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In Mozambique, A (Very) Small Jewish Community Thrives

Mozambique is a great place to be Jewish, says Sam Levy, one of the lay leaders of the small Jewish community in Maputo, the Southern African country’s capital city. “There’s no anti-Semitism here. The religious leadership actively cultivates tolerance and understanding.”

Although the Jewish community’s core membership numbers around 35, it is still a part of the Council of Religions, an association of Mozambique’s different religious denominations. Just over half the country’s population is Christian and around 28% is Muslim, but, Levy says, “We have a role, we’re counted.”

We’re standing inside Maputo’s synagogue — its cool, whitewashed walls offer welcome respite from the tropical rainfall and humidity outside. Situated in the center of the city, surrounded by a neatly manicured lawn, it is the only synagogue in Mozambique. Although there are guards who protect it, the security is no different from any other property in Maputo whose owners can afford it.

Natalie Tenzer-Silva, like Levy, is a member of Honen Dalim — Comunidade Judaica de Moçambique, Mozambique’s Jewish community. Originally from South Africa, Tenzer-Silva and her family have been living in Maputo, where she runs a travel business, for more than 20 years. Johannesburg may be just under a five-hour drive from Maputo, but Tenzer-Silva has no intention of returning. “I love everything about being here,” she says.

Built in the Portuguese Baroque Revival style, the synagogue’s grand, exterior front facade and vibrant blue roof create a striking impression. Originally constructed in 1926, the synagogue was fully restored in 2013. The inside is less elaborate; nonetheless, its vaulted ceiling and mahogany interior give the space a sense of awe and beauty.

Light filters in through several casement windows, and high up on the rear wall there’s a large circular window filled with blue- and green-glazed glass panes in the shape of a Star of David. As Tenzer-Silva shows me the sanctuary, her pride, affection and enthusiasm for the community and its historic building are more than a little infectious.

The community has never had the numbers to support a rabbi, Tenzer-Silva says. Services are led, predominantly by Levy, using prayer booklets that have been written in English, Portuguese and Hebrew specifically for the community. “You can choose which language you want to read it in, but it‘s not a stress. It’s so relaxed, everybody feels completely comfortable,” she says. “When we need a minyan, Kaddish for someone or it’s a Jewish holiday and we have to prepare something, everyone matters and you actually feel needed.”

I’d been drawn to Mozambique for the last two years, since I’d discovered that my British-born grandfather Joseph Lazarus and his older brother and business partner, Maurice, or Moses, had lived and worked in the port city of Lourenço Marques (present-day Maputo) from the late 19th century until 1908. Here, in the newly appointed, cosmopolitan capital of Portuguese colonial pre-independence Mozambique, the brothers established one of the first — and most successful — commercial photography houses in the city.

My research resulted in a family holiday to Mozambique, and Maputo was our last stop. Maurice Lazarus was elected to sit on the inaugural executive committee of the Jewish community, and, as I entered the synagogue, I saw his name listed on a board in the small foyer. The unexpected feeling of connection and pride I had at that moment would recur in the days that followed as we explored the city, walking past buildings and through districts that the Lazarus brothers had chronicled over 100 years before.

After Independence: On this unassuming corner in Maputo, the Lazarus Brothers maintained their photography business. Image by Anne Joseph

The first Jewish congregation was founded in 1899, at a time when Lourenço Marques — formally known as Delagoa Bay — was undergoing major growth and economic expansion. The discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa resulted in an influx of immigrants, including Jews. Lourenço Marques was then, according to the Lazarus brothers, “unquestionably the most picturesque place in Southern Africa and one that no traveler to the Cape should fail to visit.”

One such traveler was Reverend Dr. Joseph Herman Hertz (author of the Hertz Chumash, the standard Chumash of the Anglo-Jewish community), who proposed the establishment of a Jewish community. He’d come to Lourenço Marques from Johannesburg, South Africa, in December 1899, having been expelled by President Paul Kruger on account of his pro-British activities during the Boer War. Although Hertz’s stay was brief — just one week — he impressed upon the Jews of the city the need to establish a cemetery and a synagogue, as well as educational and social institutions.

It to ok them some time, Levy said. Until the consecration of the synagogue in 1926, services were held in private homes using a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions, which reflected the diverse background of the community.

When Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975, the synagogue was nationalized, along with other houses of worship. It was abandoned and later used as a warehouse. Amid a political climate of hostility toward organized religion, practicing Jewish life in Mozambique came to a halt and did not return until the late 1980s, when the synagogue was returned to the community, thanks to the initiative and campaign efforts of a local non-Jewish businessman. By 1994, Jewish communal life had been revitalized and the synagogue rededicated.

