South African Jewish Museum – Cape Town

by Kojo Pocu

The South African Jewish Museum is a touching tribute and extensive history of one of the world’s major Jewish communities. It is one of Cape Town’s must-see heritage experiences.

Despite its location in the heart of one of the country’s most interesting and historic urban square miles, and on a campus that includes SA’s first, oldest, and unquestionably grandest synagogue, the South African Jewish Museum is a marvel of modern architecture, and its contents reflect this fusion of old and new.
Its sleek, gleaming interiors house a variety of interactive displays, audio-visual presentations, and rare and fascinating artefacts that take visitors on a journey back to South Africa’s early roots, painting a portrait of a community that was extraordinarily influential in the building of South Africa as we know it, and who continue to thrive and impact society at all levels.

The museum also covers the cultural history of Jews, Jewish life, and Judaism in general, as well as looking back lovingly on the beginnings of SA Jewry from Eastern Europe and abroad (with a magnificent reconstruction of shtetl life).
In addition, the museum houses one of the finest collections of Netsuke in the world (Japanese miniature art).
The South African Jewish Museum is a fitting monument to a community that has been and continues to be at the core of South Africa’s economic, political, and cultural narrative. It is an exciting combination of old and modern, historic and contemporary, religious and worldly.

History Of South African Jewish Museum

Former President Nelson Mandela officially launched the South African Jewish Museum in 2000, which was founded by Mendel Kaplan. Despite its youth, the museum has strong historical origins, including being situated in South Africa’s first synagogue, which was built in 1863. The museum is meant to be a faithful chronicle of the Jewish community’s history in South Africa. This encompasses the community’s historical roots in Lithuania and abroad, as well as its important role in the development of South African democracy and notable contributions to modern society.


What You Should Know Before Visiting

The museum is a popular destination for travellers, and it’s easy to see why. The museum is architecturally appealing in two ways: first, you enter through the synagogue, and second, it is a blend of old and contemporary that integrates the Old Synagogue into the complex, and the play of glass, wood, and metal is a creative feat that is beautiful to witness.

The shtetl, a to-scale replica of the East European town of Lithuania, to which most Jews in South Africa can trace their ancestors, is one of the most moving exhibits. It’s both authentic and fascinating at the same time.

Other exhibits include Jewish art and multi-media displays about the history of the Jews in South Africa, while interactive touch screens and plasma displays bring the museum right into the twenty-first century, making it one of the most technologically advanced museums in the world, despite its fundamental historical context.


Tour Description

With interactive displays, audio-visual presentations, and rare and fascinating artefacts, go back to the early beginnings of the South African Jewish community. Admire the museum’s modern building, which reflects the museum’s content, which reflects the blending of past and present. Take note of the museum’s drawbridge, which connects the Old Synagogue to the new museum building and represents a ship’s gangway along which immigrants would have walked. Don’t miss your chance to see one of the world’s finest collections of Netsuke – small Japanese sculptures carved in the 17th century. Enjoy a break in the museum’s Café Riteve restaurant after an educational afternoon.


South African Jewish Museum, 88 Hatfield Street, Gardens (parking on Cape Town High School grounds), City Bowl, Cape Town, South Africa

Opening Time

Sunday to Thursday from 10h00 to 17h00. 
Friday from 10h00 to 14h00.

Contact Details

Tell: +27 (0)21 465-1546