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Around the Jewish World Tiny Jewish Community Perseveres Despite Zimbabwe’s Economic Woes

July 28, 2005
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Hylton Solomon, a Zimbabwean Jewish leader, says that he has never felt threatened by the turbulent goings-on in the country, though he did admit to feeling “a little bit uneasy” during the government’s recent Operation Restore Order, which saw hundreds of thousands of street vendors and others being driven out of urban areas and rendered homeless in midwinter. “It was like Kristallnacht. You can’t describe it in any other way,” says Solomon, the president of the Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation.

Zimbabwe’s mostly elderly Jewish community has dwindled through emigration to around 300 individuals from a high of 7,500 in the early 1970s. Despite its much diminished size and the rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation in the country, Jewish life, though curtailed, carries on.

Despite Solomon’s wariness, he says he hasn’t yet reached his “trigger point.” “Maybe I’m an idiot for staying here. In Germany, all the pessimists survived and all the optimists died,” he adds.

But his three children are all studying in South Africa.

“And I don’t have to tell you what that costs. This is where I earn my bread,” he says.

Solomon also refuses to criticize the country, taking a swipe at those who do. “This place has been good to us, and I get upset when people leave here and live in mansions in Clifton or Fresnaye and condemn this place. Whatever they’ve got there came from here,” he says angrily, referring to affluent areas of neighboring South Africa.

“Maybe things did turn sour. But this country’s been fantastic to Jews over the years. Apart from the fact that the shul burnt down and we’re not quite sure what happened there,” Solomon says, in reference to the fire that destroyed the Bulawayo synagogue on Yom Kippur Eve in 2003, “the cemetery’s never been desecrated. There’s never been any anti-Semitism and swastikas painted on walls.”

Despite food shortages, he says they don’t skimp on anything for the 35 residents of Savyon Lodge, the only Jewish home for the aged in the country, situated in Bulawayo. Because there are so few people who earn a salary sufficient to enable them to contribute to its upkeep, Solomon says the community tries to solicit donations, including from former Zimbabweans.

Daily synagogue services, as well as Jewish lessons, are held in the city, and the Jewish holidays are celebrated “even though we sometimes battle for a minyan,” he says.

Shelley Lasker, a teacher at Bulawayo’s Carmel School, a Jewish day school, agrees that the Jewish community does not “in any way” feel physically threatened but says that with the rapidly devaluing currency, economic security is a problem.

“When a country is in a state of economic collapse and people’s pensions have been directly affected by the situation here, then, yes, they do feel insecure. People who thought that they’d provided well for their old age find that that is no longer the case.”

Though a mere five of the school’s 200 children are Jewish, they still celebrate Shabbat every Friday. “We light candles and have kitke when we can get it,” she said, using the term used in southern Africa for challah.

One result of the emigration that has taken place from Zimbabwe over the years is that the Jewish community is older.

“One of the saddest things is that these old people are not part of a greater community anymore by virtue of the fact that there isn’t a greater community,” says Lasker.

“They don’t have access to children. They rarely see their families because their children and grandchildren have left the country. So it’s very lonely for them. Of course Jewish life is affected. You try and have a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration,” she said, referring to the holiday that commemorates Israeli Independence Day, “and you’ve got to try and pole-vault them into the bus when they can barely walk, never mind do the hora.”

Lasker describes the country’s only rabbi, Rabbi Nathan Asmoucha of the Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation, as an “incredible man.”

“He’s come to a tiny community of mainly old people I think his most active role has been in holding funerals yet he remains positive, loving and giving.”

Solomon adds that the rabbi has made an appeal to the community to assist those displaced by Operation Restore Order, saying that they cannot as Jews just stand by. “So we are going to raise some money, buy some blankets and distribute them.”

The two synagogues Ashkenazi and Sephardi — in the capital city, Harare, have combined forces for Shabbat and holiday services in order to ensure a minyan. While the oil crisis affects synagogue attendance, Peter Sternberg, the president of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies, says the main problem is that “there are fewer and fewer left to attend.”

A shochet, or ritual slaughterer, comes to Zimbabwe from South Africa twice a year, but with so few animals available — a result of the disruption of farm production caused by government-sponsored farm invasions — that there is rationing of red meat.

Sternberg expresses gratitude for the tangible, as well as moral, support that Zimbabwe’s Jews receive from the African Jewish Congress, an initiative of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which sees to the needs of the small and far-flung Jewish communities of sub-Saharan Africa. He said that Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader of the AJC, arranges for someone to officiate on the High Holy Days, in addition to providing special prayer books.

“They also send up the South African Jewish Report on Friday,” Sternberg said, referring to the newspaper. “Without them, we would really be stuck,” he says.

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