Traveling through the Eastern Cape and Free State provinces of South Africa, I am struck by the sad disappearance of the Jewish communities that once thrived here.
There are still strong Jewish communities in big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, but there also used to be a vibrant Jewish life in South Africa's interior.
As Jews have done all over the world, South Africa's Jews helped build the nation. In city after city, I have heard the same refrain, "we once had such a wonderful Jewish community here, and they really helped build our town." In the city of Graaf-Reinet, a plaque on the main street honors the smouse, the itinerant merchant who peddled wares from town to town. The smouse traveled with a supply-filled cart and often served as a lifeline for tiny wilderness outposts.
Yet in every city where I stop, places like Grahmstown, Ladybrand, Kroonstad, Colesburg, Ficksburg and Bethlehem (yes, same name), synagogues now closed used to host communities that have dried up. Some synagogues have been bought by private business. One in Colesburg is now an ABSA bank office.
I spent a Shabbat evening with the Jewish community of Kroonstad. Like many South African cities, Kroonstad once possessed a large, thriving Jewish community. Now, its community cannot even form a minyan. Yet the three remaining members, with whom I had the opportunity to attend Shabbat services, dutifully and faithfully come together every week to welcome the Sabbath.
The story that struck me most during my travels was that of the Jewish cemetery in Ficksburg. Mickey Hellman, chairman of the Free State Council of South African Board of Deputies (the equivalent of the Jewish Federation in the United States), told me this: There was once a large Jewish population in Ficksburg, but over time its members left.
There was a proper Jewish cemetery, located near the township. The township expanded, encroaching upon and finally overtaking the burial ground. This expansion led to the desecration of the graves, with headstones being used for building material and cattle grazing on the grass. The South African Board of Deputies, which oversees all Jewish graves and cemeteries located south of the Sahara Desert, decided that the cemetery needed to be relocated.
After consulting forensic experts and rabbis in both South Africa and Israel, the Board of Deputies exhumed the remains of all those buried there. It took three years to re-inter the graves in a new area donated by the Ficksburg municipality.
When the project was finished, people from all over the world - including Jews who had formerly lived in Ficksburg and relatives of those being re-buried - attended the ceremony that both consecrated the new burial ground and honored the Jews of Ficksburg.
The sad disappearance of South Africa's Jewish communities mirrors the saga of the Jews in so many lands. But the Jewish presence in South Africa will never fade, thanks to our resilience and our desire to preserve the symbols of communities even after the communities themselves are gone.
Paul Rockower served as the Press Officer for the Consulate General of Israel to the Southwest in Houston from 2003 until 2006. He is currently on a six-month trek around the world. You can read more of his adventures on his blog: http://levantine18.blogspot.com and see pictures at http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18.
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