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Roytenberg: Lending a helping hand to the Jews of Tanzania

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Arusha, Tanzania (Wikimedia photo)

On Nov. 9, Shabbat Lech Lecha, a group of Jews assembled for prayer. The words and music were familiar, but the setting was unusual for many of those who gathered that morning, as a lot of the congregants were far from home.

I was part of a group of Canadians and Americans who travelled to Arusha, Tanzania. We were there to pray with the tiny Jewish community of that city and to conduct a full Torah service – something the locals hadn’t witnessed in decades.

Most of the 38 North American visitors had arrived in Arusha the previous Wednesday. On that day, we delivered a gift from Congregation Kehillat Beth Israel (KBI) in Ottawa, a synagogue that’s blessed with a large number of sifrei Torah. Hearing that the Jews of Arusha had no Torah, KBI offered to donate one.

The Jews of Arusha have endured many difficult years. In the 1970s, their synagogue was nationalized and turned into a church. The population dispersed throughout the city and concealed evidence of their Jewish identities. They lost their one Torah in the upheaval.

That Torah had been brought over the mountains from Ethiopia on a donkey by the grandfather of Yehudah Amir Kahalani, who now leads the Jewish community of Arusha. Kahalani is a lawyer by profession and, along with his partner Efrat, he has dedicated himself to rebuilding Jewish life in Arusha.

When the Tanzanian government offered land to the Jews of Arusha in restitution for the seizures of the 1970s, Kahalani obtained a portion of the site where another synagogue previously stood. There, he built a tiny chapel with an amud, an ark and plush seating for 14. Yet the ark sat empty, waiting for a sefer Torah.

Kahalani built a fine house adjacent to the synagogue, where he and Efrat are raising their five children in the Jewish tradition he inherited from his late father, Amir Kahalani, the last rabbi of Arusha. A number of people from the Jewish community also live nearby and attend services on Shabbat. Other Jews in Arusha live too far away to walk to the shul.

Adjacent to the chapel, there is a covered courtyard with room for up to 50 people. This expansion is a work in progress. They also plan to build a mikveh and a guest house for volunteers who may wish to come and help the community. The Jews of Arusha are looking for ways to teach the younger generation Hebrew, as well as Jewish customs and laws. It is a huge challenge, to which Kahalani has dedicated his time and efforts.

On that Shabbat, the whole congregation stood as the ark was opened. After the Torah was taken from the ark, Kahalani was called for the first aliyah. Rabbi Eytan Kenter of KBI read the words and Kahalani shed tears at the realization of his dream.

One by one, members of the local community were called to the Torah. For most of them, it was their first time. Some members of our group also stood to read from the Torah. I’m proud to say that I was among them.

That Shabbat, we sang and prayed together and I vividly realized that the Jews are one people, no matter where in the world they have been scattered. Along with the Torah, we brought siddurim, tefillin and children’s books with Jewish themes. Since our arrival, the Jews of Arusha have been able to put on tefillin for the first time in their lives.

READ: ROYTENBERG: A STATE FORGED IN FIRE

In the aftermath of the trip, both communities are considering how best to continue and deepen their relationship, and there is much to be done. If you are interested in helping or learning more about the Jews of Arusha, please contact me at [email protected] 

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