The Jews of Namibia

A small Jewish community has played ‘a distinguished part’ in the development of the southern African nation

After non-resident Israeli Ambassador Gershon Kedar presented his credentials at State House in Windhoek, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft hands Namibia’s President Hage Geingob a copy of the book, ‘The Jewish Community of South West Africa Namibia: A History. (photo credit: COURTESY RABBI SILBERHAFT)
After non-resident Israeli Ambassador Gershon Kedar presented his credentials at State House in Windhoek, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft hands Namibia’s President Hage Geingob a copy of the book, ‘The Jewish Community of South West Africa Namibia: A History.
“On Shabbat morning,” says Zvi Gorelick, the warden of Namibia’s only synagogue, “I open the Beit Knesset [synagogue] and pray for a minyan.”
He is talking on a video posted by the World Jewish Congress on YouTube titled “Time Off: The Jews of Namibia.”
The video provides a quick rundown of the Jewish story in Namibia, and Gorelick explains why the community ‒ never more than 500, even at its peak in the 1950s ‒ has declined to its present level of around 50. The Windhoek Synagogue, the only one in the country, is run according to the Orthodox tradition and conducts regular Shabbat and festival services, but it does not have an official rabbi.
Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader of the African Jewish Congress who is also known as “The Traveling Rabbi,” serves the community, though his extremely busy schedule means that his appearances in Namibia are rare.
Namibia is a vast chunk of territory in the southwest of the African continent, with an Atlantic coastline nearly 1,600 km. in length. The country’s ruler-straight eastern border could only have come about as the result of some political or diplomatic deal between “great powers” – in this case Germany and Great Britain, delineating their “spheres of influence” in the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890.
The history of Jewish life in Namibia is a fascinating story. Unlike the situation in some other African nations, none of the native population of what is now Namibia claim any connection to the Jewish people. There is no parallel with the Igbo Jews of Nigeria, the Lembo Jews of Zimbabwe, the Beta Yisrael of Ethiopia, or even the converted Abayudaya of Uganda. In Namibia, Jews were part of the white ethnic settler mix that flowed into the country on the heels of the colonial takeover.
European settlement at the base of Africa, in the Cape, began with the Dutch East India company in 1652. It was taken over by Britain at the start of the 19th century, and in 1847 the boundaries of the Cape Colony were extended up to the Orange River, which now forms Namibia’s southern border with South Africa.
The first Jews known to have ventured beyond the Orange River into what is now Namibia were the De Pass brothers, Aaron and Elias. Well-established merchants, they had arrived in the Cape from England in 1846. Once there, Aaron founded a mercantile shipping company, and began sending trading vessels up the Atlantic coast carrying fishermen and prospectors eager to explore for minerals and guano. De Pass made trading and exploration deals with the local Nama chief, and together with his brother set up the first cold-storage facilities in both the Cape and Walvis Bay, the natural harbor halfway up Namibia’s coastline.
It took 20 years for Britain to establish a colony in the south of the country. German colonizers proved more proactive, and at a London conference in 1889 a clutch of European colonial powers recognized Germany’s claim to the area which encompasses the whole of today’s Namibia ‒ some two million square miles. Officially designated German South West Africa, it was not long before the new governor sent for a contingent of crack Imperial troops to protect German control of the territory. They were followed by the first trickle of Jewish pioneers, recorded in the official census as Israeliten or sometimes Russen, denoting their country of origin.
Jews were always a minority among the much larger German, Afrikaner, British, Portuguese and Italian communities who came to dominate the social, cultural and religious life of the colonizers. Even so, active, organized Jewish life was established in the main urban centers of the country, and Jews contributed fully to the political, business and social activities of the settler communities.
Carl Fuerstenberg, a German Jewish banker, was responsible not only for the development of the diamond industry, but for an important railway line from Luderitz Bay to Kubab. Emil Rathenau established the colony’s mining syndicate, and in 1907 founded a research company to study irrigation. Walter Rathenau was sent to Namibia by Kaiser Wilhelm II as one of two experts to report on administrative reforms.
Some Jews arrived in Namibia to escape antisemitism in their home countries.
One outstanding example is Harold Pupkewitz (1915-2012), a Lithuanian-born Jew who arrived in 1925 together with his mother Anna and his two brothers, Morris and Julius.
