By Ann Rabinowitz
One of the amazing and beloved characters in South Africa is Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft who travels many thousands of miles each year to serve and provide succor to the dwindling number of 1,200 Jews in the small country communities throughout South Africa and other places like Mauritius and Zimbabwe.
Once amounting to approximately 40,000 Jews, the country communities are now mainly depleted of their Jews, who have moved away and/or died off. All that is left of their presence, very often, are the 230 cemeteries and 30,000 graves which the rabbi makes sure are maintained.
The site where his work is featured is: http://www.africanjewishcongress.comthe various places which are supported. In addition, his story is recounted in the book “The Traveling Rabbi, My African Tribe” as told to Suzanne Belling.
The following are the links to the five part program “Shalom the Beloved Country” produced by the SABC television network about the work of Rabbi Silberhaft:
A further talk by Rabbi Silberhaft about his work amongst the country communities can be seen at the following link when he appeared at the Annual General Meeting of the Telfed Netanya, Israel regional committee meeting on January 4, 2012.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cpjmc5j5Zkw
In addition to the Rabbi’s work, the South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth, have produced a number of volumes featuring various areas where the country communities are located. Included in these volumes are the names of the various families who lived in the country communities as well as photos and histories of them.
Many of these small places were not unlike the shtetlach that the South Africa Jews came from in mainly Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia and other such places. As an example of the small country communities which were mentioned in these volumes, I will use the place where my own family settled. It was a tiny place named Botrivier / Bot River or Butter River which was located in the Overberg Region of the Western Cape that I like to call a dorpie or a place smaller than a dorp, which is a small village.
The Country Communities series, Volume III, includes the village. There were approximately twenty or less Jewish families, at any one time, which lived there. Many of them came from Kupiskis, Lithuania, and other nearby shtetlach in northwestern Lithuania. Some of these families were: Aarenson, Bedil/Rabinowitz, Cessel, Choritz, Cohen, Fig, Gafanowitz/Geffen, Gavendo, Jaffe, Kacev, Kaplan, Osrin, Sack, Silke, Singer, and Thal.
The photo below shows three of the interrelated families who lived in Botrivier including my great uncle, Mordechai Yehudah Leib Choritz, the elderly gentleman, who is sitting on the left.
The Choritz, Jaffe and Fig Families in Botrivier, South Africa
Due to the village’s rural character and seeming idyllic location in the hinterlands away from larger urban sites, many of the occupations of the Jewish families were focused on agriculture (onions, potatoes, grapes/wine, wheat, wild flowers) and on farms such as the historic Companje Drift (once the trading/bartering station of the Dutch East India Company); trade with the local farmers as general dealers in what amounted to country stores; and owning or leasing accommodations in small inns such as the Bot River and Hoew Hoek Hotels which assuaged the needs of people passing through or visiting.
All in all, the concept of the country communities is one of a fast-fading yet vibrant past kept alive by those such as Rabbi Silberhaft, who work directly with the remaining Jewish inhabitants, and with the diligent researchers, who document the history of these communities, one volume at a time.