Jews have been part of the fabric of Grahamstown almost from the beginning. The first Jews settled in what was then no more than an isolated frontier village following the arrival of the 1820 Settlers. The history of this congregation, one of the oldest organized Jewish congregations in the country, can be divided into two distinct periods, an “Anglo” phase, in which most of its members originated from Britain, and a latter, “Litvak” phase, where they were mainly from Eastern Europe. The first phase lasted until the 1870s, after which assimilation and the decline of the town as a commercial centre saw the congregation effectively ceasing to function. The later influx of east European Jewish immigrants towards the end of the 19th century made possible the revival of the community, which formally constituted itself as the Grahamstown Hebrew Congregation on 1901.

In 1843 the Jewish community purchased a burial plot, which contains the first recorded Jewish burial in South Africa. The new cemetery was opened in the early 1940’s. The upkeep and maintenance of these 2 cemeteries are now under the supervision of the Country Communities Department of the SAJBD.

In March 1902 a house in Beaufort Street was rented for religious services. From 1905 until 1908 High Festival services were held in the Masonic Hall, the Shaw Hall and in Mr Kaiser’s Hotel. The building of a synagogue in Hill Street commenced in 1911 and in 1913 Rev A P Bender of Cape Town laid the foundation stone. Rev A Levy of Port Elizabeth consecrated the building in 1914.

In 1927, £58 was spent on additions and alterations to the front of the synagogue building. In 1939 at a cost of £600, the Masonic Hall adjacent to the synagogue in Hill Street was purchased and converted into a communal hall. The hall could accommodate over two hundred people, with additional rooms that housed the local cheder and Jewish Women’s organizations. 1953 saw the addition of a permanent sukkah, situated behind the communal hall, which was donated by Abraham Radomsky and his son Hymie in memory of wife and mother Fanny Lily Radomsky. Both the communal hall and sukkah were sold in 1994 due to the decline of the Jewish community.

Jewish students studying at Rhodes University helped keep the Grahamstown community active. In 1960, to cater for the growing number of students, the S. A. Jewish Board of Deputies purchased a house for the use of the Students' Jewish Association which later became the S. A. Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), in Somerset Street. This remained the centre of Jewish student activity until declining student members led to the sale of the property in 2002.

The Grahamstown Jewish Museum, established by SAUJS Rhodes students in 1992, originally located at Hillel House was re-erected in the foyer of the shul. Today, the Jewish student body is based at rented premises in Beaufort Street, the same street in which a hundred years ago the first minyanim of the new century were held.

In 2003 / 5763, in the presence of well-wishers, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, Spiritual Leader to the S. A. Country Communities – SAJBD, unveiled a new cornerstone to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Synagogue which is now, due to the decline in numbers of the Jewish community, under the control of the Country Communities Department of the SAJBD.


Dear Friends,

How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, Thy dwelling places, O Israel”. These say our Rabbis “are the Houses of Prayer and the House of study” This inspiring verse, with which we open our daily order of service, sings the praise of the Synagogue which, in an allegorical way, called “The dwelling place of Israel”. A dwelling place unifies the people who dwell therein and converts them into a family. It is the joint home that is the attribute of a family. People remain single, disjointed individuals as long as they do not occupy one home.

What makes a congregation or a community out of a number of Jewish individuals residing at a given place? What is the bond that unites them and converts them into one organic group? Our Rabbis, in their inspiring manner, have given the answer in the words of the Biblical text: The dwelling place of Israel is in the Synagogue. It is the Synagogue that is the focal point of communal life. What the home is to the family, the Synagogue is to the Congregation. The home cements the individuals together. It unites them in a common purpose and a common ideal. It gives each one a sense of community and a sense of belonging. It radiates warmth and encouragement. It gives each one a sense of community and a sense of belonging. All this the Synagogue has been to the Jew throughout the ages. It has cemented the individuals and bound them together. It inspired them with a common purpose and a common faith. It gives each one the strength that goes with the feeling of membership of a group. It inspired them with a faith in G-d and trust in His protection. Within its walls they felt rested and re-invigorated and imbued with new strength to face the hardships of life again. How goodly, indeed, were those dwelling places for Israel!

The Grahamstown Synagogue has carried this sacred mission for 90 years now. It was the third synagogue to be built in South Africa, following Cape Town and Port Elizabeth respectively.

It has helped to form an organized community out of the mass of helpless pioneers who reached the shores of South Africa in search of a new home and a new future. It has played a major role in the progress, which the community has made.

Both in my personal capacity and on behalf of the Executive of the S A Jewish Board of Deputies, heartiest congratulation to the Grahamstown Synagogue for the services it has rendered to the Jewish Community.

“May you never leave the minds, hearts and souls of all those who have worshipped in your sacred walls”.


Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft

Spiritual Leader to S A Country Communities