Our Month with the Lemba of Zimbabwe


Elaine and Irwin Berg
Elaine and Irwin Berg

In the summer of 2013, Kulanu founder and former president Jack Zeller asked us if we would be willing to spend a month in Zimbabwe teaching Hebrew, synagogue prayers and rituals, and Jewish history to members of the Lemba community. As we had recently retired, and had the time and requisite skills to do so, we agreed. We had been involved with Kulanu from its inception, and over the years we had traveled extensively to meet and learn about diverse and isolated Jewish communities in many parts of the world. More recently, we had met Lemba leader Modreck Maeresera in the winter of 2013 on his trip to the United States and were deeply impressed with him and with his message. So, with the moral support of Kulanu president Harriet Bograd and board member Bonita Sussman, and an invitation from Modreck on behalf of his community, we agreed to make the trip. It was to be a wonderful adventure. And if truth be told, we learned as much or more from the Lemba as they did from us.

As previously reported in these pages, the Lemba have observed kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), niddah (laws of ritual purity), schechita (kosher slaughter of animals), circumcision, Sabbath observance and new moon celebrations for as long as they can remember. But even with their extensive Jewish practice and self-identification, they had somehow lost the connection between their Jewish practices and their historic Jewish roots. We hoped that we might help them in reestablishing that connection.


Pre-Visit Jitters

An outside class. With Irwin are, from the left, Brighton Zhou and Tanaka Kufakunesu (Photo by Elaine Berg)
An outside class. With Irwin are, from the left, Brighton Zhou and Tanaka Kufakunesu (Photo by Elaine Berg)

In all honesty, we had some concerns about what we would find in Zimbabwe in terms of “creature comforts” and what the political and safety issues might be. We thought of ourselves as pioneers, as we were the first westerners to stay at the new Harare Lemba Synagogue and Guest House that was rented by the community with the help of Kulanu. To soothe our concerns, we brought with us our electronic security blankets, iPhones, iPads and cell phones, hoping they would work in Zimbabwe. For the most part, they did, and we were able to feel less isolated and be in touch with our families back home.


Teachers and Students

During our month-long stay in the community house with Modreck and his extended family, we taught the five adult members of Modreck’s household and any local Lemba who were able to attend our lessons. On average, we had ten students, but not always the same ten, as family and work obligations as well as a lack of money for transportation kept many students away. However, on more than one occasion, there were as many as 15 and more arrived on Shabbat. We taught every afternoon (even on Shabbat) from 2:00 PM until sundown at about 6:00 PM. Sometimes we taught three different groups because the level of Hebrew knowledge varied, depending on how many days a student had been able to attend classes. Our students were enthusiastic and eager to learn about “traditional” Judaism. But their major goal was to learn to read Hebrew so they could pray in Hebrew.

At the beginning, only Modreck could recognize or pronounce Hebrew letters. At the end of our stay, at least eight adults could read prayers from the siddur (Hebrew prayer book). Others made progress but could not attend often enough to complete a study of all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Considering the difficulties students faced in getting to the community house, moti-vation was high.

In addition to our formal lessons, we spent many hours with Modreck and other members of the community talking about ideas, Jewish customs, and history. It was clear that the students were embracing a new future with sincerity and commitment. They were appreciative of our presence and saw it as a message from the world Jewish community that they were being accepted as Jews. At the same time, they are committed to preserving their Lemba traditions.


Living Conditions and Daily Life

A quiet moment. With Elaine are Trecy, far right, her daughter Nyasha and Modreck's son Aviv (Photo by Modreck Maeresera)
A quiet moment. With Elaine are Trecy, far right, her daughter Nyasha and Modreck’s son Aviv (Photo by Modreck Maeresera)


During out stay, Modreck and his wife Brenda and the other members of the household made extraordinary efforts to make us feel comfortable. But some conditions were out of their control. Electricity, for example, was sporadic – there was rarely a day when we had power for 24 hours. Modreck had a generator that he used when there was no electricity, but wifi was not always available. Water was not always accessible. When it was, it was stored in large buckets and in bathtubs to ensure that there would water when it did not flow through the pipes. For us to take a shower, water had to be heated over the stove and then mixed with colder water stored in the tub (we learned and lived the phrase “bucket shower”).

It is important to emphasize that even fairly wealthy people in Harare are subject to water, Internet and electricity stoppages on a daily basis. Wealthy families drill bore holes into the earth, pump underground water into their homes and have automatic emergency generators which support the needs of their families. These practices are both expensive and detrimental to the environment.

Food was plentiful, and we shopped in a local supermarket that could rival any at home. However, it is unclear how many local citizens have enough money to shop there. Rice and a native food, sadza (similar to polenta), are staples. We ate chickens that Modreck purchased live and slaughtered in a kosher manner. Generally, proteins and vegetables are eaten in smaller proportions and starches more often than we are accustomed to. Eggs are a staple for protein, and are generally eaten hard-boiled or fried. Elaine brought the household a non-stick frying pan and taught the women how to make omelets aside from the Hebrew, this may have been our greatest gift to the Lemba!


