Behind the Headlines the Jews of Zimbabwe

Several Conservative rabbis have expressed “their keen interest” in going to Zimbabwe to fill that Jewish community’s need for a rabbi and spiritual leader, according to Rabbi Richard Yellin of Temple Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Describing it as “a mission of mitzvah,” Yellin said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he had approached rabbis about the post in Zimbabwe at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in Miami last month. He suggested that a good candidate for the post would be either a student just out of rabbinical school or a retired rabbi.

Yellin has a special interest in the Jewish community of Zimbabwe. Many members of his synagogue are former residents of Zimbabwe. Also, he returned last month from an eight-day visit to the country formerly known as Rhodesia.

The 42-year-old rabbi was invited to Zimbabwe by the representative body of Zimbabwean Jewry, the Central African Board of Jewish Deputies. He had been asked as an outsider to assess the community’s operations and needs, and perhaps provide suggestions for strengthening relations with other groups in Zimbabwe and, in general, its stature among world Jewry.

COMMUNITY IS AT A ‘CROSSROAD’

Yellin described Zimbabwean Jewry as being at a “crossroad.” filled with probabilities of taking off positively or going down negatively.” He cited several reasons for this view, among them the economic situation and travel restrictions, both of which have a direct affect on the Jewish community.

According to Yellin, government imposed currency restrictions “present limitations” on free enterprise. “All those involved in capitalist endeavors are in a bind,” he said. There have been rumors of nationalizing private industries, although this has not happened, he said.

Furthermore, the government’s Marxist-Socialist rhetoric, along with support for the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has an Embassy in Harare, and Zimbabwe’s general rhetorical support for socalled liberation movements in the Third World makes the “Jewish community very, very nervous,” Yellin said.

But despite these aspects of life in Zimbabwe, the Jewish community lives relatively modestly and there are Israelis in the country and according to Yellin, Zimbabweans privately trade with Israel.

HISTORY OF ZIMBABWEAN JEWRY

Zimbabwean Jewry dates back to the late 1800′s. In 1880, four Jews participated in a pioneering trek across the Limpopo River into the African Kingdom of Monomotapa which is now part of Zimbabwe. In 1893, 30 Jews participated in the nearly 600-strong white army during the bloody Matabele War.

There are other reports that chronicle the growth and development of the Zimbabwean Jewish community, such as the first Jewish meeting at the Masoni Hotel in Salisbury, now Harare, to the souring of the Jewish relationship with the former regime of lan Smith, Premier of white minority-ruled Rhodesia.

The Jewish community reached its peak some time ago at 7,500 persons, and has slowly declined in population since 1980 with the establishment of majority rule. The new government aligned itself with other liberation movements, and broadcasts aggressive anti-Zionist rhetoric familiar in some Third World nations.

THREE JEWISH SCHOOLS IN THE COUNTRY

There are three Jewish schools in Zimbabwe, two in Harare and one in Bulawayo. In past years, when the Jewish community there was larger, the Jewish schools had a registration of some 500 Jews. But today, as the community has dwindled, so has the schools’ enrollment. Perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the students currently enrolled in Jewish schools are Jewish The others are Black and white non-Jews. The government funds Jewish schools in Zimbabwe.

There remains a “Hebrew curriculum of Jewish-Zionist orientation, created by the Jewish community” in the schools, Yellin said. The children wear yarmulkas and receive Hebrew instructions. All three schools are “truly multi-racial, multi-religious” and they are “a vision of what the government would like to do” with the whole country’s school system, “at least rhetorically.” the rabbi said.

Yellin also met with the Minister of Information, Dr. Nathan Shamuyarira, who talked of the government’s hope for a multi-racial, multi-religious state. Yellin engaged in a discussion of the essence of Zionism, he recounted, informing the Zimbabwean official that Zionism is a national liberation movement. Yellin left Shamuyarira, at his request, information distributed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Yellin met with officials of the Roman Catholic church, and leaders of the Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, urging that they extend contacts with the Jewish community, including speaking to Jewish congregants, conducting exchange programs and building coalitions.

A POIGNANT COMMENT

One poignant comment, Yellin said, came from a leading member of the Jewish community there. He said that if Zimbabwean Jewry can make it in that country, “it will be the first time in history that a sizable Jewish community will be able to succeed and do well in this kind of environment.”

“So Black Africa has a lot at stake riding on the success and well-being of the Jewish community in trying to create an open society,” said Yellin.

He and Rabbi Murray Saltzman of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, were recently named as cochairmen of the Synagogue Council of America’s National Task Force on Minority Rights. The SCA was not actively involved in Yellin’s visit to Zimbabwe.

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