Formerly a British colony called Rhodesia, Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. The first Jews, however, arrived in the colony at the end of the 19th century and the population swelled to nearly 1,500 by the middle of the twentieth century. Today, there are approximately 400 Jews in Zimbabwe.
- Early Jewish History
- Contemporary Community
- Hebrew Congregations
- Lemba Jews
- Relations with Israel
Early Jewish History
Prior to the 1970s, Rhodesia was formerly a British
colony. Eastern Europeans, most from Russia and Lithuania, first settled
in Rhodesia and became active in the trading industry. In 1894, the
first synagogue was formed by 20 Jews in a tent in Bulawayo, Rhodesia.
The second community arose in Salisbury (Harare) in 1895; a third congregation,
which has remained small, was established in Gwelo in 1901. By 1900,
400 Jews lived in Rhodesia. The first Jews came by way of the southeast
coast through Portuguese Beira.
Rhodesian Jewry was always very active in regional
and international Zionist activities. In 1898, the Central African Zionist
Organizations were established in Bulawayo as the Zionist supervising
organization in the region.
In the 1920s and 1930s, several Sephardic Jews arrived
from Rhodes. By 1921, census data reported 1,289 Jews living in Rhodesia.
In the late 1930s, several German refugees, moved to the country fleeing Nazi persecution. Following World
War II, Rhodesia witnessed a period
of economic prosperity; consequently a number of Jews arrived from South
Africa and England.
In 1943, both the Rhodesian Zionist Council and the
Rhodesian Jewish Board of Deputies were established to organize national
Jewish and Zionist activities in the country. Jews became largely responsible
for the national pioneering endeavors in transportation systems, mining,
hotel corporations, and cattle selling, among other industries. By 1961,
the Jewish population peaked at 7,060.
On January 1, 1964, the Federation of Rhodesia was
dissolved upon the independence of Malawi and Zambia (formerly Northern
Rhodesia). Southern Rhodesia remained a British colony and became known
as Rhodesia. On March 2, 1970, the white minority Rhodesian Front government,
led by Ian Smith, severed ties with the British crown; Smith declared
Rhodesia an independent republic. An armed campaign was initiated by
ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s
Union) against the Smith government. Due to the ongoing civil war, most
of the Jewish population emigrated. After years of conflict, on April
18, 1980, the country became the independent Republic of Zimbabwe. The
former capital, Salisbury was renamed Harare.
By 1987, the Jewish community of Zimbabwe had shrunk
from more than 7,000 people to barely 1,200. Until the late 1980s, rabbis
resided in Harare and Bulawayo, but left as the economy began to plummet.
By the late 1990s, a few rabbis did return to Zimbabwe to lead the Jewish
Today, approximately 400 Jews live in Zimbabwe, predominately
in Harare and Buawayo. Only a few Jews remain
in Kwe Kew, Gweru, and Kadoma. Two-thirds
of the population is over retirement age
of 65. Very few children remain in Zimbabwe,
most have immigrated
to Israel or South
Africa, in search of economic opportunity
and Jewish marriage prospects. While most
of the population is Ashkenazic, a strong
representation of Sephardic Jews remains
in the country. The last Bar Mitzvah in Zimbabwe took place early in 2006.
Both an Ashkenazic (1895) and Sephardic (1931) synagogue
exist in Harare; furthermore, there is an Ashkenazic Orthodox synagogue
in Bulawayo. Daily services and Jewish holidays are celebrated in Harare,
but since the early 2000s, both the Ashkenazic and Sephardic synagogues
have joined forces for services to ensure a minyan. Rabbi Nathan Asmoucha
of the Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation, is the country's only rabbi. Jewish
cemeteries can be found in Kwe Kwe, Harare, and Bulawayo.
The Zimbabwe Jewish Board
of Deputies, located in Harare, is the leading
communal organization. Since the mid-1990s,
groups of Bnei Akiva have been active in
Bulawayo and Harare. Furthermore, despite
the small number of Jewish youth present
in Zimbabwe, Zionist youth organizations
are active. Two Jewish schools exist in Zimbabwe:
Carmel in Bulawayo and Sharon in Harare.
Both schools have a large percentage of
African and Indian students, along with local
Jewish children. There also exists in Bulawayo,
the only Jewish home for the elderly in Zimbabwe,
called Savyon Lodge. A shochet comes
twice a year from South Africa, but with
a lack of animals available as a result
of rationing of meat.
Since the late 1990s, Zimbabwe has been struck with
an ongoing food shortage and poverty, placing the small Jewish community
in jeopardy of survival. The country continues to fall into massive
unemployment and inflation. Due to this economic crisis, in 2002 the
mayor of Ashkelon, Benny Vaknin, offered to assist Zimbabwe Jews settle
in Israel; several accepted his proposal and immigrated to Ashkelon.
not been a problem, but the Palestinian “embassy” in
Zimbabwe actively promotes the Palestinian
cause and often creates a sense of uneasiness
among the Jewish community.
The Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation began in 1894, in
a canvass tent with barely 20 members. The congregation is based on
the traditions of the Ashkenazi Orthodox. On May 17, 1910, the first
stone was laid for the construction of a new community synagogue, which
was consecrated in April 1911. Over the years, the community has fluctuated
in numbers, reaching a maximum in the 1950s of a few thousand. Once
civil strife broke out in Zimbabwe in the 1970s, much of the community
left the country.
On October 5, 2003, the day before Yom
historic synagogue burned to the ground. Just as the community’s
new rabbi, Nathan Asmouch, arrived, the community lost its spiritual
heart. The Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation synagogue was reconstructed,
however, and Jewish communal life continues in Bulawayo.
