Judaism’s divisive conversion politics exported to Africa

Deep in the highlands of rural Kenya, members of a community struggle with labels that both unite and divide them from world Jewry.

KASUKU, Kenya — Seven thousand miles away from New York, where packed dirt floors replace the plush carpets in hi-rise offices of Jewish organizations, and you’re more likely to see a zebra than a gefilte fish, a lone synagogue stands in the highlands of rural Kenya.

Praying inside the synagogue of the Kehilat Kasuku Jewish community, a one-room structure made of plastic sheeting with rough hewn wooden benches, is a different experience from praying in any synagogue in America or Israel. The sun and the rain come straight through the roof, and the agrarian Jewish prayers, like the blessing of the dew, come straight from the heart of this community of subsistence farmers.

In Kenya, it’s considered impolite to ask people their tribe, especially after sectarian violence rocked the country during the 2007-8 election crisis. Although tribal affiliations carry a lot of weight in Africa, influencing someone’s beliefs, ideologies, and traditions, polite conversation among strangers generally refrains from asking this question directly.

But the reluctance to delineate tribes doesn’t extend to Kenya’s Jewish community. They want to know right away to which Jewish “tribe” foreign visitors belong: Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.

Identifying visitors with one of the American Jewish movements helps the Kenyan Jews understand a visitor’s religious observance, beliefs, ideologies and traditions. But most importantly, they know someone’s affiliation is a good indicator whether or not the visitor will consider their community Jewish as well.

Despite the physical distance and relative isolation, local African Jewish communities in Uganda and Kenya have found themselves drawn into the divisive conflicts between movements in Judaism, struggling with the political questions about conversion and inclusion in the wider Jewish world.

In Kenya, there is a small Jewish community of 15 families in the village of Kasuku, former Messianic Jews who broke away from the Messianic Church 15 years ago. After deciding to become Jews, their first exposure to organized Judaism was through the 100-year-old Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, a beautiful Orthodox synagogue in downtown Nairobi that mainly serves an ex-pat Jewish congregation. Few of the NHC members practice Orthodox Judaism in their homes, but the synagogue retains the affiliation.

But the Kasuku Jews found a chilly reception from some members of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, and felt more at home when they met the Abayudaya of Uganda. They eventually decided to convert in Uganda under the auspices of the Conservative Movement.

Uganda’s Jewish community, called the Abayudaya, numbers around 2,000 people. They have been practicing Judaism since their charismatic spiritual leader, Semei Kakangalu, founded an 8,000-strong Jewish community in the 1920s based on his interpretation of the Torah. They were persecuted under the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin from 1971 to 1979, when their numbers dwindled to a few hundred.

In 2002, a Beit Din [Rabbinical Court] of Conservative rabbis came to Uganda and converted 300 community members. Now the Abayudaya community is a full-fledged member of the Conservative Movement, adopting the Conservative prayer books and traditions, and sending their children to United Synagogue Youth conventions in the United States.

However, one of the six synagogues of the Abayudaya, in the village of Putti, wants to convert to Orthodoxy, meaning even in rural Uganda, there’s a synagogue you don’t go to.

“We weren’t even aware of different movements, we just thought it was all Judaism,” said Yehudah Kimani, the 29-year-old leader of Kenya’s Jewish community responsible for international outreach. Kimani’s social media prowess on Facebook has helped his isolated village of Kasuku forge connections with the international Jewish world.

But as the isolation of Kasuku faded away, the reality of the divisiveness of Judaism’s political side reared its ugly head.

Waiting for a door to open
The Kasuku community’s first exposure to organized Judaism was the Orthodox movement at the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, so that’s what felt like the most natural type of Judaism, explained Kimani. People didn’t know there were other options.

Although some members of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation were sympathetic to the Kasuku Jews and gave them books to study and learn Hebrew, other members of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation did not support the Kasuku community. It was clear that the path to conversion would not be through the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, which does not have a rabbi and therefore could not offer any path towards conversion.

“You look at one side, and you want that door to open,” said Yosef Ben Avraham Njogu, Kimani’s father (last names in the Kikuyu tribe are based on a complicated tradition of honoring elder family members, so immediate families do not share the same last name). “But after understanding the world of Judaism, we decided to be ready to go through any door. We could be an Orthodox community, if we can have an Orthodox Beit Din.”

“Our base was Orthodox originally because that’s what we trained to do, but they didn’t accept us,” said Kimani. “We saw that the best way for us to become Jews is through Conservative movement, but some people still think the best way to be Jewish is Orthodox.”

