Judaism continues to grow and thrive in Africa. In small villages, often with few amenities of the modern world (electricity, plumbing, running water) and far from major urban centers, Jewish communities are somehow taking root and flourishing. In Uganda, for example, where Kulanu has been actively involved in the community for 18 years, there are now seven villages with seven synagogues and close to 1500 Abayudaya Jews. The largest village of Nabagoya Hill sits a few miles outside of the town of Mbale, northeast of the capital city of Kampala. From there American trained Conservative rabbi Gershom Sizomu leads a wonderfully inspiring Jewish community known for its vibrant Jewish life and committed congregants. In 2019, the community will be celebrating 100 years of Jewish religious practice.
In Cameroon and Kenya, there are small but no less devoted Jewish communities whose spiritual journeys have taken them from Christianity to Judaism. Like the Abayudaya of Uganda, they embraced Judaism without ever having met a Jew in person. Unlike the Jews of Uganda, both of these communities are of more recent vintage. The Kenya Jewish community in Kasuku numbers about 50 people and has been practicing Judaism for about 12 years*. The Cameroon Jewish community numbering some 60 practicing Jews** has been ardently practicing Judaism for about 15 years. Neither of these two communities has a resident rabbi, but each has inspired leadership, men and women who are devoted to Judaism and committed to transmitting the Jewish faith to their communities. As Kenya borders Uganda, the Jews of Kasuku look to Rabbi Sizomu for spiritual and religious guidance as well as for Jewish educational materials and prayer books. The Cameroon community looks to Kulanu volunteers Rabbis Bonita and Gerald Sussman of Staten Island, New York as their spiritual mentors.
In Ghana, Jewish community leader Alex Armah spent four years traveling back and forth between his home in Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana to Nabagoya Hill, Uganda to study with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. Armah is determined to educate himself Jewishly as much as possible in order to provide religious leadership to his community of 15 families and 120 practicing Jews, who call themselves the House of Israel. Members of the community believe they are descended from Biblical Jews who hid their Jewish origins and practice to avoid persecution. Their oral history includes details of migrations from Israel to Africa including centuries spent in Mali and the Ivory Coast where the community suffered discrimination and much hardship before their arrival in Ghana. According to community members, their ancestors chose to settle in the remote location of Sefwi Wiawso in the mountainous region of Ghana for its protective quality and difficult accessibility. For them, Judaism is a return to their ancient traditions.
Finally, we come to Zimbabwe and the historic link of the Lemba to their Jewish brethren, to us. Today, as I write this article, an extraordinary partnership between the Lemba and Kulanu is being forged, a partnership that has far-reaching consequences both for the Lemba and for world Jewry. The needs of the Lemba are different. For them, the mission is to reinvigorate their ancient faith and to reconnect them with the Jewish world before their faith is lost in the modern world***. The total Lemba population of Zimbabwe has been estimated at 100,000 with more Lemba living in South Africa. So the stakes are high.
In this issue of KulanuNews, we will give you, our readers, information on five African Jewish communities that Kulanu is working with and will share with you some recent successes as well as Kulanu’s future plans and goals. We hope in this way to keep you informed of progress made, and hopefully, to inspire you to join us in the continued support and mentoring of these special Jewish communities.
Rabbi Bonita Sussman, Kulanu Coordinator
As many of our readers may remember, the Cameroon community of Beth Yeshourun (The House of the Righteous) first communicated with Kulanu in March of 2010. In response to their request for help on their Jewish journey, Kulanu invited Rabbis Bonita and Gerald Sussman to visit Cameroon. In the summer of 2010, they did. What they found was a thriving and dedicated community practicing the Jewish faith in a knowledgeable and highly motivated manner. Prior to the visit by the Sussmans, community leaders Serge Etele and his father, Moreh (teacher) Nachman Etele had spent years scouring the Internet researching Judaism, learning about Jewish religious observance and practice, and transmitting their knowledge to members of their community. Their grasp of Jewish ritual and law and the sophistication of the questions they asked the Sussmans during their visit reflected the depth of their knowledge. While the Sussmans were excited by what they found in the Cameroon Jewish community, the community members’ meeting Jews for the first time, and two rabbis no less, thought the visit was nothing short of a miracle.
Since that initial visit, Kulanu has maintained a close relationship with the community. Serge visited the United States for six weeks in the winter of 2012. His visit began with a conversion to Judaism under Orthodox credentialed rabbis. After that, he spoke in cities across the United States about his community’s Jewish journey, visited rabbinic seminaries, participated in the repair of a Torah scroll, and took Judaica classes. Since returning home, with the encouragement of the Sussmans, he applied for and was accepted as a student by Pirchei Shoshanim, an Orthodox educational program that provides online religious studies.
