From Cameroon to Israel (August 2014)

image: Serge Etele and Rav Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat (Photo by Jill Kuchar)

Serge Etele and Rav Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat
(Photo by Jill Kuchar)

Serge Etele, 34, the leader of the Jewish community of Cameroon, was selected by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat, to study for three months in Israel this summer at Yeshivat Machanayim Ohr Torah Stone in Efrat. Serge has been studying Judaism online for many years. At home he is the religious leader of a small synagogue of 60 people, in Sa’a, and several other newly emerging synagogues in Cameroon. In addition, Serge is a computer web page programmer/designer, an activist on behalf of inter-religious dialogue and a life-long farmer. Serge created a program to educate children in Tikkun Olam (repair the world) values in Cameroon schools and he is involved with many Christian religious leaders in Yaounde, Cameroon, who want to learn Torah and lead their Christians congregations closer to Jewish teachings. Serge hopes to promote Israel/Cameroon relations by creating an Hebraic Cultural Center in Cameroon to educate people about Jewish history and culture. JZ

This summer I spent three months in Israel, studying at the Yeshiva Machanayim Ohr Torah Stone, one of the many institutions for Jewish education created by Rav Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat. And what an adventure it was!

I arrived in Israel in mid-May. . .

Landing in Tel Aviv at night and seeing all the lights of the city from above was wonderful. Once I got off the plane, I found security tight. I had to answer many questions at each security point before being allowed to leave the airport. Kulanu founder and former president Jack Zeller was waiting at the airport to take me to his apartment in Yerushalayim where I spent my first night in Israel! I was now in the Holy Land, the biblical and historical land of Israel and in its holiest city and I was very excited.

image: Studying Mussar with Rabbi Nachum Tauchman (Photo courtesy of my colleages at Ohr Stone)

Studying Mussar with Rabbi Nachum Tauchman
(Photo courtesy of my colleages at Ohr Stone)

The next morning, Jack took me to the yeshiva in Efrat. Everyone there seemed aware of my coming and welcomed me warmly.

The yeshiva turned out to be a place of great diversity, like the country itself, with students from America, India, Brazil, Canada, France, Uganda, Australia, Morocco, England, Cameroon, as well as from Israel. I found that people were exceptionally nice to me and to each other. It was not unusual to see people embracing. All this had a deep effect on me. I realized anew that the wellbeing of humanity depends so much on the way people are educated. It was wonderful to see how people that had been educated in love and caring treated each other and treated other people. I felt at home but also in a new home, one I could not have imagined.

My study program included Halakha (Jewish law), Shchita (ritual slaughter), Mussar (ethics) and Tanakh (bible). And, during my free time, I also studied Gemora (commentaries) and Jewish thought. My teachers included Rabbis Dr. Stuart Fischman and Nachum Tauchman who gave me private instruction, Dr Harry Greenspan a shochet and mohel and volunteer teacher Abe Reichman.

Some of my teachers were from other countries and had worked as dentists, accountants, and in other professions. But they had given up everything to be in Israel, in Efrat, studying and teaching.

image: Rehearsing for an Africa-Israel concert to take place in Jerusalem (Photo courtesy of my colleages at Ohr Stone)

Rehearsing for an Africa-Israel concert to take place in Jerusalem
(Photo courtesy of my colleages at Ohr Stone)

Shabbat in Efrat was special, and most weekends, I had many invitations for Shabbat dinner from people I never met before. On one occasion, I met a local woman in the commercial center of Efrat, and after asking my companion and me where we were from, she invited us for Shabbat dinner.

In Efrat, I lived in a trailer dormitory with the other students, some of whom were married with families. Others were like me, single or without their spouse and on their own.

A few weeks after my arrival, the three Israeli boys were kidnapped while hitchhiking. This took place about 5 minutes drive from our yeshiva. That night, I could not fall asleep. Every day after that we all followed the news, hoping the story would have a good end. It was a difficult period. We knew our brothers were living a horrible fate and the entire nation was trying to dedicate all its spiritual and material resources to find and rescue these boys. During the day we studied all day in the yeshiva, but at night we gathered around our computers trying to find some good news.