Njogu said the biggest change for Kenya’s Jewish community over the past two years is that suddenly the members are aware of the political side of the religion. “We are trying to unite,” he said. “Everyone has accepted that any movement is OK as long as we can convert.”

Moshe Thomas Moraliwa is one of the Kasuku Jews who is still waiting to convert. Moraliwa is the assistant chief, a government position similar to deputy mayor, for the county of Nakuru. He lives in Moro, a village a few hours away, and is the local Jewish leader for five families in Moro who used to live in Kasuku.

Moraliwa said he would like to officially convert through Orthodoxy because that’s where he feels the most natural. But he is realistic, and knows that the Orthodox movement will not likely accept him, so he plans to convert through the Conservative Movement, the next time the Conservative Beit Din visits Uganda. The politics, he said, don’t keep him awake at night.

“If you haven’t converted, you know you need to,” he said. “If you have converted, maybe one person says you’re Jewish and another one says you aren’t, it’s just politics. How can it hurt you?”

“It’s like kashrut,” he continued. “Sometimes people say ‘this isn’t kosher enough.’ I’ve seen Chabad rabbis refuse to drink wine here in Kenya.”

“If we get a Beit Din [rabbinical court for conversions] that’s ready, that’s the one we’ll follow,” said Moraliwa. “The Moshiach [messiah] knows who is a Jew, it doesn’t matter if they’re Orthodox or Conservative.”

The importance of a label
This attachment to movement affiliations is baffling for visitors. Few of the Kenyan Jews want to move to Israel – they are farmers, Njogu explained pragmatically, and they know that land prices are too high in Israel for them to consider the move.

Even if they do want to move to Israel, a Conservative conversion is technically sufficient.

The Ministry of Immigrants and Absorption accepts that recognized Conservative conversions meet the requirements of the Law of Return, which allows all Jews to get citizenship in Israel, explained Rabbi Peretz Rodman, the head of the Beit Din in Israel for the Masorti Movement (the Conservative Movement is called the Masorti Movement in Israel). The places where non-Orthodox converts run into trouble in Israel are matters that deal with the Rabbinate, chiefly, marriage and burial, Rodman explained.

Rodman traveled to Uganda in December 2014 and was part of the Beit Din that converted Njogu. “The standards applied for conversion [in Uganda] are very high, they are much higher than the standards I expect in my Beit Din here in Israel,” he said.

Currently, the Kasuku Jews do not get funding from the Conservative movement. The New York-based volunteer organization Kulanu, which works with isolated groups of Jews around the world, is the only international Jewish organization supporting the community. Kulanu provides a small amount of financial support as well as technology and networking opportunities.

Kulanu is not associated with any of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Reform movements, explained Harriet Bograd, the director of Kulanu, which works in 30 different countries. “If a community we work with has a preference about which way they want to affiliate, we try to facilitate that with their preference,” she said.

“There’s a lot of thinking about conversion, about which conversions are acceptable by whom,” said Bograd. “We help people think about that if they ask us.”

There are also many logistical challenges with following Orthodox traditions for Shabbat observance in villages where the Kaskuku community lives, where there is no running water or electricity. Currently, the families in Kasuku cook over the fire on Shabbat and holidays, as they do during the rest of the week, since they simply have no other option. Water is brought from a seasonal stream half a kilometer away and must be boiled before drinking.

Moraliwa said they have studied traditional Kenyan methods for keeping food warm, and they are ready to be creative to ensure they are keeping all of the mitzvot if an Orthodox Beit Din requires it.

Who is a Jew?
Moraliwa attends services at the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation every few months, to maintain the Kasuku Jewish community’s presence in the synagogue. He said the synagogue allows him to attend, which is an important gesture. The synagogue was forced to implement stringent security measures after the 2011 Westgate Mall terror attack. As in many diaspora locations with terror threats, like Turkey and South America, the synagogue requires visitors to apply in advance with their passport or ID numbers before attending services.

But Moraliwa said that while he can attend, the synagogue will not consider him Jewish, even after he converts through the Conservative Beit Din in Uganda.

Members of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation are divided on the issue. Some members are very welcoming to African Jews, while others are less so. Since the community does not have a permanent rabbi, they cannot offer conversions even if part of the community supported the decision.

Additionally, there are a number of small communities scattered across Kenya, especially among the Kikuyu tribe, that have started calling themselves Jewish. Kikuyus have a reputation in Kenya for being the tribe most associated with business and a love of money, and sometimes they are jokingly referred to as “the Jews of Kenya.” But some Kikuyu seem to have taken the moniker to heart.

