VANCOUVER — “Rabbi Among the Lions,” a photographic exhibit at the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia, gives viewers a glimpse of the Jewish community of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Rabbi Nathan Asmoucha, who served the Jewish community in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, is the “rabbi” in the photo exhibit “Rabbi Among the Lions.”
Tobi Asmoucha, 39, a Toronto photographer whose brother, Nathan, 37, served as the rabbi of the Bulawayo Jewish Community from September 2003 to August 2007, took the pictures that make up the exhibit.
Rabbi Asmoucha’s adventure began while he was studying in a Jerusalem yeshiva. There, he was approached by Steven Feigenbaum, a Bulawayo-born Israeli resident whose father is president of the Bulawayo Jewish community. “He was looking to meet potential candidates to serve as rabbi of the congregation, and when he offered us a position, we realized we could learn and grow by being there,” Rabbi Asmoucha recalls.
He and his family arrived in Bulawayo to find a community of 100, of which one-third live in Savyon Lodge, a home for the Jewish aged. Of the 200 students at the Carmel Jewish Day School in Bulawayo, only five were Jewish, and two of those children were the new rabbi’s. The rest of the student body comprised Hindu, Muslim, Ndebele, Shona, Asian and European children.
Within weeks of Rabbi Asmoucha’s arrival, the Bulawayo synagogue went up in flames, but its Torah scrolls and Ark curtain, both of which date back to 1725, were rescued from the fire in the nick of time. The mikvah remained intact and is still in use, but the congregation had to move to Bulawayo’s old Reform shul, Sinai Synagogue and Hall.
In a three-week-long visit to the city to see her brother in 2006, Tobi took pictures of children at prayer; of Bulawayo street scenes; and of community members, including a portrait of Ruth Feigenbaum, who founded a support group for families of people who are terminally ill. In Zimbabwe, AIDS has ravaged the population. One-quarter of all Zimbabwe’s children have been rendered orphans by the disease, and many of them are being raised by their grandparents.
“I came away touched by the extent to which people support each other in this very small but very warm, generous community,” she says. “Even though the community is diminishing, people are looking after each other.”
Despite that Vancouver and Bulawayo are on different sides of the world, there are parallels between the communities, says Ron Ulrich, director of the Jewish museum. “In any museum, the dialogue cannot be just about the past, it must deal with the present and future, too, to be relevant. This exhibition deals with relevant themes in the Jewish world, such as an aging community whereas, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was vibrant and had up to 3,000 Jewish members.
“This is about community memory and the perpetuation of Jewish life and culture. The immigrants to Bulawayo were of the same Lithuanian descent as many of Vancouver’s Jews, and we see Jewish community members performing mitzvot and dealing with AIDS, a disease that affects us here, too, although not to the same extent. There are lots of parallel issues.”
Tobi’s exhibition got its name from an image of Rabbi Asmoucha walking in Antelope Park, a place where African lion cubs are being bred and rehabilitated. Behind him and at his sides are three adolescent cubs.
“Rabbi Among the Lions” runs until June 2008.