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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Kenya

The history of Jews and the history of Kenya, a Black East African country, have intersected three times in the past 80 years. The last, and perhaps best known of these encounters was Kenya’s role in the 1976 Israeli rescue of Jews in Entebbe, Uganda. Permission for the Israeli rescue aircraft to refuel in Kenya, which has no official diplomatic relations with Israel, was a key element in the success of the operation.

The second encounter took place before the birth of the Jewish State. In 1947, members of Etzel (the Irgun) were interned by the British in the Gilgil Camp in Kenya, about 70 miles northwest of Nairobi. Six prisoners, led by Yaakov Meridor — now Minister of the Economy — broke out of the camp on April 15, 1948.

Although the escape was successful, the prisoners arrived in Israel later than the comrades they left behind, who returned home at the end of the British Mandate, May 15, 1948.

The first encounter goes back even further — to the British proposal for creating a place of refuge for Russian Jews in East Africa — the misnamed “Uganda Plan.” The area in question was a section of Kenya known today as the Uasin Gishu Plateau. The plan was ultimately rejected by the World Zionist Congress in 1905.

AN IMPORTANT IMPACT

These encounters had an important impact, not only on world Jewry, but on the small community of Jews living in Kenya. On a recent visit, a group of Jewish journalists and tour operators from the U.S. and Israel met with leaders of the community and learned a great deal of the history and present circumstances of the community.

The group lodged “on safari” at hotels, some of which once were or still are Jewish-owned — Jews were among the pioneers in Kenyan tourism — and passed through small towns where Jewish communities once existed. The trip was organized by Unitours at the invitation of the Kenyan government and in cooperation with Iberia Airlines.

The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, founded in 1904, has about 125 members, according to Ivor Davis, a professional public relations person who also serves the Jewish community in this capacity. Less than half the members are permanent residents of Kenya.

The rest, including 25 Israelis of the between 150 and 200 working in the country for Solel Boneh and H.Z. construction, Coor, and other companies, are employed by various foreign concerns. Davis said, only partly in jest, “They could take us over if they wanted to.”

The small, attractive synagogue building, with its wood-paneled sanctuary and beautiful rose garden, was rebuilt in 1955 after the congregation’s first building, put up in 1913, deteriorated beyond the congregation’s ability to continue repairing it.

The new building was designed by Imre Rozsa, an architect who served as congregation president several years ago and now lives in Ohio. His wife, Lisa Rozsa, started the rose garden. The wood paneling in the sanctuary was salvaged from the old synagogue.

The congregation holds services there Friday evening and Saturday morning, following the “minhag” (practice) of the (Orthodox) United Synagogue of Great Britain. Men and women sit separately, with a mechitza (partition between worshippers) between them. The community has always “voluntarily submitted itself” to the authority of Britain’s Chief Rabbi. It was out of the wish to maintain community unity that a group who wanted a Reform synagogue in the 1950’s eventually abandoned the idea.

The congregation has just hired a new minister (as per British practice, not an ordained rabbi but a spiritual and communal leader), having been without one since 1971. He is Rev. Ze’ev Amit, who has been doing communal work for the past dozen years in Australia, South Africa, and most recently, Scotland. In the absence of a minister, and even now, various members of the congregation, including business executive Dr. Manfred Lehmann, lead the prayers.

Next door to the synagogue is the Vermont Memorial Hall, which has nothing to do with New England but with a legacy from Simon Vermont, an early settler, built as a communal meeting place in 1937. Before and after the war (when it was requisitioned by the British army), it was the site for various cultural activities among them the East African Jewish Guild, which sponsored social and sports activities until it folded in 1959; the Jewish Amateur Dramatic Society, which existed in 1950; meetings of the Zionist Organization and WIZO, and congregation meetings.

MULTIFACETED ACTIVITIES

Members of the congregation expressed the hope that the new minister will “revitalize” the hall with cultural activities. The Vermont Hall once served, as well, as an afternoon and Sunday school (with a high of over 100 children in 1958) and later, a day school for offspring of Israeli temporary residents. Classes for Israeli children are now held there on Saturday mornings. Magazine photos of Israeli leaders and children’s drawings de orate the walls.

The synagogue run a Chevreh Kadisha (burial society), maintains the old cemetery on Forest Road and the new one dedicated in 1946. It “keeps an eye,” at the same time, on the old Jewish cemetery, with its monument to victims of the Holocaust, in Nakuru, a market town 100 miles to its north. There are also small cemeteries in Eldoret, Kitale and Mombasa, where Jews once lived from the earliest days of the country’s settlement.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)

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