The Pupkewitz family business was founded by Harold’s father Max in 1904 as an ox wagon building and repair enterprise. In 1904 at the onset of the Herero and Namaqua War he opened shop in Okahandja, strategically situated between Windhoek and the coastal towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. Max Pupkewitz travelled to Europe in 1912, was jailed for his support of the German colonialists, and only returned in 1920. At that time, railways had been constructed and the era of ox wagon transportation in South West Africa was over. Max Pupkewitz opened a general dealer business in Windhoek in 1925, the year the rest of the family resettled here.
Harold Pupkewitz founded M Pupkewitz & Sons and later became executive chairman of Pupkewitz Holdings, a successful group of companies founded in 19821. He was also a member of the President’s Economic Advisory Council.
After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the League of Nations granted South Africa a mandate over South West Africa. As a result the Jewish population, closely linked to South African Jewry, began to increase, and in 1924/5 the community built a synagogue in the capital, Windhoek.
The founding of the United Nations in 1947 initiated a 40-year struggle between South Africa and the UN over the future of Namibia. For much of the time the South African government was attempting to impose apartheid on the territory against opposition from within Namibia and from the rest of the world. Finally in 1988 Namibia was released from South Africa’s grasp, and soon afterwards gained its independence.
Today, despite the low number of Jews, Windhoek still has its Hebrew congregation. Jews live mainly in the capital, but there is a tiny Jewish presence of perhaps 12 individuals in Keetmanshoop, to the south of the country.
Given Namibia’s very small community, immigrants to Israel are few and far between. A recent example is provided by Rakhel Izél Nahari (originally Van Ellewee), and her story is unusual in more ways than one. Born a Christian in South Africa, she moved to Namibia and began feeling a close connection to the Jewish community, and to Judaism itself.
“I lived in the capital of Windhoek,” she explained ”The community is very small and made up of a number of Jews who were born in the country, people who arrived from South Africa and Israelis who work there and arrive for a certain period of time.”
Over time she developed so close an affinity to Judaism that she felt an urge to convert, but Namibia did not offer her the facilities to follow her chosen path.
“We did not have a rabbi and the community was led by a religious man who was responsible for the prayers and religious activity,” she said.
She had two options: to travel to South Africa and undergo a conversion process in the country’s Jewish institutions, or to ask Israel’s Interior Ministry’s exceptions committee and a Rabbinate to let her come to Israel and convert here. After convincing the committee of the seriousness of her intentions, she arrived in Israel with her son in 2016 and underwent a conversion process at Machon Ora in Jerusalem.
Despite their paucity of numbers, Jews have played vital roles in post-independence Namibia in a whole variety of areas. Business leader Harold Pupkewitz advised the government on economic issues and represented Namibia in international economic summits. He was a vice president of the African Jewish Congress and actively fought antisemitism with the assistance of the World Jewish Congress. He and his wife Ethel were active member of the local Jewish community.
Another prominent Jewish businessman was Sam Cohen (1890-1977) who was known as the “uncrowned king of South-West Africa” by reason of his extensive commercial and financial interests. Born in Russia and educated in London, in 1906 he went to Swakopmund, in South-West Africa to run his father’s store. Cohen was a large donor to charities, both in South West Africa and Israel. He built one of the country’s largest business empires, mainly in the transport field but he also had interests in fishing, mining, agriculture and general trading. Cohen was an honorary life president of the Windhoek Hebrew Congregation. The Sam Cohen Library in Swakopmund and Sam Cohen Communal Hall in Windhoek were built through donations from him.
Nahum Gorelick served for five years as the first director-general of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation and is currently the president of the Windhoek Hebrew Congregation. Laurie Peters is Namibia’s best-known sportsman. He served as president of the Namibia Cricket Board for 13 years, and in 2001 was elected onto the Chief Executives Committee of the International Cricket Council.
In 2014, the Windhoek Hebrew Congregation published a fully documented and illustrated volume running to 445 pages, replete with facts, figures and information, under the title, Jewish Life in South West Africa Namibia – A History. It is an impressive document, an invaluable source of material about this little-known segment of the Jewish people. In the section concerned with the Jewish contribution to Namibia’s development, it lists 12 areas where Jews have played a significant role. They range from farming to commerce and industry, transport to construction, medicine and the law to politics, culture and sports.
“From the earliest times to the present day,” says the volume, “Jews have played a distinguished part in the founding and development of this still young African nation. They have done so, moreover, while simultaneously fostering a vibrant, proud and committed Jewish communal life.”
With some justification, the book describes the history of the Jewish presence in Namibia as an “extraordinary success story.”■