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Local rabbis help Rwandan rabbi with first Jewish burial

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When one of his congregants passed away last week, Rabbi Chaim Bar Sella of Rwanda turned to local rabbis in South Africa to help him arrange the first Orthodox burial in Kigali.

The late George Frank, 78, made history last week when he became the first Jewish man officially buried in Kigali’s first Jewish cemetery. His wish was to be buried near his late wife in the Rwandan capital where the couple had lived for many years.

His rabbi, Bar Sella, with whom he had forged a meaningful bond in his later years, made sure his wish came true.

“We met soon after my arrival in Rwanda with my wife and son to set up the Chabad Centre in September 2019,” said Bar Sella. “George came to visit Chabad House, and I invited him for Rosh Hashanah. On erev Yom Kippur that year, he laid tefillin for the first time in his life just minutes before the Kol Nidre service. It was very special for everyone there to witness,” he said.

Recalling that moment, he said, “I told George to put on tefillin, and he said to me, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Just do it, and we will talk afterwards, there isn’t time’. That Yom Kippur was significant and touching, it was like his Barmitzvah, like the birthday of his neshoma [soul].”

Since then, Frank and the rabbi became close. “I would visit him on Fridays with challah for Shabbos, and lay tefillin with him,” said Bar Sella.

On Frank’s passing, Bar Sella turned to Chabad of Central Africa, led by Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo for guidance.

“Travel between various African countries is restricted, so Rabbi Bentolila advised me to get in touch with the Chevrah Kadisha in South Africa as the country was still allowing travel to Rwanda, and it would help,” said Bar Sella.

This led him to Rabbi Jonathan Fox of the Chevrah Kadisha in Johannesburg, who put him in touch with the travelling rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, rabbi to the newly established Small Jewish Communities Association, who it was hoped would fly there and assist.

“Rabbi Fox called me about this rabbi needing help arranging a Jewish burial in Kigali. The initial idea was for me to fly out there and assist him, but COVID-19 put an end to that, so I landed up helping him online with all the arrangements,” Silberhaft said.

As far as he is aware, there has never been a Jewish cemetery in Rwanda, and the majority of Jews living there are Israelis whose burials take place back home in Israel following their deaths.

“We did all the planning online,” said Silberhaft, who explained that Bar Sella first needed to secure land from local authorities.

Bar Sella met the manager of the Rusororo Cemetery to explain what was needed. “He was very understanding and respectful, and allocated a separate and large area of land at the cemetery,” he said.

Silberhaft explained how to consecrate the land for Jewish burial.

Bar Sella gathered a minyan of men, and the land was consecrated in a special ceremony according to Silberhaft’s advice.

“I explained the ritual of tahara [washing and purifying the body] and all the specific coffin requirements. His daughter brought with her a special shroud from the London Chevrah Kadisha which was used. I was very encouraged by the rabbi’s positive energy and for reaching out. It was a memorable learning experience for him,” said Silberhaft.

The deceased, who was born in France in 1943, spent many years in various African countries for work. His four children live in the United Kingdom, and three of them were present when he was finally laid to rest last Wednesday in the presence of a minyan and several congregants and locals.

“It was my first time doing something like this, and it was a very moving ceremony. I’m grateful for Rabbi Silberhaft’s help, and I’m pleased that my friend George was buried according to Jewish tradition,” Bar Sella said.

Rabbi Bar Sella, his wife Dina, and their son, Shneur, arrived in Rwanda in 2019, and set up the first synagogue in the country served by a permanent rabbi.

In the past, yeshiva students have made visits to Rwanda to run occasional Jewish events as part of Chabad’s Roving Rabbis programme.

Bar Sella said that the Chabad centre served Jewish humanitarian workers and visiting businesspeople, many of whom were Israeli, and tourists coming to see the famous gorillas.

“Rwanda is a great place. It’s safe, and you can walk in the streets anytime, day or night. It’s clean, with no pollution. We don’t use plastic here – it’s a green country. Our community usually gets its meat from Johannesburg and chickens from Israel. During COVID-19, it has been difficult. But I’m pleased to say now there is a special little place reserved for Jewish burials in Rwanda.”

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