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Religious life in Stellenbosch – the Synagogue Page

Congregation Agudas Achim (Band of Brothers) formed in 1900

Several Jews had gravitated to Stellenbosch from the early 1890s. On 8 April 1900, twenty-four people assembled in David Daitsch's home to study the Torah, after which they agreed to form a congregation. They called it Agudas Achim (Band of Brothers). The first services were held in Mr Brown's home in Herte Street, after which they moved to premises in Plein Street.

From 1903 the community rented a building in Bird Street which was consecrated for Jewish worship by the Rev A.P. Bender of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. The small nucleus of Jewish families, then mainly businessmen and farmers, were gradually joined by other religious Jews, flooding in from Eastern Europe. It was not long before the fledgling community built a mikveh and formed a Chevra Kadisha. This building served as the spiritual home of the community for 20 years.

Stellenbosch had a resident minister from this time. The teaching of Hebrew and the education of the children was always a top priority and from the very beginning Jewish children were taught Hebrew and instructed in Jewish customs, traditions and the ethics of their forefathers. These Cheder classes as well as slaughtering animals in the kosher way were the responsibility of the Reverend of the day.

1904: A Jewish Cemetery was established on land given by the municipality on the slopes of the Papegaaiberg, a hill on the western side of the town. The Chevra Kadisha - the society of holy brothers, who work in burying the dead - was formally established in that year.

1920s: When this place became inadequate for the community’s needs in the early 1920s, the leaders purchased land in Van Ryneveld Street on which to build a shul. They also bought the adjacent beautiful old Cape Dutch house originally known as Callabassenkraal as a minister's house. This building had survived a great fire in Stellenbosch in 1803, but had found itself askew in the new layout of Van Ryneveld Street – hence it came to be know as die Skuinshuis – the skew house.

1923: There were just 23 Jewish families in the Stellenbosch community when they invited Rev Bender to come again and this time lay the foundation stone (right) for a purpose-built house of worship, the Agudas Achim Synagogue. Civic dignitaries of the town came out to celebrate, including the popular mayor, Charlie Neethling; the Dutch Reform Predikant, Mr Botha, and the Magistrate. Also there was the famous Springbok rugby captain Paul Roos, who was headmaster of the Paul Roos Gymnasium (which many of the Jewish boys attended).

A newspaper article reported on the occasion:

The foundation stone of the new Synagogue, in Ryneveld Street, adjoining the Bloemhof School, Stellenbosch, has been laid. There was a very representative gathering.

The chairman, Mr. E. Lurie, in a brief speech, welcomed all those present, and said that 24 years ago the community had been started in a very small way, and at last they were able to build their own Synagogue. he said that 'In former years when the Jews were persecuted in different parts of the world, Holland was the first country to give them religious freedom, and when the first Synagogue was opened in Amsterdam, the Stadtholder and members of the Government, were present.' He was glad to see that their descendants, the Mayor, representatives of the Municipality, and Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church were present.

Links between Judaism and Christianity

The Rev. Mr. Botha, Minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, in handing over a trowel to the Rev. A.P. Bender, said that there were big differences between Judaism and Christianity, but there was much in common: Christians worship the same God and believe in Moses and the Prophets. Both believed that man could only fulfil his destiny, be happy and useful, if he obeyed God and honestly tried to live in harmony with God’s law. He expressed the hope that there would soon be no religious differences between the various people. He hoped that the building would be an ornament and would further the moral and spiritual welfare of the Jewish community.

Energetic community

Mr Neethling, the Mayor, said it was a pleasure for him to be present. Thirty years ago, he did not think that there was a single Jew living in Stellenbosch, but since then the Jews found that Stellenbosch was a place where they could live with comfort, and they felt the need of having their own place of worship. His experience was that the Jews were some of the best citizens of the town. They were peaceful and hardworking; their children did very well at school.


Rev. Mr. Bender then performed the ceremony of laying the stone, and said that whatever dialect one used, there was only one language of brotherliness – friendliness and goodwill. It was a privilege for him, as a minister of the oldest congregation, to come from the Mother City to a sister University town. It was many years ago that he had opened a very small sanctuary for the use of the few friends of the community. Since then the need had grown, and they required more commodious and suitable premises. He congratulated the community upon their self-sacrifice and energy in raising funds, and he was sure that the building would add to the beauty of one of the most beautiful towns of the Union.

He was deeply touched by the words of the Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Mayor. On behalf of his people, he thanked them for their kindness and hearty sympathy. Although there were differences in creed, Jews and Christians are one in serving the Father, he declared.

