TOWN, July 27 (JTA) -- Hylton Solomon, a Zimbabwean Jewish leader, says
that he has never felt threatened by the turbulent goings-on in the
country, though he did admit to feeling a little bit uneasy during
the government’s recent Operation Restore Order, which saw hundreds of
thousands of street vendors and others being driven out of urban areas and
rendered homeless in midwinter.
It was like Kristallnacht. You cannot
describe it in any other way, says Solomon, the president of the
Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation.
Zimbabwes mostly elderly Jewish
community has dwindled through emigration to around 300 individuals from a
high of 7,500 in the early 1970s. Despite its much diminished size and the
rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation in the country,
Jewish life, though curtailed, carries on.
Despite Solomons wariness, he says he
hasnt yet reached his trigger point. Maybe Im an idiot for
staying here. In Germany, all the pessimists survived and all the
optimists died, he adds.
But his three children are all studying in
And I don’t have to tell you what that
costs. This is where I earn my bread, he says.
Solomon also refuses to criticize the
country, taking a swipe at those who do. This place has been good to
us, and I get upset when people leave here and live in mansions in Clifton
or Fresnaye and condemn this place. Whatever they ve got there came from
here, he says angrily, referring to affluent areas of neighboring South
Maybe things did turn sour. But this
country’s been fantastic to Jews over the years. Apart from the fact
that the shul burnt down and we’re not quite sure what happened
there, Solomon says, in reference to the fire that destroyed the
Bulawayo synagogue on Yom Kippur Eve in 2003, the cemetery’s never
been desecrated. There’s never been any anti-Semitism and swastikas
painted on walls.
Despite food shortages, he says they
don’t skimp on anything for the 35 residents of Savyon Lodge, the only
Jewish home for the aged in the country, situated in Bulawayo. Because
there are so few people who earn a salary sufficient to enable them to
contribute to its upkeep, Solomon says the community tries to solicit
donations, including from former Zimbabweans.
Daily synagogue services, as well as Jewish
lessons, are held in the city, and the Jewish holidays are celebrated even though we sometimes battle for a
minyan, he says.
Shelley Lasker, a teacher at Bulawayo’s
Carmel School, a Jewish day school, agrees that the Jewish community does
not in any way feel physically threatened but says that with the
rapidly devaluing currency, economic security is a problem.
When a country is in a state of economic
collapse and people’s pensions have been directly affected by the
situation here, then, yes, they do feel insecure. People who thought that
they’d provided well for their old age find that that is no longer the
Though a mere five of the schools 200
children are Jewish, they still celebrate Shabbat every Friday. We
light candles and have kitke when we can get it, she said, using the
term used in southern Africa for challah.
One result of the emigration that has taken
place from Zimbabwe over the years is that the Jewish community is older.
One of the saddest things is that these
old people are not part of a greater community anymore by virtue of the
fact that there isnt a greater community, says Lasker.
They don’t have access to children.
They rarely see their families because their children and grandchildren
have left the country. So it’s very lonely for them. Of course Jewish
life is affected. You try and have a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration, she
said, referring to the holiday that commemorates Israeli Independence Day,
and you’ve got to try and pole-vault them into the bus when they can
barely walk, never mind do the hora.
Lasker describes the country’s only
rabbi, Rabbi Nathan Asmoucha of the Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation, as an incredible man.
He has come to a tiny community of
mainly old people – I think his most active role has been in holding
funerals – yet he remains positive, loving and giving.
Solomon adds that the rabbi has made an
appeal to the community to assist those displaced by Operation Restore
Order, saying that they cannot as Jews just stand by. So we are going
to raise some money, buy some blankets and distribute them.
The two synagogues – Ashkenazi and
Sephardi — in the capital city, Harare, have combined forces for Shabbat
and holiday services in order to ensure a minyan. While the oil crisis
affects synagogue attendance, Peter Sternberg, the president of the
Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies, says the main problem is that there
are fewer and fewer left to attend.
A shochet, or ritual slaughterer, comes to
Zimbabwe from South Africa twice a year, but with so few animals available
— a result of the disruption of farm production caused by
government-sponsored farm invasions — that there is rationing of red
Sternberg expresses gratitude for the
tangible, as well as moral, support that Zimbabwe’s Jews receive from
the African Jewish Congress, an initiative of the South African Jewish
Board of Deputies, which sees to the needs of the small and far-flung
Jewish communities of sub-Saharan Africa. He said that Rabbi Moshe
Silberhaft, the spiritual leader of the AJC, arranges for someone to
officiate on the High Holy Days, in addition to providing special prayer
They also send up the South African
Jewish Report on Friday, Sternberg said, referring to the newspaper. Without them, we would really be stuck, he says.