DURBAN – The small but vibrant Durban Jewish community is on the move – from the big city to the picturesque Izinga Estate on the ridge of Umhlanga, a charming coastal village to the north.
“This is the future,” Rabbi Pinchas Zekry told me, as he looked out from the synagogue to a cluster of houses that were once sugar cane fields. The rabbi is credited together with philanthropist Jonathan Beare of establishing the Umhlanga Jewish Centre in Izinga which, he said, “has successfully consolidated the essentials of Jewish life in this single property.”
Izinga, to which some two dozen families have already moved in the last three years, appears to have it all: A safe, fenced 20,000-square-meter development with luxury homes, a spectacular 350-seat synagogue, modern Jewish day school and kollel, a state-of-the-art auditorium and function hall, a kosher kitchen and mikveh, sports facilities and more. An unknown number of other Jewish families have moved from the Berea and surrounding neighborhoods in central Durban northwards – to Durban North, La Lucia and Umhlanga.
“We are very fortunate that the Durban community has been given a new lease on life,” said communal leader and prominent businessman Sidney Lazarus. “We cannot continue to hold onto bricks and mortar on the Berea but have to move with the way Durban is going, which is moving north to Umhlanga and Izinga, and I salute Jonathan Beare for giving our community a chance of growing and being one of the most special communities in South Africa.”
Zekry, a native Israeli, arrived in Durban just over 30 years ago with his wife and two sons, who have since married and had two children.
After witnessing over his years as its spiritual leader that the community was shrinking, Zekry presented the idea for the Izinga development to Beare several years ago, and “his well-known philanthropy and amazing vision contributed immensely to a project unparalleled in the history of the community.”
The community center was primarily funded by Jonathan Beare and The Beare Foundation “in loving memory of Durban’s most exceptional philanthropists and humanitarians, Aaron and Cissy Beare.”
It is situated in what author Alan Paton once described as “the rolling hills” of what is now called Kwazulu-Natal and is close to some of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
It is a short drive from Durban itself, and an even shorter drive to a new business development center, a shopping mall billed as the largest in the southern hemisphere, as well as superb hotels, restaurants and golf courses.
The Durban Jewish community numbered about 7,500 at its heyday in the 1970s. What was once an exclusively Jewish day school, Carmel College, is now a thriving integrated school named Eden College attended by only a few Jewish pupils. There are at least 2,500 Jews in Durban today, according to local leaders. This is a fraction of the estimated 70,000 Jews living in the rest of South Africa, mostly in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and that figure is also down from a peak of about 120,000 four decades ago.
The Umhlanga Jewish Centre was officially opened on June 17, 2014 at a foundation-stone ceremony attended by community leaders who included Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Rabbi Zekry, Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag, who heads South Africa’s Beth Din, and Jonathan Beare.
“The Durban Jewish community, through the outstanding and visionary leadership of Rabbi Zekry, are showing us the courage to look towards the future, to build, to create new worlds,” said Chief Rabbi Goldstein.
“I pray to Hashem that this magnificent center will strengthen our community and will be a beacon of light for the future of Durban Jewry,” said Rabbi Zekry.
Zekry paid tribute to three communal leaders who played a major role in what he termed “the long road to Umhlanga” – Julian Beare, executive trustee of The Beare Foundation; Gaynor Lazarus, who chairs the school’s governing body; and Mary Kluk, the dynamic head of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
“When the Durban United Hebrew Congregation was confronted with the daunting challenge of reducing numbers and changing demographics, the members took a courageous decision to establish a Jewish center with state of the art infrastructure in the growing hub of Umhlanga,” Kluk wrote. “This new infrastructure wisely focused on education by establishing the Umhlanga Jewish Day School, which is the proven path to ensuring our continuity as a people.”
About 70 primary school children attend the Umhlanga Jewish Day School. Visiting on a recent Friday, I was greeted by smiling teachers and children, and was struck by the upbeat atmosphere in the classrooms. Judaica head Rabbi Mark Friedman said the school offers “a holistic Jewish education.”