After Shabbat, when we finally heard that the bodies of the three boys had been found, sadness swept through the yeshiva. It was devastating. Most of us had never met these young boys. But they were our boys nevertheless.

Later, we saw terrorists in Gaza on TV. They were rejoicing and celebrating the death of the three innocents. It is hard for me to understand. We live in a time when some people celebrate evil and death just as we celebrate life and good. Even a policeman that kills a bandit doesn’t celebrate.

The horror did not end as then a young Arab boy was murdered in Jerusalem by Jewish extremists.

I had traveled to Israel to study in peace, but there was to be no peace. Tensions continued to rise and rockets from Gaza began to rain down on Israeli cities. And then Israel retaliated. The war had begun.

The military campaign had massive support amongst the Israeli population and among most Jews around the world. Many young Jews even flew from different countries to come and help defend the Jewish state. I never saw this kind of solidarity before.

Many students from my yeshiva also left for the army.

image: Trip south. Visiting soldiers near Gaza during the last war (Photo by Eric Amien)

Trip south. Visiting soldiers near Gaza during the last war
(Photo by Eric Amien)

During one cease-fire, French speaking Rav Haim Dynovisz,* one of my Internet teachers whom I finally met in real life in Jerusalem, organized a trip to the south, to bring food and give support to wounded soldiers, soldiers in the field, and comfort to grieving families. I decided to join him. First, we visited a French family in mourning to offer our condolences. There were many people there who came from different parts of the country to comfort the family. The father was crying, it was a sad and depressing sight. Sorrowfully, we took our leave of the family and continued on toward the Gaza strip to deliver food packages to Israeli soldiers. Getting there was not so easy. We were denied access to the main road as it was deemed unsafe. However, we met two off duty soldiers who offered to accompany us through a forest road. Finally the main road re-appeared after many kilometers and it was a relief. We had passed all the roadblocks and were inside the military zone.

The soldiers were happy to see us so close to the border where you do not expect to see any civilians. We sang and danced together, took pictures, climbed on tanks, etc. At the time, it was officially a cease-fire. But suddenly, one of the officers told us to follow him. He was running behind a tank. We rushed after him and hid under a tank, the only place you could hide in this open space. A few seconds later, a rocket fell about 150 meters away from us with a ground-shaking noise and lot of dust. We waited one more minute before leaving our “bomb shelter of fortune”.

From the front we traveled to Soroka hospital in Beer Sheva where we visited wounded soldiers. Again, there were people from all over the country who had traveled to Beersheva to visit them. The solidarity was truly moving.

image: Certificate of Completion. Rabbi Daniel Channen presented me with a certificate for completing a course on Halakah under the auspices of Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim  (Photo courtesy of Serge Etele)

Certificate of Completion. Rabbi Daniel Channen presented me
with a certificate for completing a course on Halakah
under the auspices of Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim
(Photo courtesy of Serge Etele)

Now, I am about to leave Israel. I have visited many holy places including the Kotel (wall) and the City of David, Hevron. I also went to the Dead Sea, the mystical city of Safed, the Golan, Tiberias, etc.

During my stay, Rav Riskin was very supportive and invited me to his home for Shabbat dinner whenever he was in the country. He appreciated my hard work and scholarship and encouraged me to attend a rabbinical program in his yeshiva. I am hoping to return to study for the rabbinate if enough funds can be found to support my studies.

During my stay in Efrat, I also had the mentoring of Menachem Kuchar, Rabbi Riskin’s director of African Programs, who visited Cameroon last year. Among his many kindnesses was arranging for me to learn about Shechita (ritual slaughter) of chickens courtesy of one of the friends of the yeshiva. Afterwards, I was gifted with a great shechting knife and sharpening stones to bring home.

Before I left Israel, so many people brought me books that I was unable to fit all of them into my suitcase. My three months in Israel was one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life.

May all the good people who contributed to this special opportunity be blessed!

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* (http://www.ravdynovisz.tv/ )