NAIROBI, Kenya (JTA) — In 1990, Florence Wangiju showed up at the door of the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi. With her arms folded across her chest, Wangiju, whose name was Wanjuki, resolutely told the staff that she wanted to go to a synagogue, to see how the Jews worshiped.
“She just knocked on that door. She didn’t know anyone,” recalls her daughter Winnie Wangu. “My mother was a woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
A single mother, she for years brought back storybooks and journals to her four information-devouring young children. Through her work as a secretary with different international organizations, she met people who encouraged her to buy books for her children. Some of the books were about Judaism, and some of the people who brought the books were Jewish, said Wangu, now 53. Her children’s curiosity about religion grew, and Wangiju decided she needed to see in person what her family dreamed of.
Embassy officials directed Wangiju to the Nairobi Synagogue, the first and only current Jewish place of worship in East Africa. Once she entered it, her soul never left, her daughter said.
“Our souls were at peace, we were finally home,” Wangu said, his eyes watering at the memory. “But we didn’t know it would divide the community.”
As the only synagogue in Kenya, the congregation was plagued by the numbers problem affecting many Jewish communities in sub-Saharan African countries (except Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa ). In Kenya, there are about 300 Jews, and about half of them have synagogue ties. Members of the small community of around 80 families often did not have enough men to form a minyan – a quorum of 10 required for prayer under Jewish law – at their synagogue, which opened in 1912 to serve a handful of European Jews. who have passed through Kenya for business and professional reasons. They also didn’t have a permanent rabbi until last year.
But the community, which included several white Europeans and other non-native Kenyans, struggled to come to terms with the decision to open their doors to Wangiju’s request for conversion.
The congregation lacked the knowledge to perform the rituals and were concerned about the religious and ethical implications. The original constitution of the synagogue stated that any conversion had to be Orthodox to be accepted. In highly missionary Kenya, which has many churches in every neighborhood, Jews are also cautious about proselytizing.
“It just wasn’t possible for us to do it here,” said David Silverstein, an American heart surgeon – and doctor to former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi – who has lived in Kenya since 1974 and often acted as the head of the Jewish community when there was no rabbi in place.
So Wangiju, her family and the small group of others who followed in her footsteps and also hoped to convert, decided to travel to neighboring Uganda. There they worked with Chief Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and the local community of Abayudaya Jews to achieve their own conversions.
The Abayudaya community, which has seen its own size grow in recent decades with the help of conversions overseen by conservative American rabbis, ran into the kind of hurdles the Nairobi community feared: in late 2017, a Abayudaya member was detained at Ben-Gurion airport and sent home, despite being granted permission to study at a conservative yeshiva. Israel has been repeatedly criticized for its support for immigrants from Africa and his treatment of non-Orthodox converts.
More than 20 years after entering the Israeli Embassy, Wangiju converted in 2012. Wangu, her twin brother Rickson, 53, and her sister Malka, 55, converted on June 3, 2016 and are returned to Kenya, where they encountered a divided community.
But ultimately, community members concluded that accepting converts was one of the only ways to keep the synagogue vibrant and open.
“In reality, the community would soon die. We couldn’t even have a minyan,” Silverstein said. “If we wanted to have a continuous Jewish community in Kenya, we had to accept the fact that not every Jew was going to be of white Ashkenazi descent.”
Many in the congregation initially disagreed, and many began to leave the community, dismayed by the acceptance of Wangiju and her children. At first, the faithful did not want to accept the conversion because it was done in Uganda, not in Israel. Silverstein said arguments over whether new converts should be called to the bimah, or synagogue platform, to lead prayer services have turned hostile.
“There was a small group of holdouts who didn’t want Kenyans to be accepted to pray,” Silverstein said. They would talk behind his back, he said, and not confront him in person because of his position in the community.
Race was an unspoken factor – Silverstein had two half-Kenyan sons who had converted to Judaism in the United States and were readily accepted into the community.
“I wondered why they would easily accept my children but not the new Kenyan converts,” Silverstein said.
The congregation refused to count Winnie’s brother Rickson as part of a minyan.
“We were coming to pray, but they were passing over my brother to join the minyan although he was sitting right there,” Wangu said.
Some members wanted an Israeli authority to certify the conversions. The synagogue’s board said they had their own rules and regulations and did not need Israel’s permission to accept conversions. Eventually, Silverstein decided to write in Israel to a group of liberal rabbis who decreed that conversions should be accepted.
“After that, for the most part in the end, they finally backed off,” Silverstein said. Regular attendees began accepting converts. Conversions continued, and Wangiju’s extended family, including three of his children and two grandchildren, converted to Judaism, along with three other Kenyan families, forming a significant part of the congregation.
In total, there are now around 20 Kenyan converts – more than a third of worshipers – who attend the synagogue regularly.
Over the years, tensions finally began to thaw, and the congregation finally called Rickson to the bimah. In 2018, the synagogue hosted its first bar mitzvah for a mixed Kenyan and European family, and everyone was invited.
“For the first time in nearly 20 years, children were at the shul and black and white families prayed together,” Wangu said.
By then, the group had grown large enough to bring a rabbi, Netanel Kaszovitz, 28, and his young family from Israel last March, thanks to synagogue membership fees, donations, money earned through kosher certification services and fundraising events. Kaszovitz, an Orthodox Jew from Gush Etzion, and his wife, Avital, studied in the Straus-Amiel program, which trains rabbis to strengthen Jewish identity and participation in the Diaspora. (The program is not affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which sends emissaries around the world with a similar mission).
“Our emissaries are specially trained to enable personal and educational relationships to inspire lasting passion and love for Israel and Judaism, while fighting assimilation and alienation,” Rabbi Kenneth said. Brander, president of the umbrella organization Ohr Torah Stone, which runs the training program, in a written statement to the Jewish Telegraph Agency.
The Kaszovitzes were open to the challenges of working in Africa, as they had previously hosted Shabbats in Thailand and the Philippines, and they appreciated the uniqueness of being Jewish in Kenya. In a country where 85% of the population is practicing Christian and 11% Muslim, most people have never met anyone of the Jewish faith.
“Who ends up in Africa? Kaszovitz said, “What brings people here? And how do we keep the Jewish faith alive?
Within eight months of his arrival, the new rabbi instituted two religious study classes for congregants and a Torah study for children, the first classes in the synagogue’s history. He said he wanted to bring the community together but ensure worshipers adhere to Jewish laws.
Wangu said the community now had a better understanding of how to practice their Judaism.
“He treats us like Jews, he healed the community and brought us together,” Wangu said, referring to old racial and conversion divides. “A lot of people come with promises, but it was the first rabbi who kept them. And thanks to that, we have the courage to be better Jews.
Synagogue attendance increased. On Shabbat they easily form a minyan and devotees are able to read parts of the Torah and prayers they did not know before.
Wangiju never got to see the changes she catalyzed all those years ago when she knocked on the door of the Israeli Embassy, as she died in 2017 at age 68. But she would have been proud, her children said, that no matter how many years it took to be accepted, they finally made it.
Wangiju was buried in the Nairobi Jewish Cemetery, and Jews from across Africa and around the world attended the funeral, Wangu said. Members of the congregation helped them to sit shivathe week-long Jewish mourning period.
“We weren’t born Jews,” Wangu said. “But we know we will die as Jews.”