Around the Jewish World: Tiny Community in Mozambique Struggles to Maintain Synagogue

Images of erect men and women – shoulders square to the camera, broad hats to shield the African sun – rise out of the faded Aug. 29, 1926, photo.

The blurred figures are clear enough to show the price in the faces of the 35 people standing on the steps of their tiny synagogue on the date of its consecration.

Now, 69 years later, six worshippers huddle in a circle below the leaky, termite-infested roof of Mozambique’s only synagogue.

Above them is the Star of David, its rich stained glass long ago shattered, replaced by a patchwork of faded colors.

Despite the dire condition of Maputo’s synagogue the tiny Jewish community here is experiencing a recovery.

“Things are much better now than before 1989,” when the government returned the synagogue to the community, says Christa Lien, 5, a Maputo housewife who has been instrumental in finding support for renovating the synagogue.

When Mozambique achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, the government took over the tiny whitewashed structure and turned it into a warehouse. Almost all private property was nationalized following independence.

Many members of the Jewish community say that when the synagogue was finally returned to the community in 1989, it was in a terrible state of disrepair and all furniture had been taken.

Job Chambal, the director of religious affairs for the Mozambican Ministry of Justice, insists the government never confiscated the synagogue as it did so many other structures.

The government simply took the synagogue into its possession to take care of it, he says.

“There was no one else to look after it since all the Jews had left for South Africa, for financial reasons, I understand,” says Chambal.

“The community here was very weak from around 1960 on,” he adds. “They would have services there on high holidays and that was about it. We just took it over because we didn’t want to place to fall apart. It was in a sad state when we took it.”

To many here, and especially Lien, Chambal’s version of events omits a lot.

“Yes, it is true that many Jews left after independence,” says Lien. “But their property was confiscated, and most were told a leave, and the synagogue was not falling apart when the government took it in the `70s,” she says.

“People who lived here long ago and come back here ask, `What happened to all the beautiful furniture that used to be here, how did this place get into such a state?” Lien adds.

The Jewish cemetery, which is more than 100 years old, also was in a poor state in 1989.

“There were heaps of garbage piled everywhere in the cemetery,” says Lien. “One Dutch Jew who was here with the embassy started working there on the weekends, and after a while other people started helping and got in cleaned up.”

Now, Jewish activists here are hoping that continued stability, brought about by the end of Mozambique’s 16-year-long civil war, and by last October’s multi- party elections, will bring back the days when the community flourished in Mozambique.

In the 1940s, the Jewish population swelled in Maputo, the country’s capital, which was known then as Lourenco Marques.

Refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe were looking for safety anywhere, and because Lorenco Marques was a neutral port, many landed here.

By 1942, some 500 Jews were living in the city.

Chambal estimates that there are six to eight Mozambican Jews here today. There are another 20 to 30 in the expatriate community.

Before World War II, the Portuguese colonial authorities denied non-citizens the right to work in Mozambique, and South Africa would not allow the Jews to immigrate.

Not being able to work, they depended on aid from abroad, and the synagogue became the center of activity for most here.

But, most Jews moved to South Africa after immigration restrictions were eased near the end of the war.

The synagogue here continued to be a thriving place, and members worked to augment the faithful at Friday night services by recruiting tourists.

A letter to the editor in the Southern African Jewish Times of July 17, 1959, tells of a group of tourists being convinced to attend synagogue by a man who introduced himself as a crocodile hunter.

Hyman Jocum, a South African who has written about Jews in Mozambique, also relates a story of the same crocodile hunter approaching him and others in 1961.

According to Jocum, in return for their attendance at services, the hunter offered them a free viewing of his crocodile nursery.

The synagogue continued to be used by the community until the country gained independence in 1975.

After 1989, when the community regained possession of the synagogue, it was used only for important holidays.

But, since April 1993, services have been held there without fail every Friday night.

Members of the community are now turning their attention to making desperately needed repairs to the synagogue. The roof has deteriorated so badly that some are afraid it will cave in.

Estimates for repairing the roof alone run close to $30,000.

Community members intend to seek assistance from some of the larger Jewish communities in the region. They planned to appeal for funding at the African- Jewish Congress in Johannesburg in August.

Until the repairs are completed, services will continue in the tiny synagogue located just off July 24 Avenue, which commemorates the date of nationalization of private property in Mozambique.

However small the crowd, the synagogue is of vital importance to the Jewish community of Maputo, for it is the only exposure they are likely to have to the Jewish community of Maputo, for it is the only exposure they are likely to have to Judaism.

“I have always known I was Jewish, but never practiced Judaism,” says 22-year- old Victor Sousa, the only Mozambican who attended services on a recent Friday.

“Two years ago I started coming to services and learning. Before, I didn’t know very much about Judaism. Now it is a big part of my life.”

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