About the South African Jewish Museum

The South African Jewish Museum (SAJM) narrates the story of South African Jewry from its early beginnings, set against the backdrop of South African history over a period of more than 175 years. The museum itself is part of the Garden’s Synagogue precinct - the oldest Jewish community in South Africa – and is a synthesis of the old and the new. It incorporates the first synagogue established in South Africa (in 1862), adjoined to a thoroughly modern building finished in Jerusalem stone. A wide variety of media, including interactive displays, archival film footage, scale models, artefacts and memorabilia provides an enriching visitor experience that details the cultural life of a dynamic Jewish community and its contribution to the development of South Africa.

Aside from visiting us in person, you are also welcome to tour the museum virtually via our website or browse through our online archive.

South African Jewish Museum
88 Hatfield Street Gardens, Cape Town Central 8001 South Africa
Tel: + 27-21-465-1546
Email: info@sajewishmuseum.co.za

Why is it important to have a digital archive?

As the stories of people and communities develop, the volume of physical space needed to store items becomes untenable, which is why digital archives have become increasingly pivotal. They enable us to preserve pieces of history that might otherwise be lost, to connect our community online, and to take care of our memories. Thousands of South African Jews now live in other countries and have taken their stories with them. This archive is an online platform to preserve the legacy of a community with a rich and fascinating history. By digitally storing old, badly kept, or otherwise forgotten family photos, films and documents, a window to the social history of South Africa’s Jewish community can be saved for posterity.

The South African Jewish Museum makes you this promise. We will maintain this digital collection for the future generations of people who wish to know of their forebears and trace their roots in South Africa.

Our connection to The Jewish Living Archive

The SAJM Digital Archive is part of a larger project that seeks to secure southern African Jewish history and culture. The Jewish Living Archive is a collaboration between the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town and the SAJM. It incorporates the Kaplan Centre’s physical archive of items with historical significance to Jewish history in South Africa, the SAJM’s collection of artefacts and this website, our digital collection.

Our beginning as the Jewish Digital Archive Project (JDAP)

This digital collection began ten years ago as the Jewish Digital Archive Project (JDAP) which focused on the social and familial history of the Jewish community in South Africa. The brainchild of Romi Kaplan, JDAP started in 2011 at The Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at The University of Cape Town (UCT). The aim of the project was to convert to digital format items such as photographs, films and documents from families’ histories. The first collection to be converted was that of Romi’s father, Mendel Kaplan, a renowned philanthropist and the founder of both the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT and the South African Jewish Museum. A prominent member of the South African Jewish community, Mendel Kaplan had an abiding interest in Jewish history and deep love for his community. Over the ensuing decade the archive expanded enormously to document thousands of personal and family narratives. JDAP has now been incorporated into the larger SAJM Archive to include archival collections of a number of South African Jewish communal organisations and congregations.

Why do we focus on social history?

Although our collections contain a vast amount of material covering various topics, our emphasis is on social history. The archive is a meeting point for many stories that reveal how the Jewish community in South Africa has lived over time. This includes the ways Jews have interacted with broader South African society as well as social habits such as holidays, lifestyle, eating and dress. Everyday details allow us to follow the development of a community and observe any changes or constancies in its values and general trends.

The nature of our collections

Our collections track the evolution of first-generation immigrants from the shtetls of eastern Europe into a distinctly South African Jewish identity. Family collections populate most of the archive, comprising home videos, postcards, birth certificates, letters, memoirs, documents, and photographs. The archive also represents communal organisations such as youth movements, Jewish day schools, old age homes, synagogue congregations and several social and charitable unions.

Collections with political and cultural content range from stories of anti-apartheid activists to those of artists, actors, writers, and craftspeople. The archive contains bodies of work by many Jewish professional photographers and filmmakers. Some of our collections chiefly focus on the towns and places to where most Jewish South Africans can trace their family origins. For example, one collection is dedicated solely to images from Lithuanian towns, with footage dating back to 1938.

Specialist projects

The archivists and researchers at the SA Jewish Museum and the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town also engage in more focused projects. These projects include newly unearthed content for museum exhibitions and historical research projects undertaken by the Kaplan Centre.
Currently, the SAJM Digital Archive and the Kaplan Centre are engaged in a collaborative project with The Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) Institute to collate material related to Jewish involvement in radical politics in South Africa. Over the years Jews have been prominently involved in various forms of political activism in South Africa. Researchers are actively interviewing many of those Jews involved in these events and recording their recollections in the archive.