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Small but significant – that’s Maputo’s Jewish community

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With a rich history dating back to the late 1800s, the Jewish community of Maputo, capital of Mozambique, has faltered, but never fallen. The recent rededication of the city’s Jewish Cemetery reflects this small community’s passion for preserving its heritage.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Apr 12, 2018

Maputo’s Jewish community currently numbers about 70 members, whose tenacity is inspirational. In February this year, they rededicated the restored Jewish Cemetery of Maputo. Repairing broken monuments and faded lettering on tombstones, community members José Douwens Soares and Paulo Soares led the restoration process, which was financed by both the African Jewish Congress (AJC), representing Jewish communities in sub-Saharan Africa, and the community.

“It was a real labour of love,” says community leader and treasurer Samuel Levy. “The restoration and rededication of the cemetery was an obvious mitzvah to follow. Through this, we both honour the departed and reaffirm our heritage.”

Although the first Jewish congregation in Mozambique officially came into being in 1899, there are Jewish graves dating back to the 1880s.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft led the rededication ceremony. He serves as the SA Jewish Board of Deputies’ Rabbi to Country Communities, as the spiritual leader and CEO of the AJC, and as the African regional director of the Commonwealth Jewish Council. “We had a large Jewish presence as well as attendance from the locals at the ceremony,” says Silberhaft.

Many in the community consider themselves to be Marranos – Spanish or Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the late Middle Ages and practise Judaism in secret.

The cemetery’s restoration gave rise to further Jewish learning. “The community has an apartment, which is used as a rabbi’s flat and as a community centre. Here, we dedicated a Jewish library, with Jewish books for adults and children donated from South Africa,” says Silberhaft. “It was very well received.”

The Jewish community of Mozambique is now known as the Associação Honen Dalim – Comunidade Judaica de Moçambique. It  officially started up in 1899, when South Africa’s late chief rabbi, Dr Joseph Herman Hertz, was exiled there by Paul Kruger because of his pro-British activities. The first and only synagogue in the country was built in Maputo in 1926, in a classical baroque style.

The community ebbed and flowed, reaching its height in 1942, thanks to immigration restrictions and the effects of World War II. That’s when as many as 500 people made up Maputo’s Jewish population.

Mozambique was a sanctuary for Jews looking to escape Nazi Germany. Some of the country’s Jewish leaders assisted 40 families in Beira and 80 individuals in Maputo. Yet the community’s numbers diminished. A decade-long armed struggle to secure Mozambique’s  independence from Portugal was fought from 1964 to 1974. After the country gained its independence in 1975 came civil war and, with it, the curtailment of freedom of religion. During the 15-year civil war, lasting from 1977 to 1992, a high percentage of Jews left Maputo. The synagogue was abandoned and the cemetery vandalised.

However, by 1989, the synagogue was back in Jewish hands and regular Shabbat services were restored between 1993 and 1994. In April 1994, South Africa’s former chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, personally delivered a Sefer Torah donated by a Cape Town-based community to the synagogue. It was later returned to South Africa as the synagogue fell into disrepair and membership declined.

Tides changed again with the resurgence of the Mozambican Jewish community, and in 2012, the synagogue was completely restored.

In 2013, Rabbi Harris’ widow, Ann Harris, returned to Mozambique and restored the Sefer Torah to the community – a pivotal milestone. “There was a big rededication ceremony, with the Israeli ambassador and Mozambican ministers in attendance,” recalls Silberhaft.

While they’re still small in number, Mozambique’s Jewish community make their voices heard. “They have very good, strong leaders, who are proactive, which makes a big difference,” says Silberhaft. “There’s huge interest from the Jewish and wider community. They’re also well respected throughout the country.”

Refreshingly, there’s no discernible anti-Semitism, says Levy. “Quite the opposite – the Jewish community is welcomed among all the faiths. We have cordial relations with all groups in the country – Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Bahai, among others. Mozambique actively cultivates tolerance along many dimensions.”

What’s more, Mozambique has an honorary consul for Israel. “They’re our representative for Israel in the country, and they’re very well connected and well respected by the government,” says Silberhaft. “While it’s rare, if there’s any sentiment we’re ever worried about, we can go straight to government.

“Sam Levy is also our representative at interstate functions. If there’s ever an event to which the Jewish community is invited, he is present. In many countries, including South Africa, that doesn’t often happen!”

That’s not to say the community don’t have their struggles. “The challenges we face are those common to small communities: educating our children, finding a minyan when someone has Kaddish, and observing all the holidays,” says Levy.

“A lot of kosher food is available in Maputo, though, because of the prevalence of groceries imported from South Africa, an astonishing fraction of which have a hechsher. We don’t have a shochet, so we get our kosher meat from South Africa. Kosher World supermarket in Johannesburg has been a lifeline for us.”

No members of Mozambique’s Jewish community are Orthodox, says Levy, yet they identify strongly with their heritage and many are shul-goers. “Notwithstanding, we keep a rigorously kosher, meat-only kitchen and apartment next to the synagogue to celebrate Shabbat and the chaggim with the community, to supply kosher food to visitors who need it, and to host visiting rabbis and other guests.

“Our community keeps all the chagim. We’re multilingual, so our services are conducted mostly in Hebrew, but with a lot of Portuguese and English mixed in. Our Kabbalat Shabbat service is especially joyful, with lots of singing and clapping.

“The support and encouragement we’ve received from Rabbi Silberhaft and Rabbis Mendel and Levi Lipskar of Chabad SA has allowed us to deepen the quality of Jewish life in Maputo in recent times,” he adds.

While they’ll never be a massive community, the resilience of Mozambique’s Jewry is undeniable and the future looks bright for the community. “The country is in a fairly good political situation at the moment,” says Silberhaft. “When there’s political stability, there are business opportunities, and that’s when the Jews move in.”

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