The Harare (formerly Salisbury) Hebrew Congregation
is an Ashkenazi community. The congregation was founded on June 2, 1895,
by twenty men and two women. The community was first led by Joe van
Praagh, who five years after the congregation’s establishment
became the first Jewish mayor of Harare. In 1901, the first synagogue
was built on Rhodes Avenue with 70 members. From 1909 to 1912, the community
was led by Rev. L. Rubin. By 1912, however, the community was growing
so fast that the synagogue proved too small for its functions. In 1920,
a new synagogue was erected on Salisbury Street.
By 1964, the community
had more than 500 families. There existed a chevra kaddisha, Hebrew
School, youth groups, and Zionist organizations. Today, the Harare Hebrew
Congregation synagogue is located in Milton Park Jewish Center. The
congregation maintained a rabbi to lead the community until the 1980s,
when Zimbabwe was faced with an economic crisis; nonetheless, since
the early 21st century the services of a rabbi have been restored to
Jews began settling in
Kadoma in the early 1900s. By the late 1930s,
25 to 30 Jewish families resided in the local
area of Kadoma. Prior to World
War II, no formal congregation was formed,
with services being led by laymen on the High
Holidays. In 1945, with
the arrival of new immigrants from Europe,
the Kadoma Congregation was officially organized.
After years of holding services and communal
activities in various places, the Kadoma
Congregation synagogue was erected in 1953.
In 1956, Robert Sternberg became Kadoma’s
first Jewish mayor. By the late 1950s and
60s, much of the Jewish community began to
leave Kadoma due to economic trouble. The
last minyan with
the Kadoma Congregation occurred in 1979.
Today, fewer than 20 Jews remain in the city,
with no children.
The Lemba "Black Jews"
Rusape is located in the northeast Zimbabwe, about
120 miles (200 kilometers) from Harare. The community claims both an
ancient and modern Jewish heritage. The Jews of Rusape believe to be
the descendants of one of the lost tribes of Jacob. These people are
believed to be offspring from the Bantu people who came from Northern
Almost 2,500 years ago, after the destruction of the Temple, a group of Jews left Judea and settled in Yemen. When the economic
situation in Yemen began to fail, the Jews left and moved to Africa;
with one group settling in Ethiopia and the other in Tanzania. After
several years, many Jews left Ethiopia and moved further south into
what today is Zimbabwe. They became known as the Ba-Lemba. Today, there
exists a Lemba Cultural Association attempting to bring all the various
Lemba communities in South
Africa, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together.
Within the past few years, extensive research has been
done on the Lemba communities. These tests verify that many male “Black
Jews” have the same genetic structure as the Cohen priests, providing
evidence of the relation to Jews of this ancient heritage story.
The Jewish community of Rusape can date itself back
to 1903, when an African American Baptist deacon named William Saunders
Crowdy met Albert Christian. Although, Crowdy was deemed a deacon of
the Church, in the 1880s he had a dream where God instructed him to
lead the blacks to Judaism. Crowdy passed his Judaic teachings and traditions
onto Christian; afterwards, Christian settled in Southern Africa where
he preached about Judaism.
Congregation Betel in Rusape consists of thousands of members, approximately
4,000 people. Rabbi Ambrose “Cohen” Mukawaza leads the community
in services and studies. In 1938, the Congregation Betel synagogue was
built about seven kilometers (4.34 miles) outside the Rusape city limits.
Every Saturday, the building is packed with more than a hundred Jews
practicing “prophetic” Judaism. Originating in Virginia a little over a century ago, the practice is associated with African
American Beth El Congregations. The main belief is that while Jesus
was not the messiah, he was a prophet, as was William Crowdy who delivered
the word of God. This congregation believes that while the teachings
of Jesus should be respected, Jesus was an active member of the Jewish
community of Israel. Besides this difference in Western Judaism, the
Rusape community observes all Jewish holidays and prayer services are
conducted in Hebrew.
One of the Rusape congregation’s high holidays
is the Convocation of the Feast of Tevet. This holiday remembers the
destruction of the Temple and the migration of the Jews from Yemen into
Africa. For eight days the community remains together, with prayer services
beginning at 4 a.m. Each day the congregants pray to God in a different
position: from standing on the first day to lying on the floor on the
Customs of Zimbabwe Black
1. Belief in only one God, and that he created all
2. One day a week is considered holy: On this day the Rusape Jews
give thanks and praises to God.
3. Strict observance of Shabbat.
4. Adherence to the Ten Commandments.
5. A bris is performed according to local African tradition, at the
age of ten.
6. When praying, a choir melds Shona (the local Zimbabwe dialect),
Hebrew, and English words into African melodies to create a distinctive
service. Nevertheless, the services contain almost all the traditional
Jewish prayers found in Western siddurim.
7. They do not eat pork or any other animal prohibited by the Old
Testament; nor do they mix milk and meat. All animals are slaughtered
by a professional “kosher” butcher and bled thoroughly.
8. The calendar follows the path of the moon.
9. Stars of David are engraved on tombstones.
The Zimbabwe Orthodox Jewish community does not recognize
the Rusape Jews as Jews. Although, the Rusape Jews may have good intentions,
according to the Orthodox community they cannot claim to be Jewish until
internationally established as Jews.
Relations with Israel
In 1993, Israel and Zimbabwe established formal diplomatic
relations. Since 1948, 714 Jews have made aliya from Zimbabwe and the
former Rhodesia. The Israeli ambassador also represents Zambia and Botswana.
Jews seriously consider aliyah options” by Moira Schneider
years of Jewish history up in smoke”
of the Salisbury Hebrew Congregation”
Kadoma (Gatooma) Jewish Community”
Jewish community perseveres despite Zimbabwe's economic woes" by Moira Schneider
Jews of Africa: Rusape, Zimbabwe”
Story of the Lemba People”
Pictures Courtesy of: Jay