The brainchild of visionary South African businessman and philanthropist Mendel Kaplan, the museum, though relatively new, has deep historic foundations.
For decades, a small record of the history of Jews in the Cape was housed in South Africa’s very first synagogue, built in 1863 and now called the Old Shul. Thanks to the driving force of Mendel Kaplan, the decision was taken in 1996 to reimagine the collection for a 21st-century audience. Mendel Kaplan conceived, founded and largely funded the museum under the banner of the Kaplan Kushlick Foundation. Starting with commissioning of a new state-of-the-art building, he expanded the scope of the museum to encompass the full gamut of the history of Jews in South Africa. Themes would include the community’s historical roots in Lithuania and elsewhere, its instrumental role in the building of South Africa as we know it, as well as its noteworthy contributions to contemporary society. The Old Synagogue was transformed into a specialised general exhibit documenting Jews, Judaism and Judaica through the ages. The South African Jewish Museum was officially opened by Nelson Mandela in December 2000 with Mendel Kaplan and Helen Suzman standing beside him. Boasting high-tech exhibits, interactive multi-media installations and walk-through, historically faithful recreations, the South African Jewish Museum is one of the few custom-built museums established in Cape Town in the last 50 years. It has established itself as a Cape Town landmark, attracting locals, foreigners, schools, cultural exchange groups and young and old alike through its doors.