The keeper of the flame in Namibia

What will be the fate of Namibia’s last surviving synagogue?

The Windhoek Hebrew Congregation synagogue in Namibia, with community leader Zvi Gorelick in the background. (photo credit: ORI GOLAN)
The Windhoek Hebrew Congregation synagogue in Namibia, with community leader Zvi Gorelick in the background.
(photo credit: ORI GOLAN)
It is late afternoon on a Friday and I’m waiting for Zvi Gorelick outside the Windhoek Hebrew Congregation synagogue, Namibia’s only synagogue. It stands behind a locked gate, fortified with electric fencing in a depressingