Our Month With the Lemba, Zimbabwe's Jewish Tribe

Bringing Hebrew and Halacha to Harare

A Teaching Moment: Elaine Berg meets with Lemba children in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Courtesy of Irwin and Elaine Berg
A Teaching Moment: Elaine Berg meets with Lemba children in Harare, Zimbabwe.

By Irwin and Elaine Berg

Published March 01, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.
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Our students — we taught about 15 people during our time in Zimbabwe — expressed concern that the current generation is not keeping the beliefs and traditions of the Lemba as strictly as prior generations. This is a result of the economic conditions in the country, the migration from traditional villages to cities, and the globalizing force of Internet, media, and exposure to other values that affects populations around the world.

This tendency to stray has been noted by the elders who have been struggling to find ways to combat it. Some believe that in order to survive, the Lemba must rejoin the world Jewish community.

In Zimbabwe, the “traditional” Jewish community knows of the Lemba, but for many reasons (some of them halachic) it has not accepted them.

These white European Jews came to the country prior to the 1930s for economic reasons, and some as survivors of the Holocaust. They found success as farmers, business people and factory owners. The mid-1960s saw the demographic pinnacle of Jewish life in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), with over 7,000 Jews in the country. A rich Jewish life developed there, with Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities living in harmony. Today, largely as a result of the violent land reform in the 1990s, there are fewer than 300 Jews in Harare, the capital, about 50 in Bulawayo, the second largest city, and virtually none elsewhere in the country. In Harare, there continues to be separate Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues, but the communities have merged. They conduct services together, alternating synagogues, yet despite this are barely able to scratch up a minyan for Shabbat.

Two-thirds of the Harare Jews are older than 65 — their children have left for the United Kingdom, Israel, the United States and Australia. The last bar mitzvah is said to have taken place in 2006. Their once flourishing Hebrew school now educates a vast majority of non-Jewish children.

As far as we know, there had been no communication between the Lemba and the local Jewish community until our visit, when we brought Maeresera to Shabbat services in the Sephardic synagogue in Harare. Irwin and Maeresera sat in the second row in the synagogue — Elaine sat separately with the women — and the group of 12 worshippers welcomed Maeresera. We understand that a member of the synagogue is helping Maeresera continue his Hebrew lessons.

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