The Kaplan Centre conducted a study of the Cape Town Jewish community that involved collecting and analysing communal data from a variety of organisations and conducting 770 face-to-face interviews with a random sample of community members. The findings offer insight into the identities, opinions, and experiences of Cape Town’s Jewish community.
The results underline the community’s strong communal identity, with more than seven out of ten community members feeling connected to Cape Town communal life. The community has a strong emotional attachment to Israel, with around 90% feeling very or slightly attached. Furthermore, a Jewish education is the norm for the Cape Town community. Respondents were asked whether they have ever had a Jewish education and, while only 11% of those aged 70-years-and-older have ever attended a Jewish day school, this percentage increases to 98% for the youngest age group. How many children are currently at a Jewish day school? Overall, of those respondents with children somewhere in the school pipeline, 80% are at a Jewish day school. Finally, emblematic of the community’s sense of communal identity, 79% of respondents report that someone in their household has donated to a Jewish cause within the last 12 months.
Notwithstanding this strong communal identity, the community does not adhere to orthopraxy. When self-identifying into one of a number of descriptive categories, 65% described themselves as either Traditional or Secularly/Culturally Jewish. This manifests in religious practice where, across the sample, 9% don’t drive on Shabbat and 15% eat only kosher meat when outside the home. However, observance of more culturally-leaning Jewish markers is more widespread, with 91% and 96% of respondents regularly participating in Shabbat suppers and Pesach Seders, respectively, and 78% refraining from eating pork.
While antisemitism is perceived to have increased, participants lead an openly Jewish life. Cape Town community members very rarely opt-out of synagogue services or communal events. Specifically, 2% frequently/occasionally avoid synagogue amid safety concerns while 6% frequently/occasionally miss communal events for the same reason. In contrast, larger proportions do not want to be publicly recognised as Jewish or Zionist: specifically, nearly 30% avoid wearing Jewish apparel in public amid safety concerns and around 40% avoid wearing Zionist apparel.
The survey also highlighted the challenge of a shrinking and ageing community. An analysis of Herzlia’s Alumni indicates that around 44% of Herzlia graduates have emigrated since the 1960s. More recently, marriage records indicate that the number of Jewish marriages has declined between 2003 and 2017. Mirroring the decline in marriages, annual birth rates have declined over a similar period. A comparison of annual birth and death rates indicates that, excluding emigration and semigration, the Cape Town community has entered a phase of net natural population decline.
What does the future hold? The survey certainly captured a moment of pessimism and uncertainty, with 53% of community members disagreeing that quality of life will improve in South Africa over the next decade and 25% being uncertain. Within this context, the youth are relatively more optimistic about the future, with 38% of the youngest group agreeing that quality of life in South Africa will improve. At the same time, an element of financial vulnerability exists amongst older community members. Of those aged 70 years and older, 34% are just making ends meet, 35% have no retirement savings and 20% don’t own their home.