Peter Sternberg (President Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies)
By sharing a common border with Zimbabwe, South African's should by now be well conversant with the grave problems facing its northern neighbour, problems which have been escalating these past five years and which continue to intensify on a daily basis.
A country where famine stalks and food shortages are endemic, unemployment well exceeds 70%, inflation is rampant, the value of the currency has plunged so that it has become next to worthless, fuel shortages are crippling the economy, power and water cuts are common occurrences and prices of those commodities that are still available rise on an almost day to day basis. And on another level, freedom of speech and press are severely eroded.
This then provides an overview of what the population of Zimbabwe faces and this includes the rapidly dwindling Jewish community of that country.
Yet, despite the turmoil and extreme uncertainty in virtually everyone's lives, the small Jewish population of approximately 300 individuals (down from an all time high of some 7,500 in the 1960s) continues to function. The community is a rapidly aging one and either live in Bulawayo (100 persons) or Harare (200). These two communities between them maintain no less than three fully functioning synagogues, two junior day schools, a fully kosher old aged home, two welfare/benefit societies and a number of organizations such as the UJW and WIZO. The country's sole rabbi is based with the Bulawayo congregation and laymen conduct the services in Harare.
The Bulawayo synagogue, which dated back to 1897, was destroyed by fire in 2003 but arson was not suspected. The congregation now uses the former Progressive Congregation synagogue in that city. In Harare, the Harare Hebrew Congregation
and Sephardi Congregation members alternate synagogue premises each week with a combined minyan to enable services to be held. The Chevra Kadisha's likewise assist each other.
All three town's in the Midlands province of Zimbabwe, which once formed a vigorous section of the country's community now no longer have a Jewish presence. The Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies undertook to renovate and protect all the now abandoned Jewish cemeteries in the entire country and in 2004 the last of these cemeteries was re-consecrated. These cemeteries are being maintained on a regular basis - costs are borne by the Z.J.B. of Deputies. Incidentally, one of these cemeteries is being maintained by the town's Muslim Community, which provides an excellent example of religious tolerance found in Zimbabwe.
Both Carmel School in Bulawayo and Sharon School in Harare still function although the actual number of Jewish children at these schools now form a bare minimum of the intake, and the future of these schools is uncertain. State interference in the private school sector has proved most disruptive and makes it extremely difficult for the smooth running of these and other private schools in the country.
Antisemitism appears, thank goodness, not to be a problem in Zimbabwe and our relations with other members of the community are most cordial. Perhaps because there are so many problems facing society in this day and age no one has time to
start up new problems of this nature! However, we remain vigilant and wish to thank the C.S.O. for their ongoing assistance and advice.
Emigration and an aging community are taking their toll and regrettably the Jewish population will continue to shrink, of that there is no doubt. The Board of Deputies, like the other remaining Jewish communal bodies, continues to function to the best of its ability, with fewer numbers willing, or able, to fill committee posts and this situation likewise does not auger well for the future.
On behalf of the Zimbabwean Board of Deputies and the entire community I should like to sincerely thank the African Jewish Congress, its President, Mr. Mervyn Smith and in particular its Spiritual Leader, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft for the unstinting support given to the Zimbabwean Jewish community and Board of Deputies at all times. This support is greatly appreciated.