“We are addressing the core issues and questions that kids deal with and are interested in,” said Friedman. “They respond so positively to this.”
“We all love it here,” said Gaynor Lazarus, who heads the school’s governing body, as we stood outside the school’s Gunter Lazarus Media Center, named after the late father of her husband, Sidney. “We just need more children.”
A meeting with the children only confirmed my initial feeling that this was a happy school. They were polite, friendly and inquisitive.
I talked to them about Israel, and they asked intelligent questions.
Although most of the community members I met during my weeklong stay in Durban voiced support for the move to Izinga, the Umhlanga Jewish Center has also been the center of a bitter split in the congregation. There are those who see it as the best hope for the future if the community is to survive, while others are fighting to retain what is left of the institutions of the past – including the Great Synagogue, the Durban Jewish Club, the Beth Shalom Jewish Aged Home and the Chevra Kadisha, a well-functioning burial society.
“On the one hand, the community is aging and perhaps even dying,” a woman who asked not to be named told me. “On the other, if it is to survive and we are to keep young people in Durban and even attract newcomers, we have to encourage the development of Izinga.”
“The question is whether the Izinga community is sustainable,” said one man. “And no one really knows the answer to that.”
Community leaders are doing their best to encourage new members to move to Izinga, and are in the process of selling the Great Synagogue.
Despite its name, the Durban United Hebrew Congregation has historically been divided, between veterans and newcomers, Litvaks and non-Litvaks, Orthodox and Reform, liberals and conservatives. Today, it seems, the community is divided between those who support Izinga and those who oppose it.
“I am against selling the Great Synagogue and moving the community to Umhlanga,” said one man. “It’s a real tragedy.”
Despite the differences of opinion within the community, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the current leadership of the communal bodies – the Council for KwaZulu-Natal Jewry (CKNJ), the KwaZulu-Natal Zionist Council (KZNC), the Union of Jewish Women, WIZO, JNF, the Durban Holocaust Center and Beth Shalom – are predominantly young, energetic and exceptional individuals.
During my trip, I addressed about 200 members of the community at the Durban Jewish Club, visited about 100 residents of Beth Shalom (one of the residents, Joyce Rogoff was coincidentally celebrating her 85th birthday), met with communal leaders and local journalists, and toured the city in which I had grown up. I had forgotten how lovely and warm it and its inhabitants are, and how committed the community is to Israel.
My spirits were lifted during a wonderful drive to the impressive Victor Daitz Jewish National Fund Ecological Education Center in Hammersdale near Durban, escorted by KZNC director, Grant Maserow, and the JNF’s Debby Shapiro, a former classmate of mine at Carmel College. It was thrilling to see other schoolmates (such as Clive and Andrea Bernstein, Sidney Lazarus and Eric Rosen) still living in Durban, as well as visiting family friends and my wise Hebrew teacher Issy Fisher at Beth Shalom.
I can still hear Mr. Fisher teaching us as children the words of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”
Mazerow, a charismatic young man, was hopeful about the future of the Durban Jewish community.
“The Jewish people’s anthem is hope, so we hope that Izinga is that place that the Durban community can grow from, once again,” he said. “It is definitely in a strategic location of Durban’s growth.”
Linda Nathan, the past president of the CKNJ, said that the Durban Jewish community had proved to be self-sufficient and successful, but it now needed “to look ahead to the future to ensure the continuation of Jewish life in our city for our children and grandchildren.”
“We pray that the heart of the Umhlanga Jewish Center continues to beat stronger and stronger,” she added.
That sentiment was echoed by the current CKNJ president, Ronnie Herr and his wife, Frances, who hosted me during my stay, together with my uncle and aunt, Kenny and Arline Foreman.
“I believe there is a future for Durban Jewry,” said Herr.
“Only time will tell.”