Can Cyberlearning Save the Future of Lemba Judaism?

image: Young man at the Lemba Passover Seder in Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe

Young man at the Lemba Passover Seder
in Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe
Photo by Sandy Leeder

For hundreds of years, we Lembas have been cut off from the larger Jewish world and from mainstream Judaism. The unfortunate result of this lack of contact was the death of most of the religious aspects of our lives. With no organized worship, no synagogues and having lost our Book (the Torah ), a religious vacuum developed in Lemba communities.

Yes, we still observe the Sabbath and most of the holidays; yes, we still keep most of the mitzvot (commandments) such as circumcision and kashrut (dietary laws). But with no places where we can meet together and worship, with no rabbis and no Torah , our religious beliefs are certainly in the intensive care unit.

Other religions have been quick in trying to fill the religious vacuum. Muslims and Christians have been trying to convert us to their respective religions with such intensity that today there is a mosque and a church in almost every Lemba Village.

In the cities, these problems have been magnified as many Lembas no longer live in closed communities such as their ancestral villages. In Harare, for example, we are scattered all over the sprawling city. Hence we are more vulnerable to Christian proselytizers.

To counter this problem, Lemba leaders have developed an ambitious Jewish education program geared to Lemba adults, which encourages men and women to come together for Judaic studies through the use of the Internet. Our goal is to provide Jewish learning opportunities to city Lembas who come from different rural areas with the hope they will visit their respective communities and share what they have learned with their fellow Lembas. In this way, we hope to begin to fill the religious vacuum that currently exists and give our people an alternative to the message promoted by messianics and Christian institutions that Christianity is a variant or successor to Judaism.

image: Lemba women greet Sandy and Jack with singing and dancing at Mapakomhere

Lemba women greet Sandy and Jack with singing and dancing at Mapakomhere
Photo by Jack Zeller

In November, Kulanu founder Jack Zeller and board member Sandy Leeder visited Zimbabwe from their homes in Israel and met with community leaders. Our leadership team suggested that an extensive program of cyberlearning could be an effective tool to counter proselytizing efforts by outside goups and reeducate Lemba about their Jewish heritage and religious observances. We all agreed it was worth trying.

Our first challenge was to set up the necessary logistical framework. Jack who has many contacts with religious institutions and yeshivot in Jerusalem, took on the task of finding volunteer teachers. My job was to set up a study schedule that would be convenient for both teachers and students. The lessons would be conducted through Skype. The challenge would be to find a strong and reliable broadband Internet service to use for the classes. In Zimbabwe, Internet service is costly, with time bought in gigabyte bundles. The more data you download, the more costly it becomes. Voice over is particularly expensive. With some research, we were able to select a service that would meet our needs.

The second challenge was how to record the lessons so that the lessons would be available for students who might miss a class. We also hoped to be able to use the lessons for other groups as the program expanded. The solution was to download an MP3 Skype downloader. The software automatically records and saves the Skype lessons.

Challenge three was where to store the recorded audio lesson files. On average, our recorded lessons are 20 megabytes each. So in one week we would have close to a hundred megabytes of recorded audio files which require a great deal of storage space. Our solution came with our primary teacher Rabbi Micha Lindenberg of Jerusalem who had sufficient space on his personal equipment to store his lessons.

Once classes began, there were glitches here and there that needed addressing. The first week, for example, required a series of adjustments in the scheduling of classes. Since most of the students are employed, it was a challenge to synchronize the schedules of the students with those of the teachers.

Thus far, I can report that participating students are excited by the process and overwhelmed by Rabbi Lindenberg’s knowledge of Judaism and his teaching skills. Our initial efforts at cyber learning appear to be successful. Only time will tell if the project can be replicated and expanded.

I must acknowledge here the contributions of Jack Zeller, who has been working hard to coordinate the program, and of Kulanu for giving us the moral, financial and material support necessary to make this program work. Finally, our thanks go to Diane Tracht, a Yeshivah student in Jeruslem, who drafted the extensive curriculum we are using.

image: Lemba women gather at the local water hole to do their laundry

Lemba women gather at the local water hole to do their laundry
Photo by Jack Zeller

FUTURE PLANS

In time, we hope this project will grow to include high school students, and later, even preschool and elementary school children. The sooner Lemba young people learn about their Jewish heritage, the easier it will be for them to remove themselves from the Christian influence that pervades our society.

Once the Harare group is running successfully, we will try to replicate this program in other cities in Zimbabwe as well as in rural areas. As early as next year, we plan to hold Jewish education workshops throughout the country wherever there is a sizable Lemba population. Our goal is to teach Hebrew and Jewish observances with the goal of preparing Lembas for Torah reading and famliarity with siddur liturgy. In our most optimistic moments, we envisage a future where Judaism will be the principal Lemba religion, a future where Lembas will cease to be religious tourists, a future when Zimbabwe Lembas will be totally integrated into the larger Jewish community. Hopefully, we will have Lemba rabbis and synagogues too.

LEMBA HERITAGE

Once our people are equipped with their new knowledge of Judaism, we hope they will want to investigate Lemba customs and observances that have been privately held by our elders for centuries. This is an important task which needs to be carried out with utmost urgency in order to preserve our unique Lemba history and culture. If we do not do this research, our Lemba heritage will die with the few elders who still have knowledge from our ancesters. There are words and prayers, for example, that we think have similarities to Hebrew or Aramaic. But dedicated scholars are needed to do this research. This will be possible only when Lemba know enough Hebrew and Judaism to compare prayers and customs.

All the steps described above will help us to reclaim our heritage and reintegrate ourselves into mainstream Judaism. Once we have the knowledge of Torah , we can return to the faith of our forefathers. We can look to the Talmud for inspiration: It is not our task to complete the work; only let us begin.