From the Inside: American Pioneers in Harare (2014)

image: Irwin Berg and Modreck Maeresera (Photo by Elaine Berg)

Irwin Berg and Modreck Maeresera
Photo by Elaine Berg

The Harare Lemba Synagogue and Guest House, located in Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare, opened its doors on the 1st of May 2013, and is the second Lemba synagogue in Zimbabwe. The Great Zimbabwe synagogue in the Lemba heartland of Mapakomhere is currently under construction and will be a religious center for those Lemba who live in the countryside. While construction is underway, congregants meet in a local school for religious services. Together, the two synagogues represent the fulfillment of a decision made by Lemba elders 15 years ago when they voted to return to mainstream Judaism.

With the two centers of Jewish worship established, attention must now focus on the education of Lemba congregants. After centuries of living in isolated villages with no interaction with mainstream Judaism, Lemba religious practice had become a cultural, rather than a religious, expression of Judaism. Yes, we continued to adhere to Jewish practices, but there was no place to pray together or to teach our young.

Over the last two years, with help from Kulanu, we have enjoyed classes from several teachers who provided us with religious instruction through a cyber-learning program. But we have been eager to go from the computer to a direct face to face learning experience with teachers who can help guide us back to mainstream Judaism.

That is where Elaine and Irwin Berg came in.

I first met Elaine and Irwin in New York City at the apartment of Kulanu president Harriet Bograd during my Kulanu speaking tour in the winter of 2013. At a reception held in my honor, I talked about myself and the hopes and dreams of the Lemba community. Irwin and Elaine came over to me after my presentation and introduced themselves. I remember at the time, taking an instant liking to both of them. During my speech, I had noticed Irwin’s aristocratic and attentive face in the crowd. He was paying me so much attention that I felt what I was saying was interesting and important to him; it helped calm my nerves. Elaine was sitting at Irwin’s side and afterwards when Irwin stood up to ask a question, I remember her looking up at him with so much love and respect that it was like they had only recently married.

So, when I heard from Harriet that the Bergs were willing and eager to be our first volunteer teachers in Harare, I was thrilled. At the same time, I was concerned that our community house would not be adequate for their needs and our lack of creature comforts would make their stay difficult.

Zimbabwe can be an uncomfortable place, even for Zimbabweans.There are times we have no water; there are times we have no electricity, both of which Americans take for granted. I also felt we needed a visitor who would honestly evaluate our preparedness to host future volunteer teachers and visitors. My instincts told me the Bergs were down-to-earth people and flexible and could handle the deprivations of life in Zimbabwe. I also believed they would be honest in their assessment of the community house. We were right on all counts. But as Elaine jokingly told me later, we used them as guinea pigs.

image: A Happy Crew:  Elaine with a group of her students

A Happy Crew: Elaine with a group of her students

Almost from the beginning, we felt like the Bergs were part of our family, Elaine especially has a wonderful way with children, and our son Aviv was really taken by the combined effects of her charm and her iPad. Elaine had many children’s programs in her gadgets and Aviv and the other kids were soon mesmerized. Even now, Aviv still asks when “Layne” (as he calls her) is coming back.

As teachers, the Bergs were a great success. The students loved Elaine’s Hebrew lessons and Irwin’s well-researched lessons about Judaism and Jewish history. Another teacher arrived recently who will stay with us for three months, courtesy of Kulanu. He has been surprised to find that most of his students can read Hebrew words. I told him it is all thanks to the Bergs. Not only were they wonderful teachers, but they were special human beings: when they found out some students could not attend classes for lack of money, they helped with transportation costs.

There are many things we will always remember about the Bergs. They were pioneers: the first in-country teachers of Lemba education. They made an honest assessment of our community house and suggested how best to make the house more comfortable for future visitors. Based on their advice, we have already replaced old water pipes and improved the building’s water pressure so visitors can take a hot shower or bath.

But we will always remember the Bergs as people who left the comforts of US life and came to live with us as part of our family. We will remember what they taught us, how they pointed us in the right direction and how they tried to build bridges between our community and the local white Jewish community. They will forever be part of our history: the history of the Lemba’s journey towards re-integration into mainstream Judaism. They showed a true Jewish spirit. Thanks so much, Elaine and Irwin. Todah Rabbah

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