From the Archive: When Nelson Mandela went to shul

Mandela, Mandela Jews, Mandela synagouge

Nelson Mandela salutes the crowd at the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town on a visit shortly after being elected South Africa’s president in 1994. Joining Mandela, from left, are Rabbi Jack Steinhorn; Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel; Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris; and Mervyn Smith, chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. (SA Rochlin Archives, SAJBD)

One of the first things that Nelson Mandela did after being elected president of South Africa was visit a synagogue. In May 1994, Mandela dropped by Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation on the Shabbat after his election.

Here is an excerpt from JTA’s report:

The congregants heard Mandela make an appeal from the pulpit for Jewish expatriates to return to South Africa.

Pointedly excluding aliyah by saying he understands the Jewish community’s commitment to Israel, Mandela said: “We want those who left (for other countries) because of insecurity to come back and to help us to build our country.”

He added that those who do not return should contribute their money and skills to South Africa.

Mandela thanked the Jewish community for its contribution toward the development of South Africa and assured Jews they have nothing to fear from a government of national unity.

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He said he felt an affinity with the Jewish community, since it was a Jewish firm that gave him an apprenticeship in the early days of his law career, when discrimination was rife.

He also said that he had befriended his Jewish defense counsel during the treason trial which led to his imprisonment in the 1950s and that he was still in contact with the lawyer.

He stated that he recognizes the right to existence of the State of Israel, along with the right of Palestinians to live in their own homeland.

He noted that he considered it significant that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat last week signed an agreement in Cairo implementing Palestinian self rule — the same week that South Africa elected its new leadership.

At the reception following the service, some of the younger members of the congregation raised clenched fists in solidarity with the ANC, while the shul choir led in the singing of the country’s new national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ IAfrika.”

The national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies called the visit “a peak in Jewry’s relationship with the new South Africa.”

Here is an in-depth roundup of decades’ worth of JTA coverage of Mandela’s relationship to the Jewish community. One 1998 JTA article describes how Mandela arranged to get a pre-wedding blessing from South Africa’s chief rabbi, who was unable to attend the nuptials because they were held on the Jewish Sabbath.

Daniel Treiman is a contributing writer to JTA.