Sometimes we search for things in the most mysterious of places, things that may be close at hand or right in front of our eyes.
As someone who has spent a lot of time trying to figure out the place Judaism should have in my life and how best to tap into it, it was no surprise to family or friends that I decided to take my search to subSaharan Africa. As with any open-ended trip, however, the unfolding of events was anything but predictable.
My adventures began with four wonderful months living and learning with the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. Most of my time was spent learning Tanach (Hebrew Bible) with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya, and his yeshiva students, as well as assisting the administrative staff at the Tobin Medical Center, a facility opened two years ago by the community. However, I also spent a lot of time immersing myself in the life of this beautiful and welcoming Jewish community, which taught me something new about Judaism and myself every day I was there.
One of the many friends I made during my stay in Uganda was an incredible young man named Samson Nderitu, a student at the Smei Kakungulu Jewish High School. Samson grew up in an emerging Jewish community in Kenya. The story of his community is not unfamiliar in Africa, though it may not be so common in the United States. It was my relationship with Samson that led me to the next stop in my journey of exploration.
KASUKU JEWISH COMMUNITY
Deep in the rolling hills of Kenya’s rift valley, there is a tiny Jewish community where some 20 families have embraced Judaism as their own religious tradition. About ten years ago, the men and women of the community became disenchanted with the Messianic tradition they had been following, and, after a brie interaction with Western Jews in Nairobi, decided they wanted to be Jewish. Although the Nairobi community made it clear they weren’t interested in supporting or fostering new Jewish communities in Africa, the members of the Kasuku community pushed on nonetheless. Though they faced obstacles with the ex–pat community in Nairobi, Rabbi Gershom and his brother JJ Keki of the Abayudaya reached out to them and have been helping the Kenyans build a dedicated community with knowledge of ritual and practice. It is through this relationship that my friend Samson came to study in the Ugandan Jewish high school.
After four months in Uganda, and feeling that it was time to move on, Samson and I headed out on a Thursday afternoon in order to reach his home outside of Okalau, Kenya in time for Shabbat (Sabbath). The first 12 hours of our trip was spent on an overnight bus from Mbale, Uganda to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. From there, Samson and I rode for the next four hours crammed into a minibus overflowing with bodies and baggage to reach a tiny trading center about two miles from his home. Unfortunately, we arrived in the middle of a heavy down pour, which filled the road with ankle deep mud and made it almost impassable. After a considerable wait and multiple negotiations, we were able to beg our way into a ride with two motorcyclists who would take us up the hill.
When we finally reached Samson’s house, I knew instantly the long trip was worth it. We were met by his parents. His father Joseph had dawned a beautiful hand-made kippah, (kcull cap) and his mother Ruth greeted us with the words Baruch Hashem (Blessed be G-d), thankfully rejoicing in our safe arrival.
Because of the wet and muddy roads we were unable to go to the synagogue that night. And so we made Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) at home as a family. In addition to Joseph and Ruth, there were 13 children plus me in their small country house. Like many of the homes I have become familiar with in Africa, Samson’s house was more than modest, assembled like a quilt of sheet metal held together on a frame of 2 x 4’s. But this tiny carcass of a home held within it a spiritual energy that left a smile on my face and an imprint on my soul that I can’t fully describe.
KABBALAT SHABBAT: MY DESCRIPTION
In the dim light of one kerosene lantern I can see the elegant silhouette of Ruth, dressed in her very best Shabbat clothes, lighting our Shabbat candles. We are all gathered now in the small sitting room, huddled around a charcoal stove for warmth. There are only two siddurim (prayer books) for us to share. The text is illuminated by our Shabbat lights. As our service unfolds I feel as though I am in the midst of a truly heartfelt devotion not only to prayer but to being Jewish. As I sing the Kabbalat Shabbat, surrounded by this huge family absolutely full of love, my smile is uncontrollable. Then, in the most wonderful moment of human interaction, my eyes meet Joseph’s and together we acknowledge how grateful we are for each other’s presence here, right now, and the true wonder of Shabbat.
I can see that much of the liturgical structure has been brought here by the Kenyan high school students who are studying in the Abayudaya schools in Uganda. Although the proficiency of ritual practice I have become accustomed to in Uganda has not fully come to fruition here only ten years after this community’s inception, nevertheless, the kavanah (spiritual intention) is as palpable as anywhere I have ever been.
The next morning we head to the synagogue. The structure looks more like a sukkah (temporary dwelling used during the holiday of Sukkot) then a building. It is made of tree limbs, scraps of tarp and a thatched roof, with the words synagogue, Beit Midrash (House of prayer) and drawings of Jewish stars and menorahs (candelabras) on the outside. What I didn’t realize until now is that I am only the second white person to ever visit this community. The service is all in Hebrew, and it is led by Samson’s 17-year-old brother with the assistance of his father. There are only about 15 of us this morning, because the roads are still impassable for many in the congregation. According to Joseph, there are usually about 25 additional congregants on Shabbat morning.
Though the community is certainly still in its infancy, I am touched by their devotion and commitment. Many of the things we take for granted are not present here. The congregation does not have a Torah (hand written scroll containing the five books of Moses), yet the reverence and affection they show for the single chumash (Pentateuch) they do have is overwhelming. After the service, we sit and talk for hours as each member asks more and more in-depth questions about liturgy, theology and the basics of Jewish practice.
Though some members of the community have officially converted before a Beit Din (Jewish Court) in Uganda, most of the community has not. And yet the knowledge and commitment to learning by members of this community is deep and sincere. What I find most striking and wonderful is the three requests they ask of me. Not one is for money. Can you leave us your copy of the tanach? (Of course, I did). Can you send us a Jewish calendar? (I will.) And, most importantly, can you help us find a teacher who will come here and teach us to learn Hebrew and improve our Jewish literacy? (I will try.)
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A JEW IN KENYA?
Though I know many in the broader Jewish community would not consider these people part of Klal Yisrael (literally the entire house of Israel), I do. Two small encounters affirm my belief that they are. The community’s founder is an elderly man named Avraham who said to me, “Ten years ago I had a dream that one day we would be members of the children of Israel and today there is a Jew in my house celebrating the Shabbat with me and this is the most wonderful thing I could ever imagine.” As I benched (said the blessing after meal) with this man at the completion of our meal, I couldn’t help but be aware of my own expanding sense of Klal Yisrael and all that it means for me as an individual, and for us as a community, to be apart of such an special covenant.
And then there is Ruth, Samson’s mother, who displayed not only her devotion to, but her knowledge of Judaism when she said “I chose the name Ruth because of her story. I was not born a Jew, but I love this people and this Torah.” Quoting from Megilat Ruth (scroll of Ruth), she said, “where you go I will go, where you die I will die, your people shall be my people, and your God my God?”
For those who don’t know the story of Ruth, she is for me the most central figure in understanding the power and importance of building bridges with our African communities. Ruth is a Moabite, a widow, who fights for her place in the community of Israel, much like the Jews in Kenya are doing. And through her perseverance and her love she becomes the matriarch of the Messianic lineage through King David. For the Kasuku Jews in Kenya, her story is their story, and in just two short days I discover what the power of faith and love really look like.
Ari Witkin is a 24-year-old graduate of Goucher College, Class of 2009. He grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When Ari is not off exploring, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he is an interfaith organizer who works with religious communities through social engagement.