Zim’s Lemba are building their first shul
For centuries the Lemba tribe in south-east Zimbabwe, who believe that they are a lost tribe of Israel, have had to hide their connection to Judaism due to the prejudice it brought on them. Many have converted to Islam and Christianity, and there is a mosque and church in almost every Lemba town in Zimbabwe.
But over the past few decades, things have changed.
RIGHT: Zimbabwe’s Lemba building their first shul in Mutuzu
The Lemba of Zimbabwe, and indeed their compatriots in the east of SA’s Limpopo province over the border, have come out of their proverbial closets and now openly display their practices of male circumcision and kashrut — strict Jewish dietary laws — and align with their belief that they are the descendants of Jews who fled the Holy Land thousands of years ago.
Now, in Mapakomhere, in Masvingo District, the heart of Lemba territory, there is now the beginning of a bigger spiritual message to the world: the Lemba are building their first shul! The 500 square meter building is being financed to the tune of half a million Rand by US non-profit “Kulanu” (Hebrew for “all of us”) which works around the world to support isolated and emerging Jewish communities who wish to learn more about Judaism and (re-)connect with the wider Jewish community.
This, however, creates a headache for the twelve-nation African Jewish Congress (AJC) chaired by Ann Harris and with “Travelling Rabbi” Moshe Silberhaft as its CEO and Spiritual Leader. The AJC took a policy decision four years ago not to accede to requests from several black groups who consider themselves Jews and who wanted the AJC to minister to them and neither does it, or Israel, consider them Jewish.
While the Lemba don’t appear physically distinct from their fellow South Africans and Zimbabweans, their beliefs in their traditional roots sure are. And so is their DNA. Lemba men carry the Cohen modal haplotype Y-chromosomal type characteristic of the Jewish priesthood at about the same rate as that of major Jewish populations. The results convinced the world and members of the Lemba community themselves of the validity of the legends, something some members of the younger generation had doubted.
LEFT: A local leader of the Lemba people
Located near the village centre, atop a hill overlooking a valley, the spot was chosen to help convey the image of ascending to a place of worship, said Rabson Wuriga, secretary of the new shul and Lemba Cultural Association.
The foundation for the 35 meter long, 15 meter wide structure has been laid and the walls are being built. Most of the workers are not paid. They do it because they place immense importance on their connection to the Jewish religion and the shul is a symbol of their commitment to that religion, says the Lemba coordinator for Kulanu, Israel-based Sandy Leeder.
The Lemba want to preserve their culture. They daven as Jews do. “They realise they can’t do it by themselves, because they don’t have the structure and they’re being missionised,” Leeder says.
George Zvakavapano, a 24 year–old in tight jeans and a yarmulke, told AlJazeera in an interview recently: “I knew I was a Jew, but from the start I wanted proof,” he said. After his DNA results came out earlier this year, proving Zvakavapano carried the Cohen Y-chromosom, he was elated: “This is real,” he said, and immediately started taking Judaism seriously as a religion, studying Hebrew and even adapting some of the clothing of Orthodox Jews like a tallit katan, the vest-like garment with ritual fringes attached to it. During Saturday services in Harare he serves as a Shamashi, or helper, distributing prayer books, setting out chairs and cleaning up after the service.
Jack Zeller, president emeritus of “Kulanu Inc.” and Sandy Leeder, the organisations treasurer and Lemba Coordinator, have invited R. Silberhaft to a meeting in Israel. Silberhaft said earlier this month that for “humanitarian” reasons the AJC were looking for solutions for the largest groups of African Jewish claimants and this week he told Jewish Report he has accepted Kulanu’s request and will be meeting with them in a few weeks.
AlJazeera’s story continues: On a Saturday in March, Zvakavapano draped a prayer shawl over his shoulders and stood up front beside his uncle, Maeresera, at various points throughout the service. When ritual grape juice and challa are served toward the end, it is Zvakavapano who offers them to the dozen or so congregation members in attendance.
To him, Judaism makes sense. The rituals surrounding food help keep the food free of contamination and circumcision may decrease the risk of certain diseases. The religion has become so much a part of his identity it is more important for him to marry a Jewish woman than a Lemba.
“I have to marry a Jew, even if she’s non-Lemba,” he said.
Which leads him to his first difficulty with practicing Judaism in Zimbabwe; there are few marital prospects. He points out that there was only one eligible young woman in attendance that day at service.
AJC chair Ann Harris and CEO Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft PICTURED, RIGHT, are left holding the baby on this matter, as reported on in Africa’s ‘lost tribe’ of Jews in a pickle earlier this month. The AJC was hopping mad after Israeli senior Mizrachi rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, inadvertently created a humanitarian crisis by converting hundreds of Abu Yudaya in Uganda some years ago.
Silberhaft told Jewish Report that this had compromised the AJC: “The AJC does not minister to (the Abu Yudaya),” he said emphatically, neither does it, or Israel, consider them Jewish.
This added to the major brouhaha building up in international Jewry after the most respected Mizrachi rabbi, who is also the Chief Rabbi of the settlement of Efrat, where many SA Olim (immigrants) have settled, was summoned to a hearing by the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel scheduled for 29 June. WATCH THIS SPACE…
Make-shift rabbi Maeresera
“If they become Christian, they lose these traditions,” Leeder said. And, “if they become Muslim, they lose drinking — and they like to drink.”
In a quiet neighbourhood in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, barefoot boys wearing yarmulkes run around a small compound. Inside the walled enclosure is a single-story building that serves as both Maeresera’s home and a makeshift worship centre. On Saturday mornings the front door remains open as members of the congregation stream in and out during the course of a two-plus hour service.
Maeresera, the closest thing the community has to a rabbi, leads the congregation. He stands tall and composed, reading, speaking and singing in a mixture of English, Hebrew and the local Shona language. Among the boys in attendance are Maeresera’s sons; Aviv, 5, named for the Hebrew word for spring, and Shlomo, 2, or Solomon in Hebrew. Seated in the back is Maeresera’s father, Adin, 83. Like many of his generation, Adin is considered a “strict Lemba,” someone who takes the tribe’s traditions and customs extremely seriously. He is attending his son’s service for the first time and is surprised, and proud, to hear him conducting parts of it in Hebrew.
The “People from Elsewhere”
“I grew up being told the Lemba were Jews, but when I was growing up I never saw a https://www.sajr.co.za/images/default-source/places/world/sajr—call-back-the-past.jpg” class=”sfImageWrapper”>
A local leader of the Lemba, wearing a talit, speaks to locals