A seaside shul

The small Jewish community in Hermanus, South Africa, recently dedicated a new synagogue center. Who needs city life?

Jonathan Lipman 88 248 (photo credit: Moira Schneider)
Jonathan Lipman 88 248
(photo credit: Moira Schneider)
In a reversal of the trend for South African Jewish country communities to diminish as their members migrated to the urban centers, the Hermanus community is staging something of a comeback. The seaside town an hour-and-a-half's drive from Cape Town, world famous for its whale watching, dedicated its new synagogue center, comprising a shul, a community center and a rabbi's home, just before the High Holy Days last year. Hermanus has had a Jewish presence since the late 1800s when Adel and Dorah Allengensy and their son David arrived from Vilna, Lithuania. The Hermanus Hebrew Congregation was established in 1906, and Reverend Chaim Moses Falkoff, who was to serve the community for 51 years as its only spiritual leader, was engaged in 1922. Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies' country communities' rabbi for the past 14 years, assists and maintains communal life and conducts life-cycle events in rural areas. He confirms that country communities have been dwindling for the past 50 years, but agrees that Hermanus is "bucking the trend." Twenty-five years ago, the community consisted of four families, today there are 31 families who are permanent residents. While most are retired people, there are three children. Explaining the phenomenon, Silberhaft says that Hermanus provides an "easier lifestyle" with less stress and crime than has plagued the bigger cities since 1994, when South Africa became a democracy. "In small towns you actually mean something as an individual as opposed to being just another number in the big centers," he adds. What also swells the numbers is the fact that there are 349 Jewish holiday homes in the town. "Because it is so close to Cape Town, on an average weekend you have 50-60 Capetonians going through on a Friday afternoon - unfortunately not all of them come to shul, but some do bolster the numbers for a minyan." Silberhaft maintains that the fact that there is a shul in the town is "one of the attractions. In fact, last December [2007] - a time when the town is deluged by holidaymakers - we had a resident rabbi for three weeks." Silberhaft also officiated at the shul's first wedding in close to 30 years at that time. Representatives of other religions participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the synagogue center, he says, adding that the presence of Jews in these smaller communities is "very much appreciated" by the general population. "They say when the last Jew leaves a town, the town ceases to exist." Conversely, he asserts that if there is growth among Jewish people, it inspires confidence in the town. "The amount of positive responses we've had since the shul building has gone up is unbelievable." At the dedication ceremony, executive mayor of the town Theo Beyleveldt acknowledged the Jewish community's "huge" contribution to South Africa, asking it "to continue to support us in our endeavors to make a contribution towards the regeneration of our society." SOUTH AFRICA'S late chief rabbi Cyril Harris settled in Hermanus with his wife Ann, on his retirement at the end of 2004 after 17 years in the position. Silberhaft attributes this to "going back to his roots," as he had spent his youth in Ayr, a small seaside town in Scotland. "He wanted to go to a seaside town and it was his intention to rebuild the community - unfortunately it wasn't to be," he said, referring to Harris's death the following year. He describes the Harrises' decision to retire to Hermanus as "one of the greatest boosts" the community has received. "When chief rabbi Harris moved there, it was like the royal family had come - people used to stop and wave and get out of their cars to shake his hand - it was a highlight. When he died, the whole town came out when they drove his body out of town - they appreciated that he took that initiative to come and settle in their town." Ann Harris remains there and is, according to Silberhaft, regarded as "the queen mother," involving herself not only in Jewish affairs but in those of the wider community. In addition to her Jewish communal commitments in Cape Town, she serves on the shul's committee and is involved in Hermanus's interfaith movement. She is also active in the town's Enlighten Education Trust, which attempts to address the low levels of literacy and numeracy in previously disadvantaged schools. Of their decision to retire to Hermanus, Harris explains that her late husband "wanted to be in a place where he wouldn't be a nuisance to an incumbent rabbi. That happens - there a lots of incidences of rabbis feeling intimidated by an older colleague and finding it very difficult to cope. We came here because there was no rabbi and there is never likely to be [one]." At the dedication of the synagogue center, she recalled that many had admired the community's confidence in building a synagogue in "difficult times. You gave us that confidence," she said, addressing herself to the mayor, who had motivated for a reduced price for the land on which the center was built. She is uncertain, however, whether the community will find it easy to sustain the center in terms of its levels of commitment. "But we need to try. It's a very faith-based town - there are many churches that are very active. They find that their non-Jewish neighbors are involved in their churches and they do want to try," she says of the fledgling community. Harris says that in the season - which includes three or four periods of the year - the synagogue is "very full" due to the presence of holidaymakers from both Cape Town and Johannesburg. "We need to show them that we've got something to offer them," she says. The president of the Hermanus Hebrew Congregation, Jonathan Lipman, settled in the town 11 years ago when he and his wife, Zelda, decided to purchase a guest house there. Shortly thereafter his father died and he found that he was unable to say Kaddish due to the lack of a minyan. "I then had this need to give back to society in lieu of the Kaddish," he recalls. He got "very involved" with redoing the cemetery, which marked the start of his active involvement with the shul. He says it has been "tremendously difficult" getting the project off the ground as there were "a lot of people who didn't believe that this was actually going to happen. They didn't believe that we could build what we have built here with the small amount of money that we had." MANY ALSO felt that selling off the old shul - which had been refurbished and officially rededicated 11 years ago after more than 20 years of irregular activity, but was in need of further extensive renovation and whose location had since become unsafe - would be akin to discarding the town's Jewish heritage. Since the Lipmans' arrival, the town's Jewish population has swelled from four families to the present 31. "People want to get away from the big cities into the small towns," he agrees. "They come here from all over for the safety aspects, they can work from here on their computers - they could be anywhere in the world and they choose to be in Hermanus - a number of people commute." Lipman mentions that 10 Shabbat-observant families have bought into a development in nearby Stanford, which together with Onrust and other satellite towns, forms part of the Greater Hermanus area. "It just shows that the Jews are looking at coming back to the country," he says. Retired pharmacist Brian Nagle and his wife Nola relocated to the town from Johannesburg two years ago. "We came here on honeymoon 39 years ago and have been coming on holiday ever since - we love the place," he explains. "When we decided to come and retire here, the first thing I did was check out that there was a decent hospital and also a shul, with a Jewish community - that influenced us that it was the right place to come to." Nagle, who now sells property in the area, is on the shul committee and says he has been "instrumental" in the development of the new center. "It means everything to me that we've got a shul, a community center, a bracha room. We hope to develop and build up the whole Jewish community here." Though the couple miss their children and grandchildren who live in Johannesburg and overseas, Nagle says they are "very happy" and well-settled in the town. Shirley Epstein and her partner, Herman Livschitz, have lived in neighboring Onrust for nearly eight years since deciding to retire here from the bustling, largely Jewish, Cape Town suburb of Sea Point. "Although it hasn't been much of a retirement because we're still working, it's wonderful," she enthuses. She prefers to think of the new center as a meeting place for the Jewish community rather than "just a shul," while agreeing that it is comforting to know that there is a house of worship nearby. "You like to feel that you are among Jews no matter how few, because that's who you are. We're a very, very small community, but hopefully we'll grow. Let's just hope that more of the visitors that come here attend services - that would be really nice," she says.