Religious life in Malmesbury – the Synagogue page
The first minyan is said to have been held in 1895 and the first congregation formed in 1900.In 1904 there were said to be about 250 Jews in the town of which 114 were members of the congregation.
In 1905 they secured their first sefer torah. By 1906 they started collecting money for a synagogue. A daunting task – but it was crowned with success. A prominent site was secured at 1 Prospect Street and plans were drawn up by one of the founding members Max Goldman.
Architecturally the synagogue is a fine example of an Eastern European synagogue. It is double volume with a ladies' gallery at the back upstairs. The facade has a centrally placed front door and teak windows rounded at the top. It is topped by an ornate Cape Dutch Revival gable with a Magen David on a roundel. The words 'How Goodly are Thy Tents O Jacob' are inscribed in Hebrew on the archway above the front door.
The foundation stone was laid on 11 November 1911 (11.11.11) by Abraham Katz and Benjamin Olswang who were both successful speculators and farmers in the area.
The synagogue was consecrated by the Rev A P Bender of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation on 16 May 1912.
From the start this shul was the central focal point in the community's life. Daily minyanim, daily cheder classes, weddings, barmitzvahs, Yom Tovim and all congregational activities took place in that building.
With the arrival, in 1922, of the erudite, practical and popular minister, Rev Efron (right) the community flourished. Under his tutelage all the children took it in turns to lead services in the synagogue. A mikveh (ritual bath) was built at the back of the shul.
The Talmud Torah/Communal Hall
In 1929 with the community in full swing they started collecting money for a building for their Talmud Torah (that had been established in 1911) with a communal hall that could seat 400 people!
The foundation stone was laid by the distinguished advocate and Member of Parliament, Morris Alexander. It was opened by the Mayor of Cape Town with due ceremony and dignitaries in 1935.
Note the detail of the Magen David in the roundel window.
With a shul, a Mikveh a Talmud Torah and a communal hall, the Malmesbury Jewish Community was a regional hub for smaller towns. Jews in from Philadelphia, Darling, Kalbaskraal and even Piketberg would come for services, particularly on the High Holydays.
But it was short-lived. Rev Efron’s departure in 1942, after 20 glorious years, to Maitland, marked (or coincided with) the beginning of the end.
By 1947, After the Second World War the community had dwindled. The Talmud Torah/Communal Hall was no longer in use and the impecunious community sold the building to Mr Bloch (using the money later to refurbish the cemetery).
In the 1950s and 1960s there were ministers Revs Gad, Kur and Matzner. They were required to perform Shechita, and also travel to surrounding towns to teach the children. Some children were sent to Herzlia School in Cape Town. From 1967 when there were only a handful of Jews in the town, kosher meat was supplied from Cape Town. By the middle of 1968 there was no longer a minister in Malmesbury.
In 1971 only four families remained: the Stoch, Sternberg, Davidowitz and Goldman families. They met to decide what to do and decided that all the documents should go to the Kaplan Centre at UCT and that the financial assets be taken over by the Cape Board of Deputies.
In 1972, through sterling efforts of Bennie Resnik and others, the entire contents of the synagogue, including the bimah, Aron Kodesh, pulpit and benches, were transferred to Herzlia High School’s synagogue Minyan Yosef. In a moving consecration ceremony, attended by former Malmesbury minsters, Revs Efron and Myers, the four last families each handed over a Sifrei Torah to a Herzlia member 'for future safekeeping and holy use'.
On 29 April 1974, the Malmesbury synagogue was finally closed and deconsecrated. Dr Leon Goldman (son of founder member Max Goldman) purchased the building and transferred it to the Malmesbury municipality with the proviso that it should be used for cultural purposes only. It was decided to convert the synagogue into a museum.
The Ohel Jacob Synagogue at 1 Prospect Street, Malmesbury lives on
In it the Malmesbury town Museum was opened in 1991.
A special section was created near the Aron Kodesh to honour and memorialise the Jewish community who had lived and thrived there alongside their Afrikaans neighbours for nearly 100 years.
The Aron Kodesh and Jewish section of the Malmesbury museum
In 1994 the Malmesbury museum was designated a heritage site and has been well cared for and well maintained and hopefully it will be in the future.