The Jews of Arusha, Tanzania

By Peres Parpaih (also known as Yehudah Amir Kahalani, his Yemenite name), Moreh (teacher) of
the B’nei Levi community in Tanzania

Yehudah Amir Kahalani (Peres Parpaih) with an old hanukkiah, standing on the roof of Shalem Al Shabazi Mashta Bayit Al Salaa (Knesset). Behind is Mount Meru, January 2020. (Photo by Ari Greenspan)

Israel is closer to East Africa and the Arab world than to any other country. Because of this geographic connection, Jews in Israel can travel by sea to Ethiopia, Yemen, Zanzibar, and Tanzania, and that is exactly what they have been doing for many, many centuries — before any great cities existed in Europe or America (see map page 2). Around the 1800s, there were a good number of Yemenites and Omanis in Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania). Among them were Jews from the cities of Mawza and Sana’a in Yemen, as well as Jews from Ethiopia. In 1942, more than 5,000 Polish refugees, including many Jews, settled in Arusha, Tanzania. My grandparents first arrived in Arusha from Zanzibar more than 150 years ago. They traveled to Zanzibar from Sana’a and Mawza as traders and later entered the mainland seeking kudu (a type of antelope) horns for shofars to be sold to the Yemenite Jews. On this trip, they learned that there were some Moroccan Jews living in Arusha and Luria, and hence decided to stay and continued trading there until the end of World War I.

Some of the Bnei Levi Arusha Community with Rabbi Eytan Kenter (4th from right), from Canada 2019. He led a team of 38 to donate a Torah after the community had been in hiding almost 50 years without its most important treasure. The Torah was lost after people suspected to be missionaries attacked the shul in the early 1960s. The community scattered, went into hiding, and practiced secretly. Rabbi Eytan’s team brought a Sefer Torah donated by Canadians. (Photo by Peres Parpaih)

After the war, some Jews left Tanzania, while others remained. Others left soon after independence was declared in 1961. Those who remained, including the Beta Israel from Ethiopia, were still able to find Jews to marry, but eventually, the majority went undercover and practiced Judaism secretly. Some even adopted Maasai (an ethnic group of Kenya and northern Tanzania) names and the language, as well as Arabic names and clothing (which was common in Yemen and Ethiopia). Despite all these changes, they never assimilated or converted, and continued keeping kosher and observing Shabbat and Brit Milah (circumcision ceremony). They even maintained the notable tradition of not mixing with women during prayer or shaking the hands of unrelated women. These traditions were transmitted through many, many generations — originating in Mawza, Taiz, and Sana’a in Yemen. Our community before the 1970s mostly used Nusach (texts of prayers) Baladi (traditional Yemenite) and Shami (Syrian Sephardic tradition) of the Yemenite Temani tradition. Nowadays, a few families can still chant in a traditional Tehamani tune. Since no Baladi (Teklal) Siddur has ever been translated into Hebrew-English, the community has slowly adopted the Shami, which is the Sephardic Siddurim. It is 90% similar to our traditional Teklal, but I still prefer ours as it is simple to follow.

Relationships With Organizations Outside Tanzania

Some members of the Bnei Levi Arusha Community with Ari Greenspan. (to right of Peres), Ari Zivotofsky, and Netanel Kaszovitz (on left), January 2020. (Photo courtesy Ari Greenspan)

Before members of Congregation Kehillat Beth Israel from Ottawa, Canada, came to visit us in 2019 and deliver a Sefer Torah and Jewish ritual items, the only organization that ever was able to contact us was Partners in Torah from the USA in late 2017. The organization arranged for Rabbi Yerachmiel Landy to visit us. He has been studying with us online ever since and shares his teachings with our community. My father, of blessed memory, was also a Torah teacher, so we inherited much of his teachings. They are mostly based on the teachings of the Rambam, Moreh (teacher) Shalom Shabazi, and the Midrash. We had not connected with any other organizations, and we never tried to look for one for security reasons. On a personal level, for the last 20 years, the Kaufmann family, and Lili in particular, were the only people who stayed in contact with me after we met on Lili’s Kilimanjaro trip in 2000. Lili and her husband, Dr. Barry Kaufmann, took a great effort in assisting me throughout my education without me even asking. They kept writing to encourage me and visited us twice.

