November 17, 2018

Meeting Kenyans is Easy

This past November, I was fortunate enough to participate in a delegation of 12 Jewish-American leaders to Kenya to observe Israeli humanitarian projects throughout the East African country. I knew almost nothing about Kenya prior to the weeklong trip and it opened my eyes to a whole other world. 

Israel is involved in helping Kenya improve in the areas of agriculture, education, medicine, entrepreneurship, women's issues and more. Israel does this work through MASHAV, Israel's agency for international development. MASHAV is in the midst of a number of partnerships with Kenyan farms, schools and other institutions. Kenyan leaders have traveled to Israel and spent time learning about Israeli farming techniques, Israeli education institutes and more via MASHAV. The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles arranged for me and the others in my delegation to visit Kenya and see these projects first-hand in the hope that we will see there is more to Israel than what is shown in the news everyday.

Los Angeles was chosen as a pilot for this program and the Israeli government is currently determining if it wants to do this trip again with Jewish-American leaders from another city. L.A. was chosen as the pilot because conventional wisdom is that L.A. has a lot of liberal Jews who might have a less than praising view of Israel in regards to the continued conflict with the Palestinian territories. 

This might not have been what the organizers had in mind but I came away from the trip with a renewed appreciation for Judaism, as one of the more profound experiences of our visit was spending Friday night at Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in the heart of Nairobi. Thousands of miles away from home, in a country I'd never in my life anticipated visiting, I stood in a pew alongside Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Noah Farkas reciting the amidah underneath a panoply of stained-glass windows representing the twelve tribes of Israel. What was I doing here? How I did I get here? In the morning, over breakfast at the Silver Springs Hotel in Nairobi, I remarked to Rabbi Farkas that it's comforting how the words of the amidah are the same in Kenya as they are back home, that no matter where one is in the world, Judaism is Judaism. 

While liberal groups in America might have a negative opinion of Israel due to its continued entanglement in the Palestinian territories, and anti-Semitism in Europe is on the rise for the same reason, there are places in the world that do not care all that much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear deal, who President-Elect Donald Trump has nominated as his ambassador to Israel, et al. In Kenya I met Africans of Christian faith who gushed over the opportunities they had to travel to Israel as part of their respective institutions partnerships with MASHAV. I met an 18-year-old student at a secondary school in Kisumu, a city in Kenya, who spoke about how much he admired Israel's military expertise, which, perhaps unfortunately, he has learned about due to terrorist attacks that have occurred against Israeli-owned businesses in Kenya. This student, Joseph Kiage, who is shown in the presentation below, wants to study software development. Israel is a place he would love to visit one day. Just talking to me, he said, was amazing, as he'd never met a Jew before.

It was also pretty incredible for me to be talking with him.

There is more to Israel than the conflict. I knew this before I went on the trip and I know it even better now. Israel isn't perfect and it never will be, but it deserves some credit for the work it is doing through MASHAV, which is present in countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Central Europe and the Middle East. It abides by the 'teach-a-man-to-fish' wisdom in that it enters into long-term, but, ultimately, temporary agreements with various places in the hope that it will equip the leaders of the respective institutions with the tools they need to succeed on their own.

Israel and Kenya have more in common than one might think: modern Israel is only 15 years older than modern Kenya, which was a British colony until 1963. Israel's embassy in Nairobi opened that same year and the two countries have had healthy diplomatic ties ever since, even during a period following the Yom Kippur War when then-official ties were severed due to pressure on Kenya from the Arab world. As Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who visited Kenya for the inauguration of the embassy in Nairobi while serving as foreign minister, said, “Like them [African nations], we had shaken off foreign rule; like them, we had to learn for ourselves how to reclaim the land, how to increase the yield of our crops, how to irrigate, how to raise poultry, how to live together and how to defend ourselves.”

People in my group traveling with me were teachers, writers, clergy, program developers and more. Everyone came into the experience with different hopes, ideas and expectations. I can only speak for myself when I say in addition to the abovementioned conclusions, I came away from my week in Kenya with a recharged excitement about working for a Jewish organization that is committed to influencing the world about the goings-on in Jewish Los Angeles and in Israel.