However, its location was not widely known. Shortly after American economist Larry Herman first arrived in Maputo from Israel in 2000, he asked a taxi driver to take him to the synagogue. But, Herman says, “He took me to the Geological Museum which had a Star of David on it.” “Then, the next week, a taxi driver took me to a mosque downtown, insisting it was the ‘Jewish Church.’” Finally, the owner of a restaurant gave him the correct location.

“I went and there were three men standing in the middle of the sanctuary around an old metal desk [that was] draped with a blue cloth,” he tells me. “It was really rundown — the roof was leaking and sagging, and there were some old wooden benches pushed up against the wall.” But Herman was warmly welcomed, and he returned.

His attendance that evening formed the beginning of a long-standing affiliation with the tiny community. He and his wife, Diane, became leading figures in it until they left Maputo for Los Angeles in July 2016. “It was an oasis in a desert because it’s so unusual, and that was great,” Herman recalled. “Our efforts to create Jewish community in Maputo were an affirmation of our Jewish identity. If there’s a lesson, perhaps it’s that community building — even in a place as remote as Maputo — is a worthwhile and fulfilling end in itself.”

Yet when the Jewish resources are scarce, a community must do extra in order to have the benefit of Jewish of life, Levy says. “Interestingly, what happens is that the foreign people who come here, who might not be so involved in their home country because there are Jewish resources everywhere, might remember from time to time to be involved. In Maputo, to have a community, you have to work for it.”

Lauren Wojtyla, Levy’s wife and the synagogue’s president since 2016, says, “It’s hard enough to get people to become active and involved [in any community], so in a very small community that’s run by a lay leadership, it’s an even greater challenge. One of the things that we love,” she says, ”is that it’s small enough that everyone understands that what they do matters.”

Levy says that this spirit of inclusiveness has been present in Maputo since the community’s resurgence in the 1990s. That inclusiveness also extends to the non-Jewish members of the community, some of whom have a direct connection through marriage or those who identify as Jewish through patrilineal descent. Others are simply drawn to the synagogue and its practice. However, according to Herman, there have been times when tensions have surfaced about who qualifies for membership.

But Herman believes that non-Jews play an important role in Maputo’s Jewish community. “These are the people who would drop everything to come and support members during periods of mourning, even though halachically they couldn’t be counted in a minyan. You have to question, from a religious perspective, what is a Jewish community, what is the role of people who aren’t Jewish. It’s changed my views about what should be and how much we should encourage people like that,” he says.

The nondenominational community is made up of a scattering of people from all over the world, says Wojtyla — she and Levy, now permanent residents, came from the U.S. in the 1990s and founded a law firm in the city. But the size of the community tends to wax and wane, largely depending on the number of ex-pats working in Mozambique, often at an embassy, an NGO or in medicine. The mix of cultures, languages and different Jewish religious experiences can cause difficulties, Wojtyla says: “How do we make it relevant and how [can we] move across these differences when perhaps people’s only point of contact is their Jewish identity?”

One particular issue that caused much controversy was about whether to have a mechitza (a divider separating men and women in a synagogue). Two years ago, there was a religious family living in Maputo, Tenzer-Silva explains, and so for them it was important, but most of the community was unhappy about it. Eventually, a compromise was reached: the synagogue would be divided into three parts: a women’s section, a men’s section and a family section. On the day of my visit, the mechitza was folded up and propped against the back wall — no longer needed, for the time being.

Another issue was the unforeseen costs of the last renovation. When the builders removed the roof, engineers discovered it was rotten and that the building was structurally unsafe. A project that had been estimated at $25,000 rose to almost $150,000. Benefactors, ex-members and the community paid for the repairs, but there was also remarkable goodwill, says Tenzer-Silva. “Everyone undertook to do the work at cost — even the landscape designer who had no connection to the shul.”

The reconstruction was completed in 2012, just in time for Tenzer-Silva’s son’s bar mitzvah — the first since 1975. On the Friday night, there were 125 people in the synagogue, Tenzer-Silva recalls. “Larry requested that no one touch the walls, as the final coat of paint was literally still drying!”

Maintaining the synagogue is vital, even if no one comes into it to pray, says Herman. “It’s got to be painted, the bugs have to be kept out and the wood has to be polished from time to time. It cannot be allowed to become dilapidated.”

The years since Mozambique’s independence have been turbulent — the country has experienced civil war, economic instability and corruption. Yet, there is reason for some cautious optimism. The discovery of natural gas in Mozambique will, eventually, have a positive impact on the country’s domestic revenue and international investment. It will also have an effect on the Jewish community, whose future is tied up with Mozambique’s economic future. “Jewish people will come here, drawn to the economic opportunities — much like they did in the 19th century,” says Levy. “The goal for this community is to stay cohesive, to grow in its observance to learn more about how to live a fulfilling Jewish life and educate its children. There’s no grand secret to that; it’s doing more of the same and better.”

Anne Joseph is a freelance journalist based in the U.K.

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