The isolated Jews of rural Kenya: Starting from aleph with a lulav and etrog
A tiny, fledgling community in the heart of Africa forges its own Jewish identity with a little help from friends.
KASUKU, Kenya — The suitcase filled with donated Judaica was so big I wasn’t sure it would fit on the back of the beat-up motorcycle taxi, the only way to reach the isolated Jewish community in Kenya’s highlands.
“Kenyan Jews?!” everyone asked me incredulously when I explained where I was headed. Yes, Kenyan Jews. It’s a small community in the land of the Kikuyu tribe, with about fifteen families scattered around Kenya’s interior and centered on the small village of Kasuku.
The Kasuku Jewish community had been part of Kenya’s Messianic Jewish Church until about fifteen years ago. That’s when a group of families in the Church studied the Old Testament and decided that they no longer subscribed to the New Testament or the existence of Jesus, and they wanted to become Jews, the chosen people.
In 2000, the families split with the Church, building a small, ramshackle synagogue out of tree trunks and plastic sheeting on the land of community elders appropriately named Abraham and Sarah in the tiny village of Gathundia.
Many members of the small Kenyan community have converted to Judaism in neighboring Uganda under Abayudaya leader Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who was ordained at the Conservative movement’s American Jewish University in California. (The Abayudaya Jewish community is a group of native Ugandans who decided to become Jewish in the 1920s, following their spiritual leader, and are now part of the American Conservative Judaism movement.) The tiny Kenyan community practiced its own blend of Judaism, aided by some books donated by sympathetic members of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, a 100-year-old synagogue in the capital that mostly serves Jewish ex-pats from all over living in Kenya.
On my last trip to Kenya, when I first visited the Kasuku Jewish community, I promised that when I returned I would bring Judaica donations, since I travel frequently to Africa to report for Global Sisters Report.
As I planned my second trip to Kenya, I was shocked at the generosity of family and friends, who emptied their bookshelves and closets to donate something to this isolated Jewish community. When I bought a klaf (parchment scroll) for a mezuzah and told the shopkeeper where I was bringing it, he went over to the shelf and slipped a beautiful mezuzah into the bag, free of charge. When I told the lulav and etrog sellers that I was bringing the four species to a Jewish community in Kenya for the first time, they were so excited they gave me free decorations for the Kenyan sukkah.
The suitcase of donations was exactly maximum weight at 23 kilograms, laden down with books and sets of tefillin and tallits and learn-to-read Hebrew books for the children, as well as the lulav and etrog (this is actually the second time that The Times of Israel has been the first to bring the four species to an African Jewish community).
Ancient Hebrew in the middle of nowhere
I arrived in the village of Gathundia, an even smaller village next to Kasuku where two Jewish families live, just in time for the holiday evening service on Simhat Torah. We prayed by candlelight in their synagogue made from plastic sheeting. I’m not one for prayers, but there was something magical saying those ancient Hebrew words in the middle of nowhere in Africa, candlelight just barely illuminating the face of 15-year-old Moshe, the family’s prodigious Hebrew reader. Above us, the darkness was filled with so many stars, the sky looked crowded.
There are new electricity lines in Gathundia as of last year, but almost no families in the area can afford the connection. Most of the houses are simple wood, with dirt floors and corrugated tin roofs. At the home of Yosef Njogu, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, they use cardboard boxes to insulate themselves from the chill of the wind that howls across the Kenyan Highlands.
We sat around a kerosene lamp on the eve of Simhat Torah as Njogu’s family brought out the gifts one by one. When they opened a tikkun (book for learning Torah reading) that my mother had donated, a piece of paper fluttered out. It was the trop sheet (melodies for chanting the Torah) that I had used to study for my bat mitzvah, 17 years ago.
The next day, we shook the lulav for the first time, and they asked me to demonstrate. (True, most Jews don’t shake the lulav on Simhat Torah but only on the seven-day Sukkot holiday that immediately precedes it, but I was only able to arrive in time for the end of the holiday, so it was Simchat Torah or nothing.)
That’s when the enormity of what I was doing struck me. I’m a lapsed Conservative Jew whose only formal Jewish training was many years of after-school Hebrew school, where I spent more time visiting the vending machine than learning about Judaism. Suddenly I was responsible for imparting major Jewish knowledge to this community. What if I messed up? What if conveying my own version of Judaism destroyed a piece of the unique Kenyan Jewish identity they were just beginning to build?
When the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda began to make connections with the wider Jewish world in the 1990s, they had already been practicing their own type of Judaism for more than 70 years. They had developed their own melodies, their own traditions, their own way of praying. Now, the Abayudaya are trying to strike the right balance between incorporating Conservative Judaism into their practice and holding on to almost a century of their own traditions.
But the Kasuku Jews of Kenya started their path to Judaism just 15 years ago. They don’t have the benefit of decades of traditions as they meet visitors from around the world. In January, I was the first foreign Jewish visitor to Gathundia in two years. But since the Times of Israel article was published, they have hosted at least half a dozen people.
The family still chuckles about the three Israelis who followed my description of the village’s location and arrived at the village store. At the store, they asked where they could find the people with the small round hats. Njogu and his wife Ruth were taking care of chores on Shabbat morning when the three Israelis showed up out of the blue. (Future visitors: It’s best to contact Yehudah Kimani, Njogu’s son, first so the family has time to prepare. They have 13 children, so it helps to have advance warning of guests).
History, and Africa in particular, is peppered by interactions between nations that change cultures, for better and for worse. I can only hope that my interactions with this community, the articles that I write and the small knowledge I leave with them, will be positive. When I report about isolated areas like Gathundia, I really never know.
But I do know I’ll never forget the joy of watching 84-year-old Sarah shake the lulav for the first time in her life, or the unbridled giggles as the younger children danced, waving the palm fronds up and down.
Due to Kimani’s self-taught social media prowess, more and more people are reaching out to his community with offers of donations and other types of support. I know the family will continue to host many Jews from around the world, who will probably also arrive laden with suitcases full of donations, bumping by motorcycle to the family’s three-room house.
“Judaism has survived for 2,000 years in the Diaspora because people found ways to make it work in the cultures where they lived,” I told the community when they asked me to give a talk in the synagogue. “I hope, as your isolation falls away, that you maintain the things that make you a unique part of the rainbow of Judaism.”
Kimani is training to be a tour guide at a local university, as he hopes to offer Jewish safaris to Kenya in the future. So before I left I asked him to show me around the nearby Nakuru National Park, which is popular with tourists for the thousands of flamingos that rest at Lake Nakuru.
We didn’t see any flamingos, but at a cliff lookout, Kimani and I clambered out of the car to see the lake below. The grasslands stretched out beneath us with clusters of majestic acacia trees. Specks of black below us were buffalo or zebras or perhaps rhinos, chomping their way through the savannah grass. It was the Africa of the movies – pure, wild, and untouched.
Kimani looked out over Lake Nakuru and breathed an audible sigh of happiness at the view. My worrying about negatively impacting the balance of their African and Jewish identities faded when I heard what he said, a perfect marriage of national African and religious Jewish pride. “You see this?” he asked, sweeping a wide arc across Africa. “This, this here, this is the property of Hashem.”