They have shown us that they are more than friends — they are a true family that has never left us alone. I cannot list what they did for me in particular, because it is endless. They understood and respected my religious life as inherited from my parents and Mizrahi customs. [Editor’s note: see article from Lili’s point of view immediately preceding this one.] Despite the challenges of being Jewish, being surrounded by people who sought to destroy our heritage, and all other odds, we never took our difficulties as a negative, but rather as a positive opportunity to help us grow and become stronger. We made great efforts to avoid being known, despite our very active religious practices. We concealed them in secrecy for fear that we might be risking ourselves. Hence, we felt safer when we laid low in all our activities until one day some friends from Israel warned us that it’s even more dangerous to keep on hiding ourselves. We were very careful, particularly around the missionaries who have been trying unsuccessfully to convert us since they have never been comfortable with us. Interestingly, the Muslims are friendly to us, and we have been protecting and helping each other. Sometimes, we even hold joint meetings. In 2015, the current Tanzanian government came to power, and President John Magufuli publicly announced his love for Israel. He immediately opened an embassy in Tel Aviv, encouraged Israelis to come to Tanzania, and decreed that if there were any Jews in Tanzania, they should be free to practice. From that day, we felt liberated once again, but others are still not convinced and remain in hiding.

Kulanu And the Arusha Yehudim

I was informed about the Kulanu organization by a friend from Israel in 2018, and also by Rabbi Landy, but we didn’t have much information about their program and did not make contact. Around the end of 2019, I was told that Kulanu could send religious volunteers to help teach the community. Again I was slow to act since, appear, I would recall my forefathers’ teachings: we should not disclose to outsiders our secret of being Jewish without proof of their sincerity and until we meet them in person. This always made me extremely careful not to accept any invitation easily. I finally decided to contact Kulanu, with the aim and objective of connecting with Jewish volunteers to help teach our tiny community and strengthen us.

Bnei Levi Arusha Community, end of daily Shacharit, July 2017. (Photo by Peres Parpaih)

Baruch HaShem! Upon making contact with Kulanu, we promptly received a response. After answering some questions and submitting forms, I was contacted by Molly Levine and later by Moreh Ari Greenspan. This instinctively told me that yes, I should be free to tell him who we are. By then I realized that we are already known, as there are some articles on the internet about our community. We felt a bit insecure, as some members were complaining that we were breaking our fathers’ promises and might endanger ourselves. Two Israelis, Zvi, and Alon, visited us one Shabbat soon after. One of the community members jokingly said “Our lives were so peaceful when we were unknown.” Zvi and Alon responded, “It’s too dangerous to be underground and unknown. If something bad happened (G-d forbid) and other Jews did not know of our Jewish existence, it would be a bad experience.” Such statements encouraged us and changed our way of thinking, but still, we avoided attracting attention.

Bnei Levi community in Arusha, September 2020, second night Rosh Hashanah. (Photo by Peres Parpaih)

When Kulanu invited us to become a partner community, we saw an immediate positive impact. In early January 2020 (Jewish year 5780), we were visited by two tzaddik moris — great scholars as well as humble, loving, and very kind rabbis. They brought along with them traditional Yemenite Judaica items, flour for matzah, and others items. On top of that, they brought lots of wisdom, guidance, and teachings. Finally, after such a long time, we had kosher chicken as a result of this blessed visit. Since that visit, Moreh Ari Greenspan, Moreh Ari Z. Zivotofsky, and Rabbi Netaniel have kept in constant contact with us, guiding and teaching us, and sharing instructional materials. During this whole COVID-19 challenge in Tanzania, Moreh Greenspan was the only doctor who kept on advising us on what to do and how to protect ourselves as a community, and that has helped us a lot. Thanks to Kulanu, we now know the moris and are very grateful for their help. Another positive impact is the article in Mishpacha Magazine, written by Morim (teachers) Greenspan and Zivotofsky (kulanu. org/tanzania). For the first time, we are on the map of the Jewish world. Those who have access to online information are now able to know of our existence. Thanks so much to Kulanu, and thank you Morim Ari and Ari. You have made a great impact by connecting us to our heritage.