In the last year and a half, there has been an exciting project initiated by Serge and Kulanu to help the community become economically self-sufficient. Communal leaders hope to provide employment for their members and generate income for the community in a country where poverty and unemployment are endemic. Goals include building a self-standing synagogue****, a guesthouse for visiting teachers and volunteers and pursuing more Jewish learning opportunities. Although Kulanu rarely engages in economic development projects, the board decided to help the community advance these goals through an agricultural development project. Two years ago, a private seller offered the Beth Yeshourun community the opportunity to purchase 100/247-acre tract of land for agricultural development. Kulanu agreed to advance the community a one-time loan of $22,500 for this project to be repaid after five years. Beth Yeshourun planned to set up a cocoa farm, a well-known crop in the community. Serge’s father owns a successful cocoa farm and many community members have worked as laborers in cocoa fields. In addition, Cameroon is the third largest cocoa producer in the world. The project seemed a good fit.
Since that time, Serge and his community have worked diligently on this project, with Serge serving as project manager. The first year, the community was able to acquire the land, buy materials, build a house for workers as the land is a distance from the community and attract laborers to plant the first crop. While waiting three years for cocoa trees to mature and produce cocoa, they planted other short-term crops and even managed to sell the crops produced. The community has now entered the second of its five-year plan.
Serge has proved to be a wonderful leader both for his community as well as for other African Jewish communities. He is adept at networking with other African Jewish leaders, in advising newcomers to Judaism, and in developing and sharing the extensive lists of Jewish resources he has found on the Internet. Two other young leaders serve as cantors and compose Cameroonian-style melodies for traditional Jewish prayers.
AND AS WE GO TO PRESS:
Kulanu Cameroon Coordinator Rabbi Bonita Sussman made this announcement: ‘We are thrilled to report that Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, has agreed to partner with Kulanu to help develop Jewish life in Africa. To that end, Kulanu has worked out an arrangement for community leaders to study some months in Israel at Rabbi Riskin’s yeshiva Ohr Torah Stone, where he serves as chancellor.’
Ari Witkin, Kulanu Coordinator
(The Kenya report was written by Ari Witkin)
For every community, progress means something different. When I asked my friends in Kenya what progress would look like for their community, known as Kasuku, they told me that above all else they want more opportunities for Jewish learning. Though it has been more than two years since I visited, I am excited that the community is taking some big steps in that direction. The progress is due entirely to the Jewish commitment of its leaders.
In Kulanu we know that the best leadership is homegrown and that the most effective educators are the ones who know their students. Therefore, we are excited and encouraged by the leadership of Samson Nderitu and Yehudah Kimani from the Kasuku community, and the support of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu in Uganda. All of them continue to work with us to empower the Jews of Kasuku to reach their goal of advancing Jewish education in their community. Samson currently lives in Mbale, Uganda, and attends Rabbi Gershom’s yeshiva class. His brother Yehudah, who also studied with Rabbi Gershom, has returned home and is taking a leadership role there.
Community members who are financially able to send their children to Uganda to take advantage of the Jewish educational opportunities among the Abayudaya. However, the cost of travel and living expenses in Uganda and the difficulty of attending school in another country, have limited the number of students who have gone to study there. Furthermore, this education is available only to school-age children while the adults too are thirsty for Jewish educational opportunities
With these issues in mind, and with leadership from Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and from Yehudah, we have developed a new education model that will utilize and further develop the leadership and education experience of the Kusuku community. The plan we have developed together is built upon three pillars: visiting educators, an infusion of Jewish materials, and increased communication with the broader Jewish world.
Currently, Samson is living in Uganda and studying with Rabbi Gershom. Over the course of the next year, with the Rabbi’s guidance and support from Kulanu, Samson will travel home to Kenya three times to teach, lead services, and help his community prepare for chagim (holidays). In this way, he will be able to share what he has learned with members of his community.
In addition, thanks in part to a generous book donation from the P.J. Library, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, we will be sending books and educational materials that will form the foundation of the Kasuku community’s Jewish library. Lastly, Kulanu will purchase the community’s first computer and support their Internet access. With Yehudah’s leadership at home, many members of the community will have the opportunity to learn computer skills and be able to do research on Jewish life and ritual as well as communicate with their friends abroad. Also important, parents will be able to communicate with their children who are studying in the Abuyadaya schools in Uganda.
