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High Holidays Feature in Kenya, an Unorthodox Crowd Observes Orthodox Rosh Hashanah

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Rosh Hashanah here is a microcosm of the diversity of Jewish life in the Diaspora — with some African twists.

The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, which serves as the community center for about 300 people, hosted a diverse but small group for the holiday. There were Israeli diplomats, expatriate Israeli and American businessmen, Americans working for nonprofit organizations, white Kenyan Jews and devoted black Kenyan followers of Judaism who have not converted.

The service took place in a country that is familiar with terrorism: In November 2002, terrorists attacked the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa, killing three Israelis and at least 12 locals, and fired shoulder-held missiles at an Israeli passenger plane, narrowly missing it.

During Saturday and Sunday services, a handful of white and black children wearing yarmulkes chased each other around inside the synagogue and in the gardens outside.

It was an unorthodox crowd, but one that followed Orthodox guidelines with its prayers and melodies and separate seating for men and women.

“The diversity and vibrancy of the congregation impressed me greatly,” said Jessica Morris, 24, an American who works for a Nairobi-based organization dealing with African refugees.

“My synagogue in Atlanta, while relatively large, is demographically very homogenous — most people grew up in the same neighborhoods and are in similar income brackets,” she told JTA. “In the Nairobi congregation, Israelis, white Kenyans, Americans, the odd Canadian and Africans from all walks of life worship together and make decisions together as a congregation.”

Rabbi Chananya Rogalsky, an American who is an African envoy for Chabad-Lubavitch, led services together with Dudi Greenberg, a Jewish Agency for Israel emissary who landed in Nairobi with his wife just before the start of the holiday.

Roni Oved, an Israeli businessman who has lived in Nairobi for several years is and a member of the synagogue’s prayer committee, blew the shofar on Sunday.

Jehu Kitoli, one of the unconverted Kenyans, wore a yarmulke and prayer shawl several rows away from Dr. David Silverstein, a community leader and the personal physician of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi. Silverstein is an American who has lived in the country for almost 30 years.

Peace Corps volunteer Scott Bussell of Berkeley, Calif., who has spent 18 months in eastern Kenya, said he wants to identify more with Judaism and is considering the possibility of studying medicine at an Israeli university after he finishes his Peace Corps service.

The holiday was the first for the new Israeli ambassador to Kenya, Emanuel Seri, who arrived in Nairobi with his wife during the last two months, as did several of his top diplomatic and security staff.

He joined a Jewish community that has been on high alert since the November 2002 attacks.

The embassy itself, located in a suburban neighborhood, resembles a fortress, with security guards always keeping a watch on passing vehicles.

A “friendly checkpoint” on the road in front of the embassy, complete with obstacles, was erected immediately after the terrorist attacks.

“There is no doubt that the events of the last year have caused security concerns for Israelis living in Nairobi. However, the Kenyan authorities are working to eliminate these terrorists from our midst,” said Gilad Millo, deputy chief of mission for the Israeli Embassy in Kenya.

Fears of terrorism and crime, which also plagues Nairobi, demand security measures for the synagogue that are unknown to most North American Jews.

The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, located on the outskirts of the city’s downtown area, is situated inside a closed compound that is gated off from a major road.

“It’s not easy to be Israeli or Jewish anywhere in the world these days, and there is always a threat,” said Millo. “But the community in Nairobi did not allow these threats to affect Rosh Hashanah, which was celebrated in synagogue and with delicious traditional dinners all over Nairobi.”

That community spirit left its mark on Morris.

Ambassador Seri’s wife, Tikva, invited her to a traditional meal on Saturday night.

Morris said she received such a warm reception from the Nairobi congregants that she did not miss her family at all.

“Now that I’ve established a connection with the Jewish community in Nairobi — something bigger than myself — this place feels more like home,” Morris said. “Amazingly, this community is tied to the Jewish community I left behind: I met a fellow Atlanta Jew at services, now a Nairobi resident, who went to the same high school as me.”

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