Alfred Philip Bender

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Alfred Philip Bender

alfred benderAlfred Philip Bender was born in Dublin on 16th April 1863. He was a Jewish clergyman and professor of Hebrew, was the eldest son of Dr Philipp Bender, chief minister of the Dublin Hebrew congregation, and his wife, Augusta. The first Jewish minister to study at one of the older English universities, he graduated with a B.A. in 1891 at St John’s college, Cambridge, in the first class of the Semitic languages tripos, and with an M.A. in 1894, with first-class honours.

Philip was inducted as minister of the Cape Town Hebrew congregation on 13th September 1895, and immediately established himself as an outstanding spiritual leader, orator and social worker. Under his leadership the synagogue reflected, through its special services, the major South African and world events.

On 13 September 1905 Alfred was consecrated at the present Great synagogue, the foundation-stone of which had been laid the year before by the governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Walter F. Hely-Hutchinson.
Bender paid pastoral visits to many country communities, and officially opened most of the Cape synagogues.

He devoted special attention to the religious needs of the younger generation, inaugurating Sabbath afternoon services for children, and girls’ confirmation services. In December 1895 he organized the Cape Town Jewish Boys and Girls’ guild. A brilliant scholar and educationist, he was appointed in 1896 to the newly-founded chair of Hebrew at the South African college (afterwards the University of Cape Town), He was the first Jewish minister to hold a professorial post in South Africa. He served as a member of the council of the University of the Cape of Good Hope and then on the council of the
University of Cape Town. In 1895 he helped to establish the Cape Town Hebrew public school, which, together with its junior branch, the Constitution Street (Hebrew) public school, functioned until 1920.

Subsequently he was president of the United Hebrew schools. But his interest in education
transcended denominational boundaries; he headed the poll at the first election of the first Cape school board (1907), and served on it continuously until his death on the 18th December 1937.
His greatest love, undoubtedly, was charity, for which he laboured without restriction of race or creed. Apart from helping individuals in distress, who ever thronged his home, he was actively associated with almost every philanthropic organization, Jewish and non- Jewish, in Cape Town. He was a member of the Cape hospital board from its inception until his demise, and every year he preached a hospital sermon, which evoked a generous response from the congregation.  During the Second Anglo-Boer War he worked without surcease for the welfare of refugees. Initially he was opposed to Zionism, but after the Balfour declaration of 1917 he supported the Jewish national movement wholeheartedly.

As a lover of art he influenced Hyman Liberman and Sir Max Michaelis to make their notable benefaction to the art collections of Cape Town. He was also a patron of the Cape Town orchestra.
Two volumes of his sermons were published posthumously by his congregation (Sabbath sermons and sermons for festivals and special Sabbaths and occasions (with a portrait), 2 vols., Cape Town [1952] ) . Bender never married. There are portraits of him in the synagogue chambers and a bust in the S.A. National gallery, Cape Town. The University of Cape Town has a full-length portrait in oils of B. (half-life-size) by G. Sydney Taylor, 1915.

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