Map of Kenya
Jewish settlement in Kenya began in the early 1900s.
In August 1903, the British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered
the Zionists a
part of the territory in Kenya (the “Uganda Scheme”)
for their own autonomous country at the Sixth
Zionist Congress. The suggestion created much controversy among
the international Jewish community, and was rejected at the Seventh
Zionist Congress, in 1905. Although, this proposal was reverted,
several Jewish families immigrated to Kenya.
In 1904, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation was established;
by 1913, 20 Jewish families lived in Nairobi and the first synagogue was built.
After the Holocaust,
many more Jews immigrated to Kenya. By 1945, the Jewish community had
grown to 150 families. In March 1947, the British set up a detention
camp in Gilgil to hold captured members of the Irgun and Lehi, Jewish underground
organizations, deported from Palestine. The Jewish community of Kenya
worked very diligently in improving the living conditions of the detainees
while stationed in Gilgil. The new synagogue in Kenya was built in 1955.
The community reached its peak in 1957 with 165 families. That same
year Israel Somen, the president of the Board of Kenya Jewry, was elected
mayor of Nairobi.
Today, approximately 400 Jews live in Kenya; most
reside in Nairobi. There are regular Shabbat and holiday services held
in the only synagogue in the country. While the majority of the congregation
is not Orthodox, the services follow Orthodox traditions, including
separate seating for men and women. The community is led by Rabbi Brachyahu Schischa, an American who is an African envoy for Chabad-Lubavitch and who was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Toreah in Riverdale, New York.
All kosher food is imported.
The community center, in the Vermont Memorial Hall, is located adjacent
to the synagogue, and holds many weekly educational and social events.
Kenya and Israel have enjoyed a strong and fruitful relationship based on mutual friendship,
respect and trust.
The roots of these friendly ties can be traced to
pre-independent times when Kenya was struggling to attain sovereignty
and, later, as a young nation coping with the challenges posed by self-governance.
Even before Kenya became independent, Israeli experts from various fields
were assisting Kenyan leaders to create and strengthen institutional
bodies needed for statehood. The seeds for the creation of organizations
such as the National Youth Service were planted, based on the Israeli
“Gadna” experience of enlisting the country’s youth
for national service, particularly in agriculture.
The similar semi-arid climate, which exists both in
Kenya and Israel, allowed this agriculture exchange of knowledge and
experience to flourish. Long before Kenyan independence, Kenyans attended
training courses in Israel. Following an official visit to Kenya by Golda Meir, Israel’s
then Minister of Foreign Affairs,
it was decided in a meeting between Meir and Kenyan Prime Minister,
Mzee Jomo Kenyatta to place more emphasis on Kenya’s training
needs in the fields of agriculture and medicine. The result was an extended
effort to train Kenyans and bring Israeli know-how to Kenya by MASHAV.
Under MASHAV, trainees from Kenya were flown to Israel
for study, an effort that continued even after diplomatic ties between
the two countries were severed following the 1973 Yom
With the resumption of diplomatic ties in 1988, MASHAV
diversified its efforts and Israeli experts arrived in Kenya to hold
“on the spot” courses in various fields for large groups
of trainees. A large-scale “school of irrigation,” was created
in collaboration with USAID in the Kibwezi district, to bring the Israeli
innovations in irrigation to Kenya. The result, following ten years
of the intense training of hundreds of Kenyan farmers, was the complete
transformation of the region surrounding the Project, into a self-sustaining,
flourishing area. The Kenyan graduates of the Kibwezi Project, learned
techniques that transformed them from farmers whose crops were barely
sufficient to sustain their own families, into farmers whose efforts
yielded enough to earn a decent living.
In addition to the success of MASHAV in enhancing
the strong bonds between Israel and Kenya, historical events have allowed
the two countries to prove their friendship to one another. Such was
the case when a group of terrorists hijacked an Air France flight to Entebbe, Uganda in 1976. The daring
rescue undertaken by Israel’s special forces could never have
taken place so far from home had Kenya not allowed the airplanes carrying
the soldiers and the freed hostages to land and refuel in its territory.
In 1998, Kenya was struck by terrorists, the target
being the American Embassy in Nairobi. As the devastating effects of
this horrific attack became clear, it was the Israeli
Defense Force rescue teams who were the first international unit
to arrive in Kenya. This experienced team, supported by heavy equipment
supplied by private Israeli companies working in Kenya, worked day and
night in an attempt to find survivors trapped under the rubble. Israelis
and Kenyans working together to save lives marked the crossing of an
important threshold in the relationship between the two countries.
Following the 1998 attack, MASHAV, at the behest of
the Government of Kenya, stepped up its training efforts in the field
of medicine to cover issues such as “disaster management”
and “emergency medicine.” The life-saving skills of hundreds
of Kenyan doctors and nurses have subsequently improved as they have
learned innovative techniques from Israel.
In November 2002, terrorists struck again - the target
this time, the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Kikambala. Fifteen people
were killed, three of them Israelis, when a car bomb exploded outside
the lobby of the hotel as a local dance troop was welcoming vacationers
from Israel. At approximately the same time, terrorists working with
those who blew up the hotel fired two hand-held rockets at an Israeli
airliner. This airliner had just lifted off from Moi International Airport
in Mombassa with 264 passengers on board. Luckily, the missiles narrowly
missed the plane and those on-board were spared. Immediately after the
bombing, the Israeli government sent 200 soldiers and volunteers to
Kenya to help with the search for survivors and clean up the debris.
The attack on the Paradise Hotel was the first time
that Kenyan and Israeli blood was spilt together. Kenya and Israel once
again proved that the bonds between them were stronger than any terrorist
plot and, as a result of the attack, strengthened their cooperative
efforts in the field of security. Israel and Kenya came “full
circle” when the re-opening of the Paradise Hotel was announced
on the two-year anniversary of the attack on November 28, 2004.
In August 2012, Israel and Germany teamed up with Kenya to sign a trilateral agreement for a project to upgrade the commercial fishery and wastewater purification systems in Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake. As part of the agreements, members of MASHAV, Israel's Agency for International Development Cooperation, will help to revitalize the tilapia population in fish ponds around the edges of Lake Victoria and will then train local fishermen on how to maintain the levels while also working at the modern fisheries. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga presided over the signing ceremony.
“We are trying to somehow better the yields of fish in a way so that first of all, the fisherman will get a better income,” Israeli Ambassador Daniel Carmon, the head of MASHAV, said. If the project proves successful, the Israeli team may carry out similar projects in Uganda and Tanzania, both of which also rely on the lake, and representatives have already started talks with Ugandans about the idea.
In September 2013, an Israeli-owned mall known as a hotspot for ex-pat shoppers called Westgate Mall, was attacked by Islamist terrorists. "All community members have been accounted for since the attack ... in no small part thanks to the bar mitzvah of an Israeli diplomat's son taking place at the synagogue at the time of the attack on Shabbat," Rebbezin Schischa wrote.
of Southern Africa Sub-continent
Jerusalem Post (August 22, 2012)
Hospitality Guide to Nairobi
in Nairobi was Anything but Normal" by Barry Pakes
Kenya, an Unorthodox Crowd Observes Orthodox Rosh Hashanah" by
Rebbeca Schischa, "Too Close for Comport in Nairobi: Tight-knit, eclectic Jewish community on edge," New York Jewish Week (September 23, 2013).
Photos courtesy of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation.