Preserving the footprint of Southern African Jewish community life in digital form

August 18, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The rise of the internet has provided unprecedented means for connecting people as well as being a secure repository of information.

Many people with a passion to preserve the history of their Southern African Jewish communities have grasped this opportunity with both hands. How have they done it? People from all over the world are finding out through ‘Community History Online’, a Zoom conference presented in three weekly sessions by the South African Jewish Museum and the UCT Kaplan Centre.

The Gardens Shul celebrated its 175 years in 2016 – led by Rabbi Osher Feldman, originally of Sydney, Australia, together with his wife, rebbetzin Sarah. The building on the left is the SA Jewish Museum, the old shul

Viewers have been enthralled by individuals who have driven projects to find and communicate with the families of those who lived in their hometowns, and to hear how they motivated them to send stories and pictures of their weddings and bar mitzvahs, their businesses and pastimes, their synagogues and ministers.

Geraldine Auerbach from London kicked off by introducing us to the comprehensive website of the Jewish Community of Kimberley, explaining how it was achieved. Gary Sussman from Tel Aviv spoke about his website for Vryburg. Rabbi Ryan Newfield, appointed in Muizenberg just a month before Covid struck, gave a vivid description of creating a community from scratch. Juan-Paul Burke presented an insight into the progress of documenting the Woodstock and Salt River Jewish communities. Attendees were given tips, templates and offers of help to create their own ‘virtual cities’, recording pasts that might otherwise be lost.

Online resources

The wealth of resources in the online archives of the South African Jewish Museum and the Kaplan Centre was described by their archivists Leila Bloch and Katie Garrun. People were encouraged to make sure that family or community documents and appurtenances are safely digitised and stored in these places. Eli Rabinowitz CEO of the WE ARE HERE! Foundation in Perth Australia, a member of the Board of the International Jewish Genealogical Society, spoke about JewishGen’s vast databases and other resources and his 88 community ‘Kehilalinks’ and over 800 WordPress posts.

Virtual cemeteries

While gravestones are still pristine, the value of photographing them and transcribing them is essential, as visits to South African Jewish cemeteries are not always possible – or even safe – today. Eric Berger of the Cape Town Cemeteries Board showed their extraordinary progress from a database of graves to a fundraising platform and a service to the families and the community.

Social media  

Dave Bloom of Israel, who during the last 20 years has created a fascinating website celebrating the Zimbabwe Jewish Community, described how he and the community now use Facebook and Zoom as tools to bring people together and elicit stories. 

Gavin Morris, Director of the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, says:  ‘Our goal has been to connect everyone interested in South African Jewish history and to present an overview of the various approaches being taken in securing our history online. We hope to learn of their triumphs and frustrations so we can create a clear path for others to travel. Already there is interest from individuals willing to start new sites.’

To listen to the talks again visit the YouTube channel or Facebook pages.

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