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 congregations.
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.
Anti-Semitism has 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 Kippur, the 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 the congregation.
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 Africa.
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.
Today, 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 eighth day.
Customs of Zimbabwe Black Jews:
1. Belief in only one God, and that he created all things.
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.
Sources: World Jewish Congress
“100 years of Jewish history up in smoke”
“History of the Salisbury Hebrew Congregation”
“The Kadoma (Gatooma) Jewish Community”
"Zimbabwe.” Encyclopaedia Judaica
“The Story of the Lemba People”
Pictures Courtesy of: Jay Sand