Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Adar II 5763 - March 5, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Tenth Anniversary for African Jewish Organization
by D. Saks

This year, a still little-known but important Jewish umbrella organization, the African Jewish Congress, celebrates its tenth anniversary.

Exactly ten years ago, the various Jewish communities of Sub- Saharan Africa came together to form the AJC to represent their communities on the international Jewish stage. South Africa, which has by far the largest concentration of Jews on the African continent, took the lead in establishing the organization, through the offices of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). Since then, the AJC has provided an important forum in which the small, scattered African Jewish communities have built bridges with and assisted each other in the maintenance of Jewish life in the region.

The AJC is affiliated to the World Jewish Congress, a voluntary association of representative bodies, communities and organizations throughout the world that seeks to ensure the well-being of the Jewish people and foster their unity. The head offices of the AJC are based in Johannesburg, South Africa, located within the administrative structure of the SAJBD. Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, Spiritual Leader to the AJC, regularly travels to the affiliated countries to officiate at religious services and life-cycle events, visit individual Jews living in isolated areas, oversee the maintenance of Jewish cemeteries and various other duties.

Affiliated countries to the AJC include Botswana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Of these countries, only Kenya (scene of last November's horrific suicide terrorist attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa) and Zimbabwe today still have Jewish populations in excess of a hundred souls. However, in bygone years several others had substantial Jewish populations: over 500 in the case of Mozambique and Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa) and over a thousand in Zambia.

The country with the smallest Jewish presence is Lesotho, a small, mountainous kingdom completely surrounded by South Africa, where the Jewish community numbers, at most, ten people. In 2001, the AJC co-sponsored two rabbinical students to travel to Tanzania, where they organized the first Friday night service in the capital, Dar Es Salaam, in at least 30 years.

While most African Jewish communities are aging and shrinking, several are bucking the trend and showing modest growth. This is true of Botswana, a large, semi-arid republic located between South Africa to the east and south and Namibia to the west. After being unable to muster a minyan for several years, the Botswana community now holds services every Friday night and on all festivals, using a room in the only fully kosher home in the city which has a room specially designated for that purpose. The shul also doubles as a cheder for the growing number of Jewish children in the community.

The most prominent member of the community is Richard Lyons, the only Jew who is currently a Motswana (i.e. a full citizen). A prominent lawyer, Lyons has close relations with the President and his government, as well as with the opposition in Parliament. Two years ago, he was appointed Honorary Consul for Israel.

Another AJC country whose Jewish community has increased in recent years is Mauritius, a subtropical island in the Indian ocean just off Madagascar. From a Jewish point of view, Mauritius is best known as the place where 1670 Jewish refugees from Nazi-held Europe were interned by the British during World War II after they had been refused permission to land in Palestine, then under the British Mandate. Over a hundred of the detainees died during this period and were buried on the island. The cemetery was later handed over by Deed of Grant to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which has overseen its maintenance ever since. Nearly all of the detainees immigrated to Israel after the war and the Jews currently living on the island are comparatively recent arrivals.


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