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Building homes and a Jewish life in Namibia

  • TaliNamibia1
David Akinin could be described as a wandering Jew. Born in Venezuela, he moved to America and finally settled in Namibia, where he builds affordable housing, uplifts communities and is deeply involved in its small but historic Jewish community.
by TALI FEINBERG | Apr 26, 2018

“My parents were born in Spain and Morocco. They met in Latin America after most Jews emigrated there from Morocco in the 1960s,” explains Akinin.

He grew up in Caracas and when he was 11 years old, “two men came into our home when we were sleeping and took my three brothers and me captive. After several hours of captivity, we managed to escape.

“When the political situation in Venezuela worsened, it hurt not only the Jewish community, but also everyone. Our parents left everything behind, packed some bags and looked for new beginnings in America, just as their parents did from Morocco and Spain 50 years earlier.”

Akinin finished high school in the US. “Being an immigrant affects people differently. I think it made me tougher and more passionate about making an impact on my world. In America, we worked every day after school, helping the family business or getting good grades. But it was overwhelming at first.

“My high school had more than 4 000 people. I remember complaining to my father that ‘I am just a number’. My dad, Ysaac, said a number is just a starting point, and a name is what you build for yourself. Four years later, I graduated as the top student in the class.”

When he was 16, Akinin started two organisations that would play a huge part in his future. “I co-founded Shoes4Africa, Inc, a non-profit organisation that collected shoes for the less fortunate in Western Africa. We shipped more than 6 000 pairs to Enugu in Nigeria.”

Then, together with two friends, Joel Wiznitzer and Alex Arabov, he started One Jew, One Story, as a non-for-profit campaign that documents, through video, the life stories of Jewish American soldiers and war survivors.

Akinin graduated from the University of Chicago, where he was president of the Chabad Student Board in the South Side of Chicago. In New York, he was a member of the Jewish Latin Center.

This was just the beginning of his story. “I had some great experiences working at Google and Credit Suisse – in technology and investment banking, respectively – for several years. But I was missing a sense of social impact, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Travelling to Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia and eventually Namibia during his work holidays helped him find what he was looking for. “They were all amazing places, and I fell in love with the latter place.”

On his visit to Namibia, Akinin quickly realised there was a huge housing demand, and the government was not meeting the need. Civil servants all over the country needed housing. Teachers, nurses, police officers and farmers in the most remote of towns had no one building houses there.

Enter Akinin. “I’ve been here since 2014, building affordable housing all over the country through a company I founded called Atenu Developments. We have since expanded to become contractors, and I build schools and clinics with the Pupkewitz Foundation. It’s a large foundation run by the amazing Meryl Barry, a member of our Jewish community.”

Akinin is studying part time for his master’s degree in Inclusive Innovation through the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

“Namibia is a beautiful country, with vast landscapes and scenery that is alive; kind people everywhere; animals cohabiting in the most remote spaces; and a melange of local cultures that today I call home.”

He says that while it isn’t easy living a Jewish life in Namibia, “if there’s a will, there’s a way. We are a small Jewish community, operating out of one shul in Windhoek. Sometimes I drive up to 10 hours from the very north of the country where we may be building housing in a new town, so that I can make it to Shabbat services in the capital, Windhoek.

“It’s a surreal feeling, waking up at 6am in a very rural town where you’re laying a cornerstone, and come 6pm, you’re saying the Shema with other Jews in another corner of the country. It’s refreshing, fulfilling and inspiring.

“On a typical Friday night, we get four to six Jews for prayers. And on some holidays, if we plan ahead and prepare, we can get a minyan. This past Pesach, we had about 30 people or so for a community Seder. Although we don’t have an official rabbi, Zvi Gorelick presides over services and does an amazing job. He brings kosher meat and food from Cape Town for locals and tourists.”

Akinin is trying hard to revive the community. He joined the Windhoek Hebrew Congregation’s Board of Trustees last year, and became its vice-president this year. They are planning a Shavuot event and are about to announce a sponsored Oneg Shabbat once a month.

Akinin estimates that there are 60 to 70 Jews in Namibia, counting Israelis. They comprise people working temporarily in the country as well as established members of the community.

“Namibia’s Jewish community is Orthodox,” says Akinin. “The Windhoek Hebrew Congregation dates back to 1917 and built a beautiful, historical shul in 1925.

“The first Jews came to Namibia in the 1800s. Some of the most influential businesspeople and judges in the country were Jewish, and the community has definitely made its mark on the history of the country.”

The congregation recently published a book, titled History of the Jews in Namibia.

Akinin says that Namibians are kind and respectful of all religions. “They’re very religious, and so have a deep respect for Jewish culture, despite not knowing much about it. You find names like Naftali, Levi, Samuel, Joseph and Moses all over the place. I share with people in our company about our traditions and they’re always eager to learn.

“We have done Shabbat several times up in the ‘bush’, when we are working on housing projects in Ruacana and Nkurenkuru, both border towns near Angola. The best experience was saying Kiddush in a Himba village called Otjomuru, where I am currently building a clinic. Our team actually camp out in the Zebra Mountains, and since there is no electricity, no cellphone network and no shops, I could safely say our entire team kept Shabbat that weekend!

“This year, I proposed to our board that we should create and refurbish the marriage and cemetery registries of the Jewish community in Namibia. I plan on raising funds to also tidy up the graveyards, as so many of these haven’t been looked at for years. There should be five Jewish cemeteries around Namibia.”

Akinin emphasised that Jewish values can be taken anywhere: “I grew up in a home with strong Jewish values in Venezuela, brought from old Moroccan-Spanish traditions. Moving taught me that staying strong to my Jewish values would guide me in life. These values always help me find a family wherever I plant my roots and keep me spiritually connected.

“No matter how small a community we are, we must always work hard at keeping the flame going, like the Maccabees did in the Temple. For me, being Jewish and pursuing my life goals are not exclusive of each other. I am thankful to the Namibian people for making me feel at home, but more so to the Jewish community for allowing me to continue being myself in the most remote of places.”

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