Cape to Cairo

A conference in New York explores the ups and downs of Jewish life in Africa.

A performance of Sebt (or Shabbat) Gnawa, the summoning of Judeo-Moroccan spirits, by the Grammy-nominated Innov Gnawa (photo credit: CHRYSTIE SHERMAN/WWW.CHRYSTIESHERMAN.COM)
A performance of Sebt (or Shabbat) Gnawa, the summoning of Judeo-Moroccan spirits, by the Grammy-nominated Innov Gnawa
An email popped into my inbox in early January inviting me to attend a conference in New York entitled “Jewish African Communities – Past, Present and Future” and asked me to present the story of the Zimbabwe and Zambian Communities.  It took me a few moments to absorb the note, read the relevant background information and process what this meant.
As someone born in Zimbabwe and who has lived most of my life in Israel, my Jewish African experience was always framed by the traditional Southern African Jewish community culture – strongly influenced by the original immigrants from Lithuania, Germany, Britain, Poland and Rhodes.  I have been recording the story of the Zimbabwean and Zambian Jewish communities for nearly 20 years and hence the organizers’ request to share my expertise.
Without further hesitation, I accepted the invitation and spent three days in a very different and interesting world immersed in literally a “Cape to Cairo” tour of Judaism being expressed in many ways across the continent.
I learned that there are many people doing serious research and producing amazing material on the Jewish world across Africa. Of course, the starting point in attending, what was slated as the first such conference on Jewish African Communities is to hear from the numerous speakers that there are many flavours, interpretations and histories of what it means to be Jewish in Africa.
Lecturers covered the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and their identity until 1991 with fascinating insights by Dr Shalva Weil from the Hebrew University into the first self-described “Falashmura” who trekked by foot from Ethiopia to Jerusalem in the early 1900s. We also heard from a young student Abere Endeshaw Kerehu who lives in Addis Ababa today and seeks to enhance the lives of the Jews still living there whilst struggling with Israel’s slow response to bringing the remaining 8,000 members of the community to the Jewish State.  Ethiopian-born Rabbi Dr. Sharon Shalom spoke with great insight and conviction about the challenges facing Ethiopian Jews in Israel in the context of preserving their culture, traditions and identify.
Dr Jay Waronker, an architect by profession, displayed and spoke about his unique drawings and personal commitment over many years to record the synagogues of Africa. You can see the attention to detail and professionalism in his work at
Well known photographer Jono David presented a humorous and yet very impressively serious expose of his journeys throughout Africa to visually record disparate Jewish communities – from Madagascar to the Cameroon and from the Cape to Morocco.  He spoke about his visits and showed photographs of the Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwe and the Djerba community on the island off the coast of North Africa where Jews have lived for over 2,500 years. He visited and photographed the Igbo Jews of Nigeria near Aubja. To get a sense of Jono’s work visit his site at
Ilona Remy gave an ardent speech expressing his frustrations of how the Igbos Jews with some 26 synagogues in Nigeria and approximately known 30,000 members are ignored by mainstream Jewish institutions, the Rabbinate and by Israel. Referring to the “Israelites of Biafra”, Mr Remy estimated that the total community could be “50 million” people.
Maguy Kakon spoke eloquently of her experiences and challenges as the first Jewish woman to run for a seat in Moroccan parliamentary elections.  Former journalist Carol Castiel gave a fascinating presentation on her work in preserving the story of the Jews of Cape Verde – a tiny island off the west coast of Africa.  It became clear from various presentations that the Spanish inquisition caused Jews to escape to far flung reaches in sub-Sahara Africa – not just the well-known communities of Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt where today hardly any Jews at all exist – but also lesser known communities existed in Cameroon, Guinea and Gambia.
Staff from the American Sephardi Federation, led by Executive Director Jason Guberman and Eddie Ashkenazie presented their amazing project called “Atlas of Jewish History and Diarna Geo-Museum of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish life.” The project is working to digitally preserve the physical remnants of Jewish history throughout the region. It is in a “race against time” to capture site data and record place-based oral histories before even the memories of these communities are lost.  They are now extending their work to sub-Sahara Africa.
