born in 1949 to communist parents and from 1969 resident in London, where she was an active worker for the ANC, returned to South Africa in 1990 to become deputy finance minister in the first democratic post-apartheid government. She is now deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of South Africa and is quite open to interaction with the Jewish community.
Thus, in relation to public Jewish figures in general, but to the radical anti-apartheid activists in particular, the relationship between their Jewishness and their behavior continues to be questioned and debated. On the other hand, a few women, known to be identifying Jews, serve in various senior positions in the new democratic administration. This is truly a new phenomenon. Lisa Seftel (b. 1959), organizing secretary of JODAC (Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee) in the 1980s, now holds a senior position in the department of labor and Lael Bethlehem, daughter of Marlene Bethlehem, the first woman to be elected national chairperson of the Board of Deputies (1995) and national president of the same organization (1999), serves in the department of water affairs and forestry.
Of course there were always individual Jewish women and organizations who specifically wished their activities—liberal, rather than radical—to be associated with the label “Jewish.” Foremost among these was the Union of Jewish Women. It was founded by Toni Saphra (1877–1967) in 1931 as a national secular organization for Jewish women. Saphra, a social worker, had been a member of the Jüdischer Frauenbund in Germany before emigrating to South Africa. The only Jewish women’s organization to work closely with non-Jewish women’s organizations, the Union undertakes projects of all kinds, for the benefit of Jews and Gentiles, and has been at the forefront of countless major developments and outreach programs in colored and black communities. One of its proudest achievements was the early establishment of pre-schools in disadvantaged communities. Like the Women’s Zionist Organization, it also conducts extensive educational and cultural programs for its members.
Indeed the list of Jewish women of all generations who have successfully combined social action dedicated to alleviating the plight of the underprivileged in South Africa with their work for the Jewish community, often in leadership positions, is extensive and only a few can be mentioned here: Ina Perlman (b. 1926), director of Operation Hunger 1980–1993, whose feeding programs reached two million people; Phyllis Lewsen, noted historian and passionate liberal; Selma Browde (b. 1926), medical practitioner who served on the Johannesburg City Council and the Transvaal Provincial Council in 1974–1978; Sheila Aronstam (b. 1926), honored for her work in welfare for the wider community and simultaneously deeply involved in Jewish organizations and in 2003 vice-president of the Union of Jewish Women in Bloemfontein; Helen Lieberman (b. 1941), recipient of multiple awards in recognition of her work with disadvantaged communities over thirty years and since 2002 the honorary president of Ikamva LaBantu, one of the largest non-governmental organizations in South Africa, which she founded; Myra Osrin (b. 1939), honorary life president of the BZA, founder and member of the editorial board of the Cape Jewish Chronicle and founder, chairperson and honorary director of the Cape Town Holocaust Center; Ray Wolder (b. 1930), active in a wide variety of Jewish and general organizations, including local politics, and immediate past president of the Union of Jewish Women and chairperson of the Co-ordinating Council of National Jewish Women’s Organizations in 2000–2003.
In the past, one particular consequence for women of the privileged status of whites was the availability of affordable domestic labor. A full-time, live-in domestic worker and child-minder was a commonplace and one did not have to be rich to afford this liberating luxury. Jewish women were thus available for communal work to a much greater extent than their counterparts in other countries and in fact constituted a particularly important resource for the day-to-day conduct of Jewish communal life. Furthermore, in all centers, and at least until the late 1970s, a significant proportion of the members of the Synagogue Ladies’ Guilds and/or the Union of Jewish Women were also members of the Women’s Zionist Organisation (WZO), resulting in valuable cross-fertilization of ideas and considerable co-operation among Jewish women’s organizations.
However, as women have joined the workforce in increasing numbers, all voluntary organizations have experienced a drop in membership. In addition, with the general changes in South African society, the employment of full-time domestic workers is no longer as widespread a practice. Neither the Union nor the WZO espouses what could be called a feminist philosophy nor does either body consider feminist consciousness-raising a primary responsibility. One consequence is that, with individual exceptions, those Jewish women who are involved with organizations that fall under the broad rubric of “the women’s movement” are not involved with Jewish organizations, while those who work for and with Jewish organizations do not, for the most part, join other kinds of women’s organizations. Indeed, although Jewish women were among the founders of the Black Sash, they were not conspicuous among its members in the 1970s and 1980s. A further consequence has been that those young women who encounter feminism at the university are not attracted to Jewish women’s organizations once they leave college, even if they were active in Jewish youth or student movements while in high school and college.
This raises questions of continuity and of leadership. While these are issues that concern most diaspora Jewish communities, the South African context is particular in several respects. Foremost among these is the fact that the community is aging rapidly, not only because of the demographic trends common to all liberal democracies—lower birth rates, delayed marriage, a rising proportion of elderly—but especially because of emigration. And those most likely to emigrate are always the most mobile: talented and skilled young singles or childless young couples, and older wealthy people, often benefactors of the community. From a Jewish perspective it is to be hoped that the strong ethnic identity of South African Jews will lead them to contribute positively to Jewish life wherever they find themselves, and evidence from around the world suggests that this is indeed the case. From a South African Jewish communal perspective, faced with a situation of diminishing resources and growing need, within a country undergoing rapid and radical transformation, strong lay and professional leadership is essential.
