Around the Jewish World: Zairian Jews Prosper, but Carry Walkie-talkies for Emergencies

How is a seder in this corner of the world different from all other seders? The answer is, it’s not.

But preparing for it can sometimes be a challenge.

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila recalls his first Passover here, four years ago, when he was making rounds delivering matzah to his congregants.

Whites rarely drive themselves here, so the Lubavitch rabbi was soon stopped by the authorities. After a lengthy explanation, he was forced to part with some cash — and some matzah.

The police had stopped him to try and obtain bribe money to buy some beer, he said, and they figured that they might as well have a snack to go along with it.

The Jewish community here, 100-families strong, faces hurdles such as this all the time. All heads of households, including the rabbi, carry cellular phones, because lines in their homes are so unpredictable.

They also carry walkie-talkies that are connected to other Jewish families, in case of emergencies.

When the congregants enter the synagogue, they leave their communication equipment on a table outside, making it look like a display at a cellular phone store.

But despite practices that may seem strange to Jews in the West, community members consider themselves no different from other Jews around the world.

“We are not exotic,” said Robert Franco, president of the congregation here. “We are a Jewish community here from the beginning of the century.”

Until the 1970s, Zaire’s Jewish community was centered in the city of Lubumbashi. The jews were all of Sephardi descent, hailing from Turkey, Egypt and the Greek island of Rhodes.

But the Jewish population here is in constant flux. Many families who had long lived in Zaire left in the past few years, for either South Africa or Belgium.

Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, gained its independence from Belgium in 1960.

Although many Jews left, some stayed and others continue to come, from Belgium, Morocco and Tunisia. Recently, there has been an influx of Israelis, making the community both French- and Hebrew-speaking. And the community has moved to the capital city of Kinshasa.

When speaking to the residents of Kinshasa, the history of their community is divided into two distinct periods: before and after the riots.

Zaire has been ruled since 1965 by President Mobutu Sese Seko, a leader widely seen as corrupt.

In September 1991, and then again in late 1992, the city of Kinshasa was besieged by riots, as the Zairian army revolted against the government after months of not getting paid. The rebellious soldiers were joined by angry civilians, causing the worst riots in Zairian history.

For many Jewish families, the riots were the deciding factor in their choosing to leave Zaire, and for those who stayed, the impact was profound.

“Many thought that the first riot was an accident,” said Franco, “and so they stayed on. But when it happened again, they were very afraid, and so many left.”

A Jewish community center with a swimming pool, tennis courts and restaurant sits unused because residents are too afraid to go to that part of the city.

In another area of the city, ground was broken for the new synagogue before the riots, but the building reflects the impact of the violence. Two guards with Kalashnikov rifles sit outside the cement wall that surrounds the rectangular building.

Inside the synagogue compound, a courtyard is lined with the rabbi’s office, a classroom and a storage room where congregants can buy kosher products, including kosher meat flown in from South Africa.

The structure is 3 stories plus a basement, with the top floor being a large apartment where the rabbi and his family resides.

The synagogue is traditional, with the ark against one all of the main floor. The rabbi faces it from a pulpit in the center. Women sit in a balcony. No permanent seats are in place, so the man floor can be converted from synagogue to social hall with ease.

The synagogue is testimony to the fact that the Jews of Zaire are a prosperous community, though Franco claims that the wealthiest have left.

On a drive around Kinshasa, a city of 4.5 million inhabitants, the influence of the tiny Jewish community can be felt.

“See that shopping complex right there?” a community member points out on a tour of the city. “It’s own by a Jew. And that building right there? Owned by a Jew. And that one? And that food processing plant? It supplies almost the whole city with its food.”

All the Jews here are in business, with many of them involved in the exporting of diamonds.

Zaire is among the poorest countries in the world, but the Jews’ standard of living here, like that of all foreigners, is extremely high, even by Western standards.

The average salary for a Zairian is the equivalent of $60 a month, enabling all the Jewish families to have at least one domestic worker, a driver and more help if there are children.

When Myriam Bentolila goes out shopping, the stacks of bills fill her entire purse, because the exchange rate is constantly fluctuating and 4,000 Zaires make one dollar. Notes are usually only in denominations of 500.

Rabbi Bentolila is not only the rabbi of Kinshasa, but the director of Chabad- Lubavitch for central Africa.

Bentolila, who with his family emigrated to Montreal from Morocco at age 9, first visited Africa when he was still in yeshiva. He met with the Jewish communities throughout central Africa and found that most were grateful for his attempts at outreach.

He found the community of Kinshasa especially receptive. When the former rabbi of Kinshasa decided to leave after the first riots, the congregation asked Bentolila and his Italian-born wife to stay permanently.

They now have two children, Deborah, 4, and Benyamin, 2.

Bentolila believes strongly in the philosophy of the Lubavitch movement, as evidenced by his tenure here.

“My being here is part of the rebbe’s great love of his fellow Jew,” he said, referring to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the spiritual leader of the Lubavitch movement who died last year. Bentolila’s home, office and car are decorated with pictures of Schneerson.

It is this great love that prompted Bentolila to bring a student rabbi from New York to conduct a seder in Tehikapa, a diamond-mining town some 420 miles from kinshasa. The town is so remote that one of its Israeli inhabitants calls it “the end of the world.”

“They didn’t believe I was actually coming until they saw me get off the plane,” said Shlomo Litzman, who few two hours from Kinshasa in a plane loaded with kosher-for-Passover food to make the seder for 10 people.

Bentolila speaks highly of his Kinshasa congregation, though he and his wife are much more observant than any of them.

“You take a Jew, and you put him in such a remote place, and it is inevitable that he will come back,” Bentolila said.

When he arrived, maybe two or three congregants were putting on tefillin every morning, and now that number has increased to 10, he said with satisfaction.

Morris Habib, vice president of the congregation, agreed with the rabbi’s assessment.

“I am not religious,” he said. “But when [the rabbi], he is so nice that I can’t refuse him. And people are becoming more religious because of him.”

Bentolila says that being broad-minded is also part of the lubavitch philosophy, that if he looked down on his congregants because they were less observant, Chabad would be out of business.

“I think they too had a lot of preconceived notions about me, because of the way I look, and because I am from Chabad,” he said. “But now they all feel they can speak quite freely with me, and they come to me for counsel.”

The rabbi and his wife always have people over for Shabbat dinner. They also invited congregants for the second seder in their home this year.

The Bentolila children attend a school for foreign children, and they receive their Jewish education at home. Myriam Bentolila teaches the children of the congregation twice a week.

“A smaller community is just as good as a larger one,” said Habib. “The rabbi maintains the religious way of life, and we maintain the cultural way of life.”

Franco concurred,”I myself feel very involved in Jewish life here. I want to conserve the spiritual values of Judaism, and we can do that very easily here,” he said.

Franco describes himself as optimistic, and says he hopes that Zaire will once again prosper.

“I can only hope that the government will stabilize and provide unity for the country,” he said.

But he added, his family has no plans of leaving. “This is my synagogue,” he said.

Habib agreed. “I don’t feel at home anywhere else.”

NEXT STORY