Dr. Tudor Parfitt from Oxford University gave a spell-binding lecture on his research and published books about the Lemba tribe of South Africa and Zimbabwe who claim Jewish heritage.  His work involved physically tracking the possible route the Lemba may have taken down the East Coast of Africa based on the oral history from their tribal elders. He reached the town of Sena in Yemen where the Lemba believe they came from.   His studies involved a series of DNA tests which showed the male Lemba displayed a high proportion of paternal Semitic ancestry, DNA (called Cohen Modal Haplotype) that is common to both Arabs and Jews from the Middle East. Dr Parfitt was cautious in his words, entitling his talk “The Jews of Sub-Sahara Africa: Myth and Reality” and gave numerous other examples in West Africa but from all accounts it seems clear that the Lemba themselves take their so called Jewish linkage very seriously.
There is an active Lemba synagogue in Harare, Zimbabwe supported by the international Kulanu organisation and the community members follow strict Jewish rituals from prayer, circumcision, Kashrut, Shabbat and intermarriage with other communities is strongly prohibited. Their community of 20,000-30,000 both in Zimbabwe and South Africa is not recognized by any mainstream Jewish Rabbis or institutions.
Mention was also made of the Abayudaya (Luganda language for “People of Judah”) who are a Baganda community of about 3,000 in eastern Uganda near the town of Mbale who practice a form of Judaism. They are devout in their practice, keeping kashrut, and observing Shabbat.
The conference had a fascinating presentation by Israeli Entrepreneur Yossi Abramowitz President and CEO of Energiya Global Capital as well as co-founder of the Arava Power Company. He spoke about the various renewal energy projects he has been promoting in Africa and his encounters with local Jewish communities, mainly over the many years his company has been active in Ethiopia and other East and Southern African countries. He and his wife have five children, two of whom were adopted from Ethiopia.
“In addition to being profitable, the company seeks to benefit the environment, bolster communities, and project an image of Israel as an “emerging superpower of goodness” that exports solutions to the world’s most intractable humanitarian problems: water, medicine, energy and agriculture.” said Mr. Abramowitz. His company particularly focuses on sub-Sahara Africa and he shared some colourful anecdotes of his encounters with people across several African countries claiming Jewish heritage.
What was equally intriguing about the conference was the partnership of its two key sponsors – the American Sephardi Federation and Mimouna – a Muslim organization from Morroco that seeks to preserve Jewish Heritage in that country.  Their cooperation created a warm atmosphere at the gathering and included an exotic evening of music and colourful Moroccan dance groups.
There were sad moments for reflection when Magda Haroun from Cairo and Dr Yoram Meital from Israel described how the once proud, historical and large Jewish Community of Egypt has all but disappeared. Ms Haroun lamented that amongst a total population of nearly 100 million people there were about five Jews in the whole country and of their struggle to preserve synagogues and community institutions. It seems the Egyptian government has recognized this cultural loss and is providing some resources to preserve Jewish heritage in the country.
In the short time allocated to each speaker, I did my best to tell the story of the Zimbabwean and Zambian Jewish communities and how the first white settlers in those two territories in the 1890s and through the 1930s included Jews seeking to improve their economic well-being whilst escaping the pogroms and the rise of Nazism in Europe and Rhodes.  I told of how communities grew quickly to around 8,500 in the 1960s and effectively established Synagogues and community institutions including fine Jewish Day Schools, Zionist Youth Movements, WIZO, Jewish Sports Clubs in Harare, Bulawayo and smaller towns like Kadoma and Kwe Kwe.  In Livingstone, Lusaka and Ndola there were active Synagogues and today there is a small Jewish museum in Livingstone which was the gateway to Northern Rhodesia – as it was known.
I presented conference participants the extensive online archive I have built over the years  with records of all the Jewish cemeteries, pictures and many written and audio-visual biographies of community members, digitized books and more recently the extremely active Facebook group .  Today those communities have dwindled to around 100 souls.
From South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies, Chaya Singer spoke eloquently about the challenges facing the South African Jewish Community but also how the Jewish life continues to thrive in the main centres of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. Singer accepted a special award given to the SAJBOD by the conference organisers for its work in promoting civil rights, the safety and welfare of South African Jewry, including combating antisemitism in all its forms, and building bridges of friendship and understanding between Jews and the broader South African population. South Africa’s Jewish community, we were told, has shrunken over the last 25 years to about half its size when it was at its zenith of 120,000.
I came away from the conference with a whole new perspective on Jewish Africa and a realization that across this huge continent Jewish life has had its ebbs and flows but there is a relatively new, growing trend of Jewish identity which requires a respectful and better understanding to establish its credibility and place in history.
Dave Bloom is a personal, family and community historian interested in the history of the Zimbabwean and Zambian Jewish communities. He lives in Israel, where he is a partner in a software company and a former chairman of Telfed – the South African Zionist Federation (Israel).