The Lemba Jews of Zimbabwe, who entered Africa via Yemen hundreds or possibly even thousands of years ago, currently number about 150,000 in a country of 14 million people. They live among – and look like – the predominant local Shona tribe in southern Zimbabwe, and speak the Shona language; however, they are actually Jews who have kept their Jewish practices secret from their neighbors. Although they had lost their ‘Book’ (the Torah, which Lemba oral history says was lost during their journey from Israel to Zimbabwe), to this day the Lemba have been able to maintain their devout religious observances passed down through generations of oral tradition, practices which do mirror Jewish customs and laws (read more in the articles below, or in the 2012 issues of Kulanu Magazine).

Many writers have recorded the claims of Jewish descent by Lemba leaders from Zimbabwe and South Africa; they have pointed to Lemba’s religious observances as proof of their origins. However, these claims now appear to have been validated by DNA testing by Dr. Karl Skorecki, which identified a priestly “Cohen” gene haplotype in more than 50% of all males in the Bubha clan of the Lemba people (according to oral history, this clan is said to have led the Lemba out of Israel into Yemen and then Africa). This figure is the same or a little higher than the percentage for Cohanim (priests) in Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish groups around the world.

The Lemba Jewish community today is experiencing a “Jewish renaissance,” and their goals include learning Hebrew and Torah (their “lost book”); constructing their own synagogues; and engaging in mainstream Judaism. Kulanu has supported ongoing operating costs for the Harare Lemba Synagogue and construction costs for the Great Zimbabwe Synagogue. Kulanu has arranged for more than nine months of visiting live-in teachers, donations of books and Judaica, and two speaking tours in the US for Modreck Maeresera. We have arranged for Modreck to attend Ohr Torah Stone Yeshiva in Efrat, Israel for three months, and helped four young people attend learning experiences in the US and Israel. Kulanu volunteers also serve as close mentors and advisors to Modreck and other leaders in the community

In face of a terrible drought in the summer, of 2016, Kulanu volunteers and Harare Lemba Synagogue leaders worked together to provide an emergency food program to about 20 families at the Harare Lemba Synagogue who were facing severe hunger. Kulanu donors sent about $1,000 per month for about a year to meet urgent needs. At the same time, HLS president Modreck Maeresera worked with Kulanu advisors Jack Zeller (Kulanu’s president emeritus) and Sandy Leeder to plan programs to prevent the need for emergency food. First, they raised funds and implemented a drip irrigation project in a rural village, with the agreement that the produce would be shared between the village and the urban synagogue community. That yielded more crops, yet animals were dying of lack of water and the soil was depleted. In 2017, two $9,000 grants from San Francisco-based Jewish teen foundations supported building a “weir” – a water reservoir, and a soil conservation project. The Weir Project Report tells the heartwarming story of people from five villages, Lemba Jews, Christians, Muslims, and African Traditionalists volunteering their labor and working together to build a reservoir to prevent future droughts. At a time of severe political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe, this project offers an oasis of hope.

Useful Resources

Lemba Photos, Videos, and Books

Lemba Articles & Links

Kulanu-Lemba Project Proposals

 Community: Zimbabwe

Tribe: Lemba

Location: Africa

Country: Zimbabwe

Cities: Harare and Mapakomhere

Size: Thousands

Regional Coordinator: Sandy Leeder

Local language: Shona

Official language: English

CDC Health Zimbabwe

US State Dept. Travel Warning

CIA World Fact Book Zimbabwe