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A Travelogue: Visiting the "New" Jews of Africa
2. Shabbat in Nairobi

This is part 2 of my East Africa Travelogue. The travelogue is divided into the following sections:
  1. Arrival to Africa
  2. Shabbat in Nairobi
  3. The Road from Eldoret, Kenya to Mbale, Uganda
  4. Visiting the Abayudaya of Putti
  5. Visiting Kakungulu's House and Grave in Gangama, and the Abayudaya of Nabugoye and Namanyonyi
  6. Return to Israel, the long way around

Photographs from East Africa

Our journey to the Abayudaya in Putti, Uganda, took us via Nairobi, Kenya. Here we spent an interesting shabat. Though I had only come on this trip for the ride, it was here in Nairobi that I would receive my introduction to the world of people independently discovering God and Judaism, in an apparent void. My experience here would overturn my worldview.

The synagogue in Nairobi will be celebrating its centenary in 2012. The first Jews to arrive here were escaping Russian pogroms. Descendants of these original immigrants still live in Kenya. Other members of today's congregation include former Israelis, who have resided in Kenya for some thirty years.

The synagogue holds services on a regular basis on Friday nights and Shabat mornings. Unfortunately the congregation does not have a regular rabbi. A young rabbi from New York, who fell in love with Kenya a few years ago, visits occasionally and assumes the task, but there was no formal arrangement. He was here this shabat.

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The first thing I noticed on entering the synagogue on Friday afternoon was a number of local Kenyan people seated on various pews. Some of them have been coming to pray for as many as seventeen years; all of them for at least ten. While we were aware of this phenomenon -- meeting these local people was the reason for the rabbi's Nairobi visit -- experiencing it had a deep effect on me.

Synagogue dynamics are complex, though it is not overly clear to me why. The small congregation is divided, almost equally, between those in favour of these local people attending services and activities, in some cases hopefully leading to their conversion, and those who barely tolerate their presence and have no desire to add these people to their numbers.

Rabbi Riskin had come here to explain to the latter group the importance of embracing these people specifically, and the importance of accepting halakhic converts in general. In the end I felt that his attempt was somewhat futile, each side using the rabbi's words to strengthen their already entrenched positions. I've gotten ahead of myself. But there was one person in that audience who was sold on the concept.

Until this encounter, I would have described myself as a typical Ashkenazi bigot. My parents' and rabbis' generation in Europe were convinced that even the S'faradim, let alone converts, were somewhat inferior. It is unlikely that my forebears met a S'fardi Jew and I am sure very few, if any, converts. Could it be that having been the downtrodden of Europe, they too needed someone to aggrieve?

By an osmosis, passed from the one generation to the next, I too adopted their unaccepting attitude of S'fardim and converts. Conversions were driven by ulterior motives -- I always bore suspicions re converts' sincerity.

All that changed in Nairobi. At a synagogue meeting, the rabbi shared his vision, as expressed by the Rambam, that one of the tasks of the Messiah was to "return the world to the true religion". This does not refer to the seven noahide commandments -- Maimonides teaches these elsewhere in his work -- but to Torah Judaism.

The rabbi explained that Judaism is a missionary religion, not in the way of the Christian missionaries who had passed through Africa and other parts of the world in years gone by. Rather we possess a truth that we are to share with all humanity. Ultimately all mankind must be convinced of this truth.

Unfortunately we were forced to terminate our missionary activities 1,900 years ago as a result of the Hadrianic decrees which, amongst other anti-Jewish sanctions, forbade, at pain of death, preaching to gentiles and converting them. As a result Judaism became very insular.

The Roman Empire transformed into the Roman church, and the decrees continued into the twentieth century. Today we are once again free to preach our message and to accept converts.

An interesting phenomenon we are now seeing, in many places around the world, is that some gentiles are pre-empting our action. Many people are finding Judaism in a seeming vacuum, discovering the true God and His Torah on their own.

This is what is happening here in Nairobi, and this is what started over ninety years ago in Uganda to Semei Kakungulu.

And to assess the sincerity of these people we had come to Africa.

Menachem Kuchar, 4th August, 2011    

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