'It has been my privilege for the past 29 years to give some portion of their training to the future ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church', said Rev. Mr. Bender, 'and it has been a pleasure to meet past students in various parts of South Africa. What they learnt from me has not prevented them in any way from performing their duties.

'I am deeply indebted to the Mayor for the splendid testimonial he has given to my brothers. I do not claim that they possess a monopoly of all the virtues, but they do possess the true South African spirit. They love South Africa, and their descendants are the future citizens of the country. I hope the little sanctuary will further the ideals of brotherhood, co-operation, service, charity and hospitality. I congratulate the architect upon his fine design, and feel confident that this house of prayer will be a bulwark of religious faith, upon which the stability, security and happiness of South Africa must depend for all time.'


Mr L Gill, the magistrate, was invited by the Chairman to address the meeting. He said he was accustomed to speak in different surroundings. He did not see before him any of the faces which he usually saw in his building across the road. He had only just recently come to Stellenbosch from Benoni, and there he found that there were no more law-abiding and serious people than the Jews, and he felt that if the whole population had been Jews there would have been no work for him to do.'

The fine synagogue building was opened in 1925

The synagogue is shown in the picture on the left and on the right we can see the synagogue and the 'skew house', Skuinshuis. This was used for the synagogue minister's house for some years and for the cheder classes. Later it was let to outsiders.

The community builds a Communal Hall in 1932

The Communal Hall was built between the synagogue and the Skuinshuis (above). This became the focal point of all Jewish communal life. Many a joyous wedding and Bar Mitzvah was held in that hall.

Rev Isaac Pakter was the minister in Stellenbosch for 22 years, from 1950 to 1972. He helped the community to grow, flourish and reach a membership of, some say, 135 Jewish families in the early 1950s. Under his leadership, inter-denominational services were held, bringing Jews and Christians together in a spirit of understanding and mutual respect. He was involved with the University and theological students frequently attended synagogue services.

In 1950 the community celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the congregation in suitable style under the leadership of Rev Pakter. Rabbi I Abrahams, Chief Rabbi of Cape Town, addressed them and the guest of honour was Israel Brodie, Chief Rabbi of the UK, and the choir from the Gardens Synagogue added their magnificent voices to the service.

In 1956 Dr Gerald Rosendorff (right) and his wife, Bernice, came to Stellenbosch to join Bennie Spiro’s medical practice. Their rooms were in Dorp Street, diagonally opposite today's Checkers. By 2012 Gerry and Bernice were the only Jews still living in Stellenbosch. Gerry became the Secretary/Treasurer and general factotum of the synagogue. In the early 2010s he would open the doors regularly every Friday evening at 6.30 pm, hoping for a minyan (10 adult Jewish men) in order to run a full service. Congregants would come from miles around – from Franschhoek, Somerset West, Simondium and from farms around the area. Although a minyan may not have been achieved every week, the members enjoyed getting together over a glass of whisky and cashew nuts.

1973 was another anniversary year. The 50th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the synagogue was duly celebrated. Rabbi David Lapin was the spiritual leader. They held a banquet in the Communal Hall. At this celebration the late Frank Bradlow, a member of the Simon van der Stel Foundation, was the guest speaker.

And it was at this function that the Stellenbosch Jewish community pledged itself to the restoration of the Skuinshuis, which had fallen into disrepair. The community felt that it was their duty and privilege to restore this historic house to its former beauty and glory and in this manner express in some small measure their appreciation to fellow South Africans for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

1973 – 1980: Restoration of the Skuinshuis (above)

It took seven years from 1973 to 1980 to achieve this restoration and on 1 December 1980, Lazer (Lossy) Ginsburg, chairman of the congregation for 25 years, unveiled the National Monuments Commission’s plaque declaring the restored Skuinshuis a Historical Monument! This was a great occasion and achievement! Especially as the congregation had dwindled from 85 families in the 1960s to only 20 in 1980! Many feel that the restoration of the Skuinshuis and all it means to Jewry, to Stellenbosch and to South Africa was the most significant achievement of this congregation in the twentieth century. As they no longer needed a minister's house or a cheder, the building has been rented out on favourable terms.

Restoration of the cemetery

In the 1990s, now with only 17 members, the congregation undertook the sacred mission of repairing and upgrading the Jewish Cemetery and its surrounding grounds.

The remaining members felt privileged and duty bound to maintain the cemetery that had been laid out below Papegaaiskop in 1904, honouring the previous members of the community. About 151 Jewish names can be found there.

