Eleven years ago, I travelled to Kenya for the first time as part of a “voluntourism” mission. I spent three weeks in rural Kenya participating in activities and getting to know people who were curious about life outside the country, just as I was curious about their lives.
As with all my travels, I was wary about disclosing my Jewish faith in Kenya. Alone in the countryside, unsure how my religious identification would be perceived or accepted, I decided to keep quiet and left my Magen David necklace in my suitcase.
However, shortly after I arrived in this Christian-majority country, one of my hosts, Leonard, noticed my unfamiliarity with their religious customs. I mentioned that I was Jewish, and that was that.
The next day, I found myself in a picturesque field in the countryside learning how to pick tea leaves with a woman named Marion, who I had befriended on the trip. Harvesting tea is done by kneeling down next to the short plant and pulling off two leaves and a bud at a time. This collection goes into a bag, which goes to a factory to be dried out and processed.
I was kneeling in the dirt chatting with Marion. We were talking about the recent post-election violence that swept across her country in early 2008 and she was telling me about her friends who were impacted by the bloodshed. Our banter had gone silent for a few moments while I got the hang of tea harvesting, when suddenly Marion asked, “Do you know what the parashah is this week?”
I dropped the leaves I was holding and asked her how on earth she knew what a parashah was, and how she knew that I was Jewish.
Leonard had told her I was Jewish, but she told me that her father, Samuel, was the head of a congregation nearby that practised what is essentially Messianic Judaism. They believe in the values of Judaism and Christianity, observe the Jewish Sabbath, fast on Yom Kippur and meet regularly to study Torah.
Blown away, I told her that unfortunately, I did not know what the parashah was that week.
Over the next few days, I learned that I had nothing to fear about identifying as Jewish in that small community. News of my religious affiliation spread, and I was asked many questions about my faith, beliefs and history, and was welcomed as “Brother Adam” with open arms to a Saturday morning prayer session. I was invited to speak about the parashah – which I discovered was Dvarim – and told them that it began with Moses’ summary of the 40 years spent wandering in the desert.
I told them that Moses recalled the episode of the 12 spies who were recruited to enter Israel and return with a favourable report. Though 10 of the 12 returned with tall tales, I told Marion’s family that, like Joshua and Caleb, I would return to Canada as a “Jewish spy” in Kenya, with stories about how wonderful their country is. We laughed, and over three subsequent visits to Kenya, my experience with Marion’s family remains one of my fondest memories of my time there.
Through them, I learned a fundamental lesson about how Jews are perceived in different parts of the world. I was welcomed as an ambassador of my faith. They viewed my faith as an older brother to theirs and treated me accordingly. It was humbling and reminded me that Jews need not always be afraid of their shadows.
Many years have passed and I had not thought about the experience for some time. However, on Aug. 22, 2019, Marion tragically died from a heart attack at the age of 36.
I recall her friendship, her warmth, her laughter and her dedication to both family and faith. I credit her with the comfort that I felt on that first, and all subsequent, visits to Kenya. She and her family showed me that sparks of Judaism reside in even the remotest of regions. She was the definition of an eishet chayil – a woman of valour.
Importantly, since that first encounter with Marion, I’ve always made a point of checking what the parashah is for the week. In honour of Marion, I note that the parashah for the week she died was Eikev.
In that chapter, Moses once again reminds the Israelites to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Well, Marion did just that, not only with me, but with the many other volunteers who passed through her village, as well.
She reminded me that despite the headlines and animosity from some quarters, in many others, our faith is respected, our traditions are revered and our belief in loving strangers is universal.