A Seder under the (Jewish) Stars

Brukhim ha’Ba’im! Brukhot ha’Ba’ot! Blessings upon you who have come!”

“For me, too, being here is a very powerful blessing, an opportunity to make a bridge with my brothers and sisters from whom I have been estranged by ignorance, by silence, and by the deception, manipulation, and force of those who would wish us to forget who we are. But we will not forget!”

The Batutsi are our Hebraic brothers and sisters, and have been since the time of Moses.

With these words, and others explaining the context and meaning of the evening, I opened this past April the first-ever seder of the expatriate Tutsi community in Belgium and nearby Western Europe. They were translated into French by the seder’s organizer my co-leader Yochanan Bwejeri, who remembers celebrating Pesakh with his family as a child in Burundi. Professor Bwejeri is the founder and director of the Havila Institute, an organization that, for the past seven years, against extraordinary social and political resistance, has sought to restore, re-invigorate, and re-assert the Jewishness of the Tutsi people. Havila aims to preserve their right to live as Jews, and simply to be alive, in the Great Lakes region of central Africa at the source of the White Nile (the biblical River Pishon), which encompasses Burundi, Rwanda, and parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Tanzania. This is their historic Homeland, that part of the Kush Empire extending from Ethiopia and identified as Havila in Genesis 2:11 and as the area beyond the rivers of Kush in Zephania 3:10.

The Batutsi are our Hebraic brothers and sisters, and have been since the time of Moses. Under culturally genocidal pressures from the colonial powers and the Church, many Batutsi found it necessary to embrace Christianity, so that Burundi and Rwanda are the most Catholic countries in Africa. Of course, that did not save the upwards of a million Tutsis who, in 1994, perished through physical genocide at the hands of their neighbors in Rwanda, nor the hundreds of thousands who perished in Burundi in 1993, nor is it likely to save others who continue to die or live under the threat of death in Burundi, Rwanda, and eastern Congo.

So my visit to Brussels should be seen not only in the context of the support that Kulanu has provided over the past couple of years to the expatriate Tutsi community in Belgium, and to the Havila Institute in particular, but as an opportunity to create a watershed event that might stimulate a powerful movement toward t’shuvah (return) and effect the geulah (redemption) of Kush as an Israeli heritage.

Not even the warmth of my correspondence with Yochanan, to whom I was introduced by Kulanu’s president, Dr. Jack Zeller, and not even the embrace of his family when my wife Linda, my daughter Hannah, and I came to stay in their home, prepared me for the intensity of the seder, and the days before and after. Although the word “seder” means “order,” perhaps the most authentic way in which I can describe it is by recounting some of what impressed me most vividly:

  • To a heart-pounding recording of the Drums of Solomon, all the adults—a number of the men in white robes, carrying ceremonial staffs, and the dress of many of the women bright, multi-colored, and flowing—marched in to sit beneath the flags of Burundi and the State of Israel, each prominently displaying the Star of David. The seder was held in the cafeteria of a school run by the Catholic Church; when the school authorities learned the purpose for which the cafeteria would be used, they doubled the normal rental fee and, for the first time, demanded a formal contract. That venue was chosen both for its size and its convenience to a railroad. Unfortunately, an incident that morning shut down the trains for the rest of the day, and many who wanted to participate in the seder were unable to reach it.
  • We used a French/Hebrew Haggadah supplied by Beth Hillel, a Liberal synagogue in Brussels, supplemented by an eclectic assortment of excerpts from such other sources as the Aquarian Minyan. Beneath the predictable flow established by the text ran an amiable chaos with which everyone, so far as I could tell, seemed quite at ease. Children ran in and out of the room, and I soon abandoned any real thoughts of schedule. Downtimes were filled with the most extraordinary central African dancing—dancing sinuous on the part of the women, infants bound on their backs, and syncopated on the part of the men, some of whom danced among the women and some of whom, perhaps more shy, strutted their stuff toward the back of the room. Other men strutted in a more ritualistic way, taking turns being the center of the crowd’s attention and, holding a raffia-topped staff, declaiming their prowess in stylized but extemporaneous poetry that won them both applause and laughter.
  • The men wore their kippot proudly, though half of them, Yochanan estimated, probably still considered themselves Catholics, knowing also that they were Jews but not yet knowing what that meant. One young man had a father who hadn’t known about his Israelite heritage when he rejected the Church and became a Buddhist monk. Another young man, our volunteer videographer, was a Rasta in a huge red tam.
  • The people we met were, with hardly an exception, genuine and delightful: Rose, educated as a gynecologist in Burundi but forced to start over again in Belgium, her eyes brimming with tears when she spoke of the danger to her family still in the Homeland; George, of the glowing face and shining smile, an ardent supporter of Havila who had lived 15 years of his life as a high-ranking Catholic priest; Serge, attentive and self-assured, the nephew of the King of Rwanda, who lives in exile in Northern Virginia; Jacqueline, whose flashing eyes expressed fun and delight that transcended tragedy; Rachel, the best friend of Yochanan’s wife Godeberthe, strong, gentle, quiet, and hard-working; the Colonel, who had endured four years in a Burundian prison at great psychic cost; Balthazar, who recounted with such pleasure how he had cared for his family’s cows in the traditional Tutsi manner, calling them by name when they came in from pasture, grooming them and inquiring about their health; Chrysologue, who made his car available the entire time of our visit, modest and good, the kind of person of whom you might say “what you see is what you get.”
  • When the kids re-enacted the ten plagues, using as props the Box of Plagues I had purchased from a Jewish bookstore in my neighborhood, what they lacked in focus they made up for in enthusiasm. The only time I saw them all together, calm and attentive, was when Yochanan sat them down to sample the traditional Tutsi matzah: uburo (a grain grown only in the Homeland, a bag of which he had had expressed from Burundi) mixed with water and cooked immediately, served piecemeal directly from the pan on a wooden spatula.
  • Traditionally, the Batutsi were primarily vegetarians, and the food at the seder, which came, unaccountably, more than an hour after we were ready to eat it, was vegetarian and extraordinary. There were sweet, fried Caribbean-style bananas; African bananas stewed with manioc leaves; dark beans; a well-seasoned potato salad; and a huge tropical fruit salad, cut up that morning by women crowded into Godeberthe’s small kitchen.
  • My six-year-old daughter had expressed reservations about traveling so far from home. But when I mentioned that Yochanan carries the title of prince of the Bene-Zagwe clan, she figured that that made his seven-year-old daughter Sylvia a princess, and her hesitation turned to enthusiasm. Imagine the scene the morning after the seder, when the African princess in a Belgian kitchen helped my Atlanta-born wife make matzoh brei.

The seder did indeed prove to be a galvanizing event for the Tutsi community. It enhanced the community’s self-image, strengthened its resolve, empowered its leadership, and gave impetus to a powerful movement toward t’shuvah. It stimulated numerous connections between Havila and the Belgian Jewish community, including various synagogues, the Ben Gourion Institute, the European Sepharade Institute, Radio Judaica, and the family of the late Chief Rabbi of the Congo, and strengthened the relationship between Havila and Keren Kayemet and the Embassy of Israel. Even individual government officials from Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, responding to Havila’s enhanced authority, have approached Professor Bwejeri to offer their private encouragement.

Now there is increased interest among the Batutsi, both in exile and in the Homeland, in returning to their roots and taking their place within the larger Jewish world, along with increased visibility for Havila’s religious and national agenda. With this, however, has come increased scrutiny and the possibility of push-back from the governments of central and southern Africa, the governments of former colonial powers, and the Church.