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Behind the Headlines: Returning Expatriates Are Boon to Zimbabwe’s Jewish Community

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This country’s small Jewish community, a remnant of what was once a thriving community before Zimbabwe gained independence, recently has seen a slow trickle of expatriates from South Africa returning to Harare and Bulawayo, the country’s two main cities.

About 610 Jews live today in Harare, the capital, and another 350 or so in Bulawayo.

With Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Jews emigrated in droves, mainly to South Africa.

But now some of these people are coming back, particularly young people wishing to take over family businesses and to escape the violence in South Africa.

Despite its poor economy, unemployment problems and the ravages of a drought, Zimbabwe is at peace.

Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was called before independence, “essentially had a bush war. The violence did not spill over into the cities,” said Rabbi Ben Isaacson of the Bulawayo Hebrew congregation, to which most of the city’s Jews belong.

In Harare, the community is split between the Orthodox Harare Hebrew congregation, a breakaway Orthodox congregation, a Sephardic congregation and a Reform movement.

There are private Jewish schools in both cities, but with Jewish children, including babies, totaling only 344, non-Jewish pupils, mainly blacks, outnumber the Jewish students.

According to Isaacson, Torah studies are a way of life, and the few young married couples living here are encouraged to observe kashrut.

The “shechting,” or kosher ritual slaughtering of cattle and poultry, is done once a month by a shochet, or kosher butcher, who flies here from Johannesburg.

Isaacson, a once highly controversial figure in Johannesburg, sees his six-year sojourn in Zimbabwe as a form of virtual exile.

The rabbi has been a political activist and the first, probably only, rabbi to join the African National Congress.

Isaacson moved to Bulawayo after the split in his congregation in Harare.

The Jewish Board of Deputies is active, but the Central African Zionist Organization kept a low profile for many years, as the Zimbabwe government did not encourage Zionist activities.

Although there is a Palestine Liberation Organization Embassy in Harare headed by Ali Halima, there is still no Israeli Embassy.

But in Bulawayo, the Central African Zionist Organization has been kept alive by Barney Katz, its director-general since 1936.

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