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Behind the Headlines: Zimbabwe’s Jews Losing Their Rabbi, but Remain Committed to Community

Zimbabwean Jews celebrated Simchat Torah this year as they do every year — singing and dancing with the Torah into the night in their modern stone and glass synagogue

But this year, there was sadness mixed with the joy.

The community’s only rabbi, Indian-born Rabbi Itzhak Menashe, was leaving the next day to work with 20 Jewish families in the southwest African nation of Namibia.

No replacement for the rabbi has yet been found, and the community is very concerned.

“At the end of the day, only one thing keeps a Jewish community together. We have to have religious leadership. If we don’t have spiritual leadership in this country, then the Jewish community will not last,” said Stanley Harris, president of the Jewish community here.

Zimbabwe, one of the most advanced African countries, lies just north of South Africa. The country has 80,000 whites, of which 1,000 are Jewish, out of a total population of 12 million.

Two-thirds of the country’s Jews live in the capital of Harare, with the rest residing in Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo.

There is both an Ashkenazic and a Sephardic community here. Ashkenazi Jews have been in Zimbabwe for more than 100 years. World War II brought an influx of Sephardic Jews from the Greek island of Rhodes, where they fled the Nazi occupation.

At its peak in 1960, there were 10,000 Jews here when this was the British colony of Rhodesia. During the war which led to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, most of the Jews fled the country.

Today, Zimbabwe’s small Jewish community is united and committed. It supports a Jewish nursery school, a primary school and a Habonim youth group. Jews here maintain close ties to Israel, where many in the community have relatives.

A TENUOUS ELEMENT TO THEIR LIFESTYLES

Harare’s Jews, many of whom earn their living from manufacturing fabrics, clothing and furniture, lead privileged lives. But there is a tenuous element to their lifestyles, since the political and economic future of their country is uncertain.

Harare is a modern city, made beautiful by countless Jacaranda trees covered with huge purple flowers that light up the city and carpet its streets with purple.

But outside the capital, people live in desperate conditions in mud huts, lacking proper housing, food and medical care.

As is common throughout Africa, it is estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of the population is infected with the AIDS virus.

Blindness and severe eye diseases are also widespread, and there are only three native ophthalmologists in the whole country.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, working along with the local Jewish community and the government of Zimbabwe, has organized an eye clinic in a hospital in the remote northern city of Bindura.

Yair Porges, an Israeli ophthalmologist, runs the clinic, which is the only such facility in a province of more than 1 million people.

“I see a lot of catastrophes that could have been prevented,” Porges says, noting that patients often come to him with terrible complications after having sought help from local faith healers.

“The faith healers scratch their eyes with knives and put mud, potatoes and spit in their eyes,” said Porges. “They’ll put anything in people’s eyes.”

More than 100 people have come to Porges blind — but they left with full vision.

“To make people see — this is a feeling I cannot describe. This is why I have come,” Porges said.

Porges has been in Zimbabwe for a year-and-a-half and will stay for another six months, by which time he hopes to have trained a native Zimbabwean ophthalmologist to take his place.

In the meantime, for Porges and other members of the Jewish community, there is little certainty about what the political future will bring.

The Zimbabwean government is decidedly pro-Palestinian, but in the wake of the signing of the Palestinian self-rule accord last fall in Washington, the country recently established diplomatic ties with Israel.

In the aftermath of the forging of those ties, the Jewish community here is anxiously awaiting the opening of the Israeli Embassy, which is scheduled for next month.

Despite that promising occasion, uncertainty is causing many here, including the leader of the community, to think of moving elsewhere.

“I left in 1978, during the war. I had had enough and decided to take my family and go to Israel,” said Harris, who was born in Zimbabwe. “Then in 1980 Zimbabwe became independent, and I am one of those that came back.

“But I will eventually go,” Harris added. “My family will go.”

Many in the community share their president’s thoughts of moving, but they have mixed emotions about the idea.

Zimbabwe is their home — where they were born, raised families and developed businesses. They lead good lives here, and if they can find a rabbi many will see in that good reason to remain.

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