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Around the Jewish World in Zimbabwe, Jews Carry on After Arson Destroys Biggest Shul

October 31, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Anti-Semitism doesn’t appear to have played a factor in the arson of a Zimbabwean synagogue the day before Yom Kippur — but the same can’t be said for a letter that followed the blaze.

Barely a week after the Oct. 4 fire, which completely destroyed the 90-year-old landmark in the city of Bulawayo except for its foyer and facade, a controversial letter written under the pseudonym “Busybody” appeared in the Bulawayo Chronicle.

One theory, he writes, was that “church members” were keeping foreign currency and millions of dollars in local currency there to “cushion themselves against the cash shortages” that Zimbabwe is experiencing.

The writer also said the synagogue members were keeping their passports there, as well as “Jewish mementoes” that they intended on “repatriating” to Jerusalem and archives that were “guarded by the Israeli army day and night.”

And then he delivers his coup de grace.

“Several, and so Busybody understands, had found a ‘safe’ place to keep their hoarded fuel,” at a time that Zimbabwe is suffering from food and fuel shortages, with people queuing for days at gas stations. “Sources say it was that fuel that might have triggered the fire.”

Former Bulawayo resident Abe Abrahamson told JTA that Jews who congregated at the site of the destroyed synagogue on the day of the fire wept and recited Kaddish.

In his letter, the letter writer latches onto this fact in support of his theory, saying that whatever was being kept there must have been “very big, judging by the amount of emotion, dejection and desperation on the faces of the victims that fateful Saturday.”

Alan Feigenbaum, president of the 110-year-old Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation — the country’s oldest synagogue and, in its heyday, the largest in Zimbabwe — said that despite the publication of the letter and the anti-white sentiment rampant in the country, the community did not feel threatened as Jews.

“We are not having any real major problems in that way,” he said.

He said the community had been “devastated” by the fire, “but we’ll carry on and see how to reorganize our lives, and we will have services on a regular basis.”

Despite the dwindling number of Jews in the country — down to 600 from a peak of 8,500 in the 1960s — the community had engaged a rabbi from Israel in time for the High Holidays.

The Jewish exodus has come amid a time of turbulence and upheaval in Zimbabwe, which is ruled by the mercurial Robert Mugabe.

Over the past several years, black “war veterans” have invaded white-owned farms across the country and turned out their owners. Hundreds of thousands of black farm workers and their families also have been thrown out of their homes.

The country’s economy has deteriorated into massive unemployment and runaway inflation, and over 80 percent of the black population now lives below the poverty line. A long-standing drought has exacerbated the risk of hunger.

For now, the 159-strong Bulawayo congregation is holding services in the Sinai Jewish Community Center, using prayer books and prayer shawls sent from communities in Cape Town and Johannesburg — some of which arrived in time for Yom Kippur services the day after the fire.

“They are coping very well and are quite satisfied with using the Sinai for their immediate needs. From there, I don’t know,” Feigenbaum said.

Ignoring the warnings of firefighters, congregants Rodney Lepar and Raymond Roth braved the flames and managed to save all the Torah scrolls, as well as a 350-year-old curtain that covers the Holy Ark.

Lepar, 51, who has lived in Bulawayo all his life, said he too had been “devastated” by the fire.

“Part of our lives and our history has just gone. The wonderful memories are there, though,” he said. “I was heart- sore to see the shul go up in smoke.”

In a poignant twist, Leizer Abrahamson, 104, recited from the Torah — as he does at most services — at what proved to be the last service held at the shul.

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