Around Africa in Eight Days

by R. Wineberg - CENTRAL AFRICA

December 5, 2002

When you live in a remote country in central Africa, foreign residents will tell you, it’s not hard to feel isolated from the rest of the civilized world. If you’re a Jew living in Central Africa, the isolation is only intensified. Living in tiny communities where the closest sign of Jewish life can be hundreds of miles away, the Jews of central Africa give new definition to being Jewishly isolated.

But Chabad’s presence in the region in recent years has created a link with these communities, bringing Judaism right to their doorstep, via post, email, or like this week, a personal visitor. Chabad of Central Africa, based in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, together with the United Jewish Communities of Central Africa, sponsored a unique Chanukah mission this week, bringing the light and spirit of Chanukah to Jews in ten African countries.

Most of the Jews in this part of the world are here for business, says Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, who moved out here with his wife Miriam and their children 12 years ago. “In some countries, like the DRC, Kenya and others, you’ll find some third-generation local Jews whose grandparents arrived after the Second World War, but everyone else is transplanted.” Entire Jewish communities in some countries are “imported”—made up entirely of businessmen and their families from Israel, Europe and beyond. Because the concentration of Jews in each place is so small, expressions of Jewish life and community are almost non-existent. For 12 years, Chabad of Central Africa has worked to bring Judaism to the Jews in these remote areas, sending holiday packages, weekly emails, visiting occasionally, and coordinating visits from Chabad’s Traveling Yeshiva students each summer. But this Chanukah, Rabbi Bentolila wanted to take it further. So four pairs of Yeshiva students and a young couple, Rabbi Mendel and Esther Miriam Lifshitz, arrived in central Africa last week, each visiting two or three cities in that time, meeting the community and hosting a Chanukah party at a local venue. In Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, the Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zambia and Namibia, local Jews greeted the Chabad emissaries with pride and gratitude. “It means so much to these people to feel connected to the rest of the Jewish world,” says Rabbi Bentolila, “And most of them would not have celebrated Chanukah at all if not for the Chabad event in their town.”

The double terrorist attacks on the Paradise Hotel in Mombassa and the Israeli passenger plane happened just an hour before the Rabbi Mendel and Esther Miriam Lifshitz’s plane landed in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. The Lifshitzs had planned on spending several days in Nairobi and then moving on to Mombassa where a Chanukah party had been arranged for Israeli residents and vacationers. All the Jews having left Mombassa following the attacks, they spent the week in Nairobi, reaching out to the 200 member Jewish community. Jews from across the spectrum attended a Chanukah event in the main synagogue in Nairobi, an event was held in the Israeli embassy, and the couple visited with community members and formed strong ties with them that week. “It meant so much to the Jews here to see that there are people in the rest of the Jewish world who care about them,” says Esther Miriam Lifshitz, “They were so grateful for our visit.”

In Nigeria, a predominantly Muslim country, recently witness to violent rioting over the international Miss World contest, these feelings were echoed by local Jews, 200 of whom attended a Chanukah party at the Canadian embassy in Abuja earlier this week. “Jews here are surrounded by Christians and Muslims,” says Rabbi Chananya Rogalsky, who visited the community with Rabbi Mendy Zirkind. “It gives them a very strong sense of Jewish pride to participate in an event like this.”

The two are currently spending the last days of Chanukah with the small Jewish community in Accra, Ghana.

In an email received this week by Rabbi and Mrs. Bentolila from the Jewish community in Gabon, one of the wealthier African countries and home to a relatively large population of close to 1000, the community thanked Chabad for bringing Rabbis Mendel Goldberg and Mendy Narboni to celebrate Chanukah with them. “You have brought so much joy and spirit to our holiday,” the email read, “Thank you for lifting our spirits and making us proud to be part of the Jewish people.”

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