In 1999, the Jewish congregation, of just 17 families, was able to maintain the synagogue, its cemetery, and make financial donations to numerous charities – because of the income generated by the Skuinshuis. 'Their foresight is our inheritance' – these words appear on a plaque in the synagogue and commemorate the role of Lossy Ginsburg, Louis Perel, and Chippy Armstrong in the restoration of the Skuinshuis.

The community builds a New Hall in 2013!

The community was still functioning as a cohesive centre of Yiddishkeit, with an active Union of Jewish Women and Bnoth Zion Association. Although down to a dozen actively participating families, they still managed to hold a service almost every Friday evening and on the High Holy Days. However, they rented out the communal hall as it was too large for the community.

However, the community realised that they still needed a place to gather after services for a brocha or for special occasions. So with just twelve families, they decided to build a new Synagogue Hall. Beverley Zetler (Jeffrey’s wife, seen in photo in New Hall with Gerald Potash) explained that both the big Communal Hall and their minister's house cum schoolrooms (the Skuinshuis) were rented out on very good terms. They realised that they still needed a place and could afford to build one.

They had a spot at the back of the shul that they had used as a sukkah. Jeffrey Zetler, the long-standing Chairman of the congregation, put his shoulder to the wheel and in about three months the old Sukkah was converted into a beautiful modern hall with all the necessary kitchen and bathroom facilities. It can seat about 85 people.

Jeffrey Zetler pointed out that although the community was small, on Jewish holidays Stellenbosch shul attracted not only its regulars from the town and surrounding areas but also some ex-pats and visitors from Cape Town. Stellenbosch synagogue also catered for Jewish holiday makers to the area and Jewish students and academics at the university, who are pleased to attend the services when they come to town. At the time there were about twenty religious men (and some wives and children) from the town and surrounding areas participating in the high festivals, and such a space was badly needed to hang out, to eat, drink and socialise between and after services.

Within the first two years the New Hall was used for two weddings and two bar mitzvahs. Below it is seen hosting a braai for the Jewish students at Stellenbosch University.

A calamity befell the community when in June 2018, Jeffrey Zetler, the president and the driving force of the community, was brutally murdered at his farm in a botched robbery. This was a shattering blow to the Zetler family and to the whole community.

For 2023, 100 years after the foundation stone was laid, Dennis Zetler, Jeffrey Zetler’s brother, still active in the area, is organising a big event in October 2023 to celebrate 100 years of the Stellenbosch synagogue. Ex-pats from around the world will be involved and hopefully attend.

Religious leaders in Stellenbosch

(First published in Jewish Affairs, Pesach 2006, Vol 61:1)

Stellenbosch seems to have had a regular turnover of spiritual leaders. I am not sure what the reason was. In its 76 years of active religious life, there were a total of 20 ministers. Hardly anyone stayed for more than two or three years. It was only when Rev Isaac Pakter came, after the Second World War, in 1945, that some stability and progress was made. He stayed for nearly twenty years guiding the community through what probably was their heyday – and witnessing the beginnings of the demise before he left in 1964.

I wonder if anyone on the list has any thoughts about this and any information about any of these ministers that came and went from Stellenbosch.

  1. 1900: Rev Zeidel
  2. 1904: Rev H Natas
  3. 1905-1910: Rev J Hurwitz
  4. 1913–1916: Rev Ephraim Sher
  5. 1916: Rev Fs Walt
  6. 1917–1920: Rev Ma Helman
  7. 1923: Rev Kassel
  8. 1925: Rev J Herison
  9. 1929–1934: Rev I Goldberg
  10. 1937–1940: Rev I Reichenberg
  11. 1941: Rev H Shatz
  12. 1945: Rev G Golub
  13. 1946: Rev Hillman
  14. 1945–1964: Rev Isaac Pakter
  15. 1964–1966: Rabbi M Kay
  16. 1967: Rev M Cantor
  17. 1968–1970: Rev E Lagnado
  18. 1973–1974: Rev David Lapin
  19. 1974–1975: Rev P Koein
  20. 1976: Rev Harold Walt

Others that must be mentioned in the synagogue life of Stellenbosch are Lossie Ginsburg, beloved Chairman for many years, and Sammy Segall, Shamus for about 40 Years.

Synagogue page of the Stellenbosch community

Compiled by Gerald Potash, Somerset West, South Africa
Edited by Geraldine Auerbach MBE, London, UK
With thanks to Eli Rabinowitz, Perth, Australia and others for information
Formatted and uploaded by Bramie Lenhoff, Delaware, USA
February 2023