Jewry – 100 not out
A hundred years of Jewish life in Kenya was celebrated in fine style last month with a weekend of festivities marking the centenary of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation. A sizable contingent of South Africans were in attendance, amongst them African Jewish Congress (AJC) President Mervyn Smith and SAJBD chairperson and vice-chairperson Michael Bagraim and Ivan Levy. Also present were Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, who in addition to his work in the South African country communities is also Spiritual Leader to the AJC, and Ivor Davis, a former Rosh Kehilla of the Nairobi community and former President of the Harare Hebrew Congregation.
Smith, who helped found the AJC in 1993 when he was still national chairman of the SAJBD, emphasized the importance of the strong South African Jewish community maintaining strong ties with other Jewish communities on the African continent. Such contacts, he pointed out, had been impossible to maintain during the apartheid years. It had been encouraging to see how Kenyan Jewry, despite its geographical isolation and small numbers, remained firmly committed to Judaism and to Israel.
Another AJC founder who was present was Vaizman Aharoni, who was at the AJC’s inaugural conference in Harare and has since acted as the Kenyan representative in the organisation.
The weekend commenced with Shabbat services in the Nairobi synagogue. This was followed by a dinner in the adjoining Vermont Hall, hosted by the Rosh Kehilla Dr Vera Somen. The synagogue and hall form part of a large Jewish community complex in the city centre, which also includes a school and basketball courts.
In his Shabbat morning drasha, Rabbi Silberhaft paid tribute to the community’s founders, whose pioneering efforts had made possible the continuation of Jewish life in their new country far into the future.
“Your forebears founded and organized a congregation, not for themselves alone, but for those who would follow. On this special day, we rededicate your community, not simply in the faith that there will be a future, but also in the conviction that the future will be congenial to the ideals and values cherished by your predessors and by you” he said.
Shabbat was followed by a gala dinner and dance at the Lord Errol Restaurant, formerly a colonial coffee plantation and still bearing many signs of its colonial past. Amongst those in attendances were former Kenyan Attorney-General Charles Njonjo and the Hon. Churau Ali Makwere, Foreign Minister of Kenya. At the time of the famous Entebbe raid, Njonjo was instrumental on the Kenyan side in overseeing the flight path and refueling of the Israeli rescue planes. In his address, Makwere attributed his lifelong friendship with Israel and world Jewry to the fact that his father had benefited from an agricultural training scholarship to Israel, something that had significantly furthered his career on returning home and enabled him to provide his children with a better education.
Smith brought greetings on behalf of the various AJC constituent bodies and pledged the AJC’s ongoing support for the Kenyan Jewish community. A presentation of a painting showing the Ten Commandments and the three doors of the Nairobi shul was made to the congregation on behalf of the AJC. Several members of the community afterwards approached Rabbi Silberhaft for assistance in bringing kosher food to Nairobi. On Sunday, the congregation held its 100th anniversary AGM.
There are today an estimated 300 Jews living in Kenya, of who just under two-thirds are members of the Nairobi congregation. The majority of these are made up of former Israelis, who unlike Israelis in other African countries who generally return to Israel after completing their work contracts, tend to stay on in the country. Jewish residents of longer standing are made up of immigrants from the UK and Eastern Europe and their descendants.