October 19, 2018

Passover: Next year, in Nairobi

Angelenos looking to pair seder with safari need look no farther than Nairobi, Kenya, where they can visit the historic Nairobi Hebrew Congregation.

Marked by stained-glass windows, flower-filled gardens and a community comprising Israeli and European expatriates — as well as African Jews by Choice and travelers passing through in the hope of infusing their exotic journeys into the African continent with a little Judaism — the congregation is happy to host anybody visiting during the holiday.

“We do a traditional seder night and services in shul,” Ashley Myers, president of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation and a British native who initially arrived in Kenya to manage a beach hotel in Mombasa, wrote in an email. “Nonmembers and visitors are welcome to join and often do.”

Services in Nairobi Hebrew Congregation are traditional, with the men and women seated separately inside the large sanctuary. The seder is held in a social hall adjacent to the sanctuary and will be led by Rabbi Avromy Super, who belongs to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and arrived from Australia with his wife, Sternie, just before Passover last year. 

The local Jewish community is more than 100 years old. According to the book “Glimpses of the Jews of Kenya,” which is available for purchase at the synagogue — book sales raise funds for the congregation — Jews have lived in Kenya since 1899. Although Jews have made important contributions to the country in the fields of business, agriculture and more, the population of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation has never exceeded more than 180 members, according to the book. Today, 80 percent of the religious community is made up of Israeli expatriates who are pursuing agriculture, construction and security interests in Kenya, among other ventures.

“It’s a changing community, it’s different than it was in the past,” said Gilad Millo, an Israeli musician living in Nairobi. He also is former deputy head of mission at the Israeli embassy in Kenya and a former diplomat with the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. 

“In my day at the embassy, it was three, four firms that brought Israelis. Today there are a lot of Israeli startup guys who are here independently,” he said. “So you don’t really know everybody and you keep hearing about Israelis who are suddenly here in Kenya doing stuff in areas where Israelis weren’t involved before.”

Millo, who will be holding a seder at his home with friends and family, said the synagogue “brings matzo breadcrumbs and wine and other things from Israel.” Additionally, “for those who want kosher meat, the kehillah [community] brings a shochet [ritual slaughterer] and they sell to the community.” 

Protected by a wall as well as security guards who request identification from passengers in vehicles entering the sizable grounds, the synagogue is located in Nairobi’s central business district.  

A short drive leads to Nairobi National Park, perhaps one of the few places in the world where one can see wild giraffes, zebras, lions and other creatures against a backdrop of a fast-developing cityscape. (But be forewarned, any drive in Nairobi, where people drive on the opposite side of the road because of the country’s history of British colonial rule, will be one big traffic jam.)

In addition to the wildlife, the national park houses a monument featuring large piles of burnt ivory, serving as a reminder of the country’s ban on trade in ivory, enforced since 1989 as a way to disincentivize the poaching of elephants and rhinos. Text on a sign adjacent to the burnt ivory — worth more than $1 million at the time of the burning — will ring familiar to the Jewish community. It reads: “Never Again.”

Poaching continues, nonetheless, despite the efforts of organizations like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The organization operates a rescued infant elephant orphanage that is popular among tourists, who gather behind a roped-off outdoor area as staff members feed the elephants milk from bottles. 

Also in Nairobi is the Giraffe Centre, a nonprofit that educates about the three species of giraffes found in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe, the Rothschild’s giraffe and the Masai giraffe. It also allows visitors — like this reporter, who toured Nairobi on a trip paid for by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs — to feed giraffes pellets using their hands, or for the more intrepid, their mouths. Less known than the threats against elephants and rhinos is that the giraffe population in Kenya is dwindling due to things such as habitat loss and hunting. 

The sanctuary of Nairobi Hebrew Congregation features separate seating for men and women as well as stained glass windows above the bimah depicting stories from the Torah. Windows on the sides represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Photo by Jacob Brauner

Jewish ties to the nation go back decades. In fact, under what was called the Uganda Plan, Kenya was considered a possible temporary Jewish homeland before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Later, the Kenyan government was helpful to Israelis during Operation Entebbe, serving as a refueling zone for Israeli planes during the country’s rescue of hostages from Uganda in 1976. 

The two countries have had diplomatic relations since 1963, the same year Kenya gained independence from the British. The Israeli embassy in Nairobi has been involved in the renovation of Kenya’s national hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital. It also houses employees of MASHAV, the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation. 

Michael Baror, Israel’s deputy ambassador to Kenya, told the Journal that Nairobi Hebrew Congregation’s “prime location” has resulted in “expensive upkeep” and “whoever cares for it changes from time to time because the Israelis come and go. … It was there before the city barely existed …[and] it is the oldest [Jewish] community in East Africa.” 

If one is looking for something more intimate for Passover than what the synagogue is offering, Baror said he is holding a seder in his home and that visitors are welcome. 

“There are many people that will be glad to host guests for the seder if needed,” Baror said, “myself included.”