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Op-eds

African Jewry comes out of the shadows

  • AboveBoardShaunZagnoev (3)
South Africa today is home to a Jewish community that is by far the largest in Africa, but up until comparatively recently, this was not the case. Rather, the main centre of Jewish life on the African continent was Morocco, with other North African countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, as well as Ethiopia, for many centuries having a substantial Jewish presence.
by SHAUN ZAGNOEV | Jan 31, 2019

For various reasons, among them anti-Jewish persecution in retaliation for Israel’s establishment, mass aliyah from Ethiopia in particular, and the end of French colonial rule, the Jewish presence in these countries is very small today. However, a number of organisations have been set up to preserve and promote the rich history and traditions of these communities.

From 27-29 January, two of these bodies, the Association Mimouna and the American Sephardi Federation, hosted “The First Jewish Africa Conference: Past, Present, and Future” in New York. The conference also looked at the still little-known but growing phenomenon of people in sub-Saharan African countries who are practicing Judaism in one or other form, and who up until now have largely been ignored by the Jewish world at large.

Among the more than 250 delegates in attendance was Chaya Singer, Parliamentary and Diplomatic Liaison for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), who delivered a paper on the South African Jewish community. She was presented with a special award in recognition of what the SAJBD is doing to promote Jewish life in Africa. We hope to see further important events of this nature taking place in future, thereby helping African Jewry to come in from the sidelines and take its rightful place alongside the other great Jewish communities of the world.

The SAJBD and country communities

As early as 1949, the SAJBD saw the need for a special country communities department to assist the by then dwindling Jewish communities in South Africa’s rural areas and small country towns.

One of the department’s most important functions over the decades has been to ensure that when a country community closes down, the proceeds from the sale of its assets are dealt with appropriately. One of the ways this has been done is to advise the communities to establish trust funds in the name of the former communities.

Former communities that have elected to go this route include Witbank, Springs, Kroonstad, Welkom, and Potchefstroom. Beyachad offers administration services to these trusts, with the capital being invested and the interest used to help fund the work of the department, including cemetery maintenance (more than 220 country Jewish cemeteries are today cared for by the SAJBD), organising pastoral visits to rural areas where Jews are still living, and helping other designated communal organisations.

The trustees that have been set up include former members of the relevant community and members of the SAJBD. On an annual basis, they meet to assess how the funds have been allocated during the previous year, and how they should be used in the year to come. Two of these meetings have already taken place, and most of the remainder will take place later this week. For questions, or to raise issues relating to country communities, get in touch with Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft on [email protected]

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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