Twelve years after its inception, the Kasuku community continues to deepen its Jewish commitment and expand its Jewish knowledge. It has been my great joy as a friend of the community to be part of this process and to help them on their journey.
Harriet Bograd, Kulanu Coordinator
Over the years, Kulanu has helped the Ghana Jewish community of Sefwi Wiawso become more self-sufficient. With encouragement from Kulanu, community members began designing and creating challah covers and kente cloth tallitot. Kulanu has been the major seller of these products. Through sales, the community has received some $50,000 from Kulanu, which they have used to purchase health insurance for members of the community, build a guesthouse for visitors and pay for other community needs. Kulanu supported the first of four trips of community leader Alex Armah to study in Uganda with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. The community appears to be doing well.
People can continue to support the Sefwi Wiawso community through the purchase of their products at kulanuboutique.com. Visitors to the community are welcome to stay at the new guest house.
Laura Wetzler, Kulanu Coordinator
The Abuyadaya of Uganda at 1500 strong, and the first known ‘Jews by choice’ community in modern Africa, has certainly found its way into the hearts of many American Jews. Abuyadaya fans marvel at the community’s unusual beginnings. They kvell over the Jewish knowledge of its congregants, the commitment of its young, and the length of time the community has been observing Judaism (94 years). And those of us who are supporters of Kulanu is proud of Kulanu’s 18 years of involvement with the community.
Kulanu’s many programs during these years of collaboration with the Abayudaya community include the support of two schools that serve more than 700 Jewish, Christian and Muslim children, the development and funding of nutrition programs so children need not go to school hungry, women’s empowerment projects, the building of classrooms (most recently a two-classroom block from anonymous donors for the Semei Kakungulu High School), dormitories, boreholes for fresh water and electric hookups to provide villages with electricity. In addition, Kulanu donors have paid to modernize synagogues and sent prayer books and Jewish ritual objects to the community. Kulanu economic development programs have included the very successful interfaith coffee project, which has won international recognition, and the more recent grain mill project dedicated two years ago in the village of Namutumba.
It should be noted here that Kulanu was the organization responsible for arranging the Beth Din of three rabbis (Jewish court) who traveled to Uganda in 2002 to convert community members, who by that time had been practicing Judaism for more than 83 Years.
In addition to Kulanu’s ongoing support of Abayudaya schools and nutrition program, in the last three years, the board nominated three young people from Uganda***** to attend the extraordinary Brandeis Collegiate Institute in California. All three were accepted and all have participated. In this case, Kulanu paid for the visa applications and some travel expenses and the Institute provided scholarships for the program itself and airfare. This year, Yoash Mayende, a college graduate and the heart and soul of the Grain Mill project in Namutumba, and Sara Nabagala a law student, spent two months in the United States, four weeks at the Institute with young Jewish leaders from around the world, and four weeks visiting Kulanu hosts in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and New York. Yoash said the opportunity to travel to the United States and attend the Institute changed his life. Kulanu’s continued support of Abayudaya programs resulted in two recent gifts worth noting. In the first, it meant the gift of health and maybe life; in the second it meant life-changing circumstances for six children.
During his visit to the United States, Yoash Mayende reported that the borehole (well) in his village had broken down. Faced with a lack of fresh water, community members had resorted to drinking and cooking with dirty water from creeks and streams. The villagers knew the water they were using was unclean and carried the threat of typhoid and other diseases. Prior to the installation of the village borehole, community members used the dirty water to ill effect. But they had no choice as the only other source of fresh water was a long distance from the village. (ED: Distance and well breakdown are common problems in Africa.) During their last week in the United States, Kulanu president Harriet Bograd invited several Kulanu supporters to meet the two young leaders from Uganda. On hearing about the broken borehole, one long-time Kulanu supporter Ed Rensin agreed to fund the needed repairs. Yoash arranged for the repairs as soon as he arrived home, and the villagers of Namutumba are once again able to use their beloved well. Kulanu is now making plans and seeking donations to repair other broken wells in Abayudaya villages and to provide training and support to village water committees so they can learn how to maintain and oversee the usage of their wells to reduce breakdowns.
A second supporter whose donation brought the gift of hope was inspired by a story this author wrote in the Fall, 2012 issue of KulanuNews ‘Changing the Lives of Deaf Children’. The article told the story of six children, also from the village of Namutumba, who carry a genetic disease that causes deafness and in some case, blindness as well. Community leaders introduced Kulanu coordinator Laura Wetzler to these children after Laura had visited them several times. Family members had kept the children hidden at home out of shame or fear. Most did not attend school and, those who did were forced to sit in the back unable to participate. Needless to say, no learning occurred.