Women and Children

At the Harare Community House. From the left, Violet Chuma, Tafadzwa Chuma and Zvamaziva Nduva (Photo by Elaine Berg)
At the Harare Community House. From the left, Violet Chuma, Tafadzwa Chuma and Zvamaziva Nduva (Photo by Elaine Berg)

The women in the house spent many hours a day on basic household tasks. The access to water required constant attention; water was collected from available sources, moved in buckets, stored, and heated. Plans had to be made around the possibility of a water shutdown (a frequent occurrence), and the inability to heat water due to frequent electrical outages. There was no running water in the kitchen, the best water source was a sink in the back yard, just outside the kitchen. Dishes were carted back and forth, and washed by hand outside in cold water. With a large household, food preparation was ongoing. Washing clothes (by hand, of course) in a large household was another major task, and was also dependent on the availability of water and the weather (laundry is dried by hanging on clotheslines).

Women universally nurse their babies, until about age two. Our two infant housemates also ate table food. Women nurse everywhere and anywhere. We had women nursing during our classes, during prayer services, and while we were all sitting around watching TV. They also carry their children tied in blankets onto their backs, we did not see any strollers while we were there (they would not have been very useful as there are no sidewalks except in mid-town, and those are broken and uneven). This system works well, women carry their babies and their hands are free to do other things. We heard that when the British came in, they tried to outlaw this custom, as they felt it was unhealthy, apparently, it didn’t work! We also saw many women carrying large packages on their heads, which we are told is easy and practical.

In Zimbabwe, rent is a big expense. Every residence houses as many family members as possible. In this regard the Lemba are no better off than the general population. And people are poor. Modreck had to give some students the dollar bus fare to travel to the community house for classes. We reimbursed him when we discovered what he was doing.


The (traditional, white) Jewish Community of Zimbabwe

There are about 250 (non-Lemba) Jews in Harare, the capital and largest city of Zimbabwe, and 50 Jews in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, a decrease from a high of 7,000 in Zimbabwe in 1960. Two-thirds of these are older than 65. The last bar mitzvah is said to have taken place in 2006. A few of those remaining are wealthy, but the remainder do not have the funds to relocate.

Harare has two synagogues – one Sephardi and the other Ashkenazi. We attended the Sephardi synagogue on our first Friday evening in Zimbabwe. It is beautiful and huge with a capacity of 400. Since there are so few Jews left in Zimbabwe, the two communities pray together alternatively at each other’s synagogue. On the evening we attended services, 15 men and four women were there. The prayers were conducted from a Sephardi prayer book and were entirely in Hebrew.

Prior to our visit, there had been no communication between the Lemba and non-Lemba Jewish communities. We attended services with Modreck and it was his first contact with white locals. When we asked a member of the Bulawayo Jewish community about the lack of contact, he did not deny that racism might play a part in the lack of communication. However, he emphasized that other reasons were equally if not more important. Most of the remaining Jews are not well off, although they do not suffer from the extreme poverty of the Lemba. They are fearful that if they accept the Lemba into their midst, they might be required to support them, further reducing the margin of their comfort in old age.

However, the Jewish community of Zimbabwe could do much to assist the Lemba. Members might share their knowledge of Jewish holidays, customs and prayers and serve as teachers. A Jewish school (the Sharon school) was established for Jewish children many years ago. Today there are few if any Jewish children in attendance; the students are mainly Moslems and Hindus, plus some Christians. Still the school has an Israeli who teaches Hebrew and other Jewish subjects. The Lemba would require financial assistance to attend since the tuition is far beyond their means.


Hopes for the Future of the Lemba

From our discussions with Modreck and other students, we learned that the current generation is not keeping the beliefs and traditions of the Lemba as strictly as prior generations. As long as the Lemba lived in their own ancestral villages, they managed to police themselves. But with flight to the city, observance of religious practices and Lemba customs has become more tenuous (See KulanuNews, Winter 2011, for a complete discussion of the various factors that have impacted this problem.) According to Modreck, about 10% of the Lemba have converted to Islam and 15% to Christianity. (Others have estimated that 50% of the Lemba consider themselves Christian in one form or another while still observing Lemba traditions that are decidedly non-Christian.)

Many elders have been struggling to find ways to combat assimilation and the loss of Lemba traditions. They have concluded that joining the worldwide Jewish community will help them survive, thus the push to expand their knowledge of Jewish practice and their identification with world Jewry.

To conclude: It was a rare privilege and honor for us to be on the cusp of the re-surfacing of an ancient but newly emerging Jewish community, which we hope will play an important role in the future of our people.


* Elaine is a recently retired health care executive and Irwin is a retired attorney