Most of these communities claiming to be Jewish were associated at some time with the Messianic Jewish Movement, and still believe in Jesus to varying degrees. Some communities even read and pray in Hebrew and celebrate Jewish holidays. However, none of these smaller pockets of self-identified Jews have taken the steps like the Kasuku Jewish community to officially convert and unite with the international Jewish world.

This lack of clarity makes it impossible for the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation to act as an arbitrator of who is Jewish and who is not. The Israeli Embassy in Nairobi does not recognize the Kasuku community, nor any of the other small communities, as Jewish.

The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation newsletter editor, Barbara Steenstrup, visited one of the self-identifying Jewish communities for Simchat Torah, after persistent invitations from of one of their leaders. More than 1,500 people gathered from surrounding villages to celebrate the week-long holiday of Sukkot in Nyahururu, where they had built a sukkah from scratch. Streenstrup said she loved the singing and the warm welcome, and hopes to invite one or two leaders from the Nyahuru congregation to services at the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation in the future.

But while the Nyahururu community considers themselves Jewish, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation does not, and neither do the Kasuku Jews.

A Kenyan Beit Din
In a strange twist of fate, the Kasuku Jewish community has suddenly found itself responsible for deciding whether or not people can be Jewish.

“When we were Messianic, we loved spreading the word,” said Moraliwa. “Now, we are more about digging to the deepness of the soul. It’s not about getting everyone to be a Jew.”

But over the past year, ten people from their surrounding villages have approached the community leaders, asking to join the Jewish religion. It’s hard for the community members to sift through people who genuinely feel called to Judaism, and curious onlookers who see a steady stream of foreign Jewish visitors bringing big suitcases of donations, especially second-hand laptops and electronics.

“Some think, oh, I see a muzungo [white person] carrying a bag and I want to know what’s in the bag,” said Njogu. “So we give them time to study on their own to show their interest in Judaism. Someone who wants to join should study for around two years, that will give them time to determine if it’s real.”

Kimani’s fundraising efforts through his Facebook page, with the help of friends in Israel and America he met through social networking, have raised money to pay the school fees for many children in the Jewish community. He also plans to start offering basic computer literacy classes with the items donated from Jews around the world, to both Jewish and non-Jewish children in the village.

Kasuku is an isolated and deeply impoverished area. Most of the villagers are subsistence farmers, and some barely make enough to feed their large families. So Njogu is aware that some people may see Judaism less as a spiritual calling and more as a way to access international donors.

“We tell them, ‘you have to study and practice and keep the holidays,’ and we don’t promise them anything,” Njogu said. “We have four or five people who are studying now, out of about ten people who expressed interest.”

“We can’t accept all the people and everyone who wants to become a Jew, but giving them time is the best exam,” he added. “We want to know, is it from your heart? Are you willing to share the blessings and the bad things? Are you ready to give yourself to the sacrifice of the Jews?

“If we say all of the people can come, we’ll convert people who don’t really want to be Jewish,” he added. “Their hearts are not Jewish but they just want to benefit from the Jews.”

It is an awkward place for the Kasuku leaders to be the ones deciding who gets to be Jewish, after they themselves are still victims of the divisive politics of Jewish conversion.

The Kasuku Jewish community has a lot of plans for the future. They hope to build a permanent synagogue to replace the one they are currently using, which has a frame made of rough-hewn tree branches wrapped with plastic sheeting that leaks during the rainy season.

They want all of their community members to convert through an official Beit Din in Uganda. They want to drill a borehole (water well) to benefit the entire village — during the dry season, the local stream dries up and they have to walk over a kilometer for water.

Movements divided, Jews united
Most of all, the Kehilat Kasuku Jews want to connect with other Jews from around the world. Two of Kimani’s younger siblings, Samson and Hadassah, are studying now with the Abayudaya in Uganda, along with a number of other children from the Kasuku community. Samson is attending a small yeshiva run by Rabbi Gershom Sizoumu, and will become the spiritual leader of the Kasuku community when he finishes in the next year or two.

“Jews should understand that Hashem [God] has a promise to other people that they are allowed to enter the Covenant,” said Njogu. “Sometimes they look at us as if we are another nation.”

“[The Conservative movement] accepted us, so we did a formal conversion,” Njogu added, who converted in Uganda in 2014. “Some sects or movements do not recognize that conversion. We see the Jewish world is divided. But our message to our brothers is to harmonize the Jewish world.”


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