After meeting these children, Dr. Liz Feldman, a visitor from Chicago took on a five-year commitment to raise funds from her synagogue chavurah and colleagues to support these children’s education. Laura, in collaboration with community leaders in Uganda, arranged for the children to attend the Kavule Parents School for the Deaf, to give them the chance for an education, an opportunity to be with other children with similar problems, and to help prepare them for employment training.
With the fifth year approaching, the article expressed hope that another donor would take up the commitment so the children could continue their education. The article generated a spate of calls. Werner and Phoebe Frank of California donated $10,000 to Kulanu to pay for three additional years of schooling for the children. Their gift was made in honor of the couple’s good friend, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, and his wife Tzippora of the Abayudaya community.
Sandy Leeder and Jack Zeller, Kulanu Coordinators
As mentioned above, the Lemba of Zimbabwe offers Kulanu an historic opportunity; i.e., that of helping save an ancient Jewish community at risk of disappearing. Recent articles in KulanuNews have focused on the traditions and religious beliefs and practices of the Lemba, the Passover seder organized by Sandy in the Lemba heartland of Mapakomhere in 2012, and the beginnings of the cyberlearning program organized by Jack Zeller from Israel. Since then, much has transpired in Zimbabwe.
Some Recent Highlights:
- Construction of the Great Zimbabwe Synagogue in the village of Mapakomhere is well underway. One can already see walls going up and excitement is building.
- Kulanu published Dr. Rabson Wuriga’s book documenting the history and Jewish practices of the Lemba. (See page 16 for a review.)
- Lemba leader Modreck Maeresera visited the United States on a seven-state speaking tour in the winter of 2012 and was converted under Orthodox creditentialed rabbis during the trip.
- The cyberlearning program organized by Jack from Israel two years ago has grown to include many teachers. According to Modreck, they include: Rabbi Micha Lindenberg and his wife Miriam, the first teachers to reach out to the Lemba, and Rabbi Aaron Rehberg from Israel; Phil Alcide, who teaches via his facebook page House of Prayer on the parasha of the week, from Miami; Idit Benmor-Piltch, who teaches Hebrew from Norfolk, Virginia, and Joel Yan, who teachers prayers and songs, from Canada.
- In March of 2013, a second seder was held in Mapakomhere with board member Sandy Leeder once more in attendance. In a report to the Kulanu board, Sandy wrote: ‘As important as I was organizationally and Kulanu financially, I was for the most part only an observer at the actual seder’ This year there were 142 people at the Seder 70 adults and 72 children, double the number from 2012. The importance of the seder to the Lemba cannot be overstated. This year elders came from many villages to participate.’
- A second synagogue in Harare is now a reality. Jack and Sandy rented a house out of their own funds to serve as a synagogue, community center, and guest house to jump-start the project. Kulanu has since taken over the rental. (A report written by Lemba leader and congregation president Modreck Maeresera begins on page 9.)
- Rosh Hashanah in Harare had 70 attendees, including 7 elders, Yom Kippur services had 55 attendees including 4 elders.
- A recent Shabbat service in Harare had 32 in attendance although there was a competing political rally.
- A Lemba Jewish Religious Practice Committee has been formed and members are interviewing Lemba elders all over Zimbabwe, documenting Lemba religious practices, traditions and prayers.
- A Lemba musician is adapting Kabbalat Shabbat songs into Zimbabwe rhythms.
*See Accidental Tourist by Ari Witkin in KulanuNews, Fall 2011
**See Cameroon’s Beth Yeshourun by Rabbis Bonita and Gerald Sussman and Serge Etele in KulanuNews, Fall 2010
***See The Lemba/Jewish community of Zimbabwe: Its History, Jewish Practice and Challenges by Modreck Zvakavapano Maeresera in KulanuNews, Spring 2012 and Passover in Mapakomhere by Sandy Leeder and An Insiders’ View of Zimbabwe Seder by Modreck Maeresera, both in KulanuNews, Fall 2012.
****The community now gathers in the home of Moreh Nachman and Marceline Etele, Serge’s parents, for services and religious observances.
*****Kulanu also nominated young leaders from Cameroon and Ghana who were accepted by the Institute but denied visas by the American embassies in their countries. Two students from Kaifeng, China participated in the summer of 2012.