Somewhat ironically this situation bodes well for potential leaders among Jewish women. Historically, women have usually achieved positions of leadership within women’s organizations before attaining leadership positions in other Jewish organizations. And, as is common everywhere, women are more likely to be second-in-command to male chairpersons, school principals or presidents—even on committees such as welfare, where they are the majority. In South Africa, welfare organizations and welfare professionals had more dealings with, and more knowledge of, both state structures and disadvantaged communities than any other sector of the organized Jewish community. In the new political dispensation that experience is invaluable and it seems no accident that the first woman chairperson of the Board of Deputies had a background in welfare work. In addition, there are growing numbers of women in law and in business, two traditional source areas for Jewish lay leadership. This, coupled with the propensity of diaspora leadership for the “political correctness” of the moment, may well lead to dramatic changes in the participation and status of women in the South African Jewish community.
In similar vein, the assumption should be tested that the rise in intermarriage is a consequence of the dilution of Judaism or Jewish identity, or that South African Jewry is simply “catching up” with Jews in the rest of the free world in the conditions of modernity and post-modernity. It is equally possible, at least in the South African setting, that a combination of structural factors underlies this relatively new phenomenon: the sociological success of the day schools—which means that most young Jews in a given city know each other from school; and escalating emigration due to factors in the wider society, leading to demographic imbalances in terms of both age and gender.
In the religious domain, most identifying South African Jews, men and women, fall into the paradoxical category of “non-observant Orthodox” (i.e., are affiliated with Orthodox synagogues but practice little). In these congregations there has been no sign of any new possibilities for women in ritual or synagogue life. Quite the contrary: it is the opinion of many that with the influx of Lubavich and other ultra-Orthodox rabbis, the Beth Din has become palpably more vigilant and more stringent in the application of halakhah in the past two decades. And despite the educational activities of the Jewish women’s organizations, including those of the Progressive movement, most have never heard of the women elsewhere who campaign against barriers to women’s full participation in Jewish life, nor are they familiar with the issues involved. Among the relatively small proportion of observant Jews, which includes the rapidly growing number of ba’alei and ba’alot teshuvah in Johannesburg, there has been an exponential increase in educational and other organized activities for women, within an Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox understanding of women’s place in the world. Indeed, the success of the ba’al teshuvah movement in Johannesburg has wrought profound changes in the lives of a great many of the city’s Jews. Because the “outreach” (to Jews) programs of a variety of religious groups have reached so many, the lives of their non- or less-observant kin and close friends have inevitably also been touched. The effects are visible and measurable: the dramatic increase in the number of Jews physically recognizable by their dress as Orthodox, the increased use of the mikveh, the introduction of an eruv in several residential areas, an increase in the number and variety of kosher eating places and increased patronage of them, the increased use of a mehizah at weddings and, in contrast to any other city in South Africa, the marked increase in the number of non-Sabbath-observers who attend synagogue services and shi’urim. At the beginning of the twenty-first century many of these trends began to manifest themselves in Cape Town as well, mainly as a consequence of the successful efforts of the Ohr Somayach movement.
Until recently there was little, if any, contact between religious women’s groups and other Jewish women’s organizations. However, the establishment of a Co-ordinating Council of National Jewish Women’s Organizations, founded in 1998, suggests that there may be new-found recognition of the value of women working together. The Council co-ordinates all matters concerning Jewish women, monitors the rights of women and initiates discussion on matters of common interest to the various affiliated organizations. It works with other Jewish organizations where appropriate and, having recognized an unexpected and unfortunate communal need, runs a special project, Shalom Bayit, with a twenty-four–hour emergency line, to deal with woman and child abuse and domestic violence, and to educate the community and train professionals and religious leaders about these phenomena.
There are also hints of other, less formal, change. Several younger women, often those who have lived abroad, usually in North America, have experienced the kind of Jewish life that permits—or at least tries to promote—combining career, family and involvement in community. Difficult though “having it all” has proved to be everywhere, it is gratifying to note small but enthusiastic new beginnings in several places. At the initiative of young, well-educated, Jewishly committed women, many new ventures—Jewish study and discussion groups for men and women—have begun in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. Several are ideologically aligned with Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox movements, but several others are genuinely new in that the groups are unaffiliated to any existing organizations and the exploration of controversial issues in Judaism and Jewish life form their central agenda. In the past, even the recent past, sensitivity to their own vulnerability inclined South African Jews to value consensus to an unusual degree. The new groups deliberately recruit participants with distinctly varied degrees of (past) commitment to Jews and Judaism, reflecting the rich diversity that is South African Jewry in the new South Africa.
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How to cite this page
Frankental, Sally. "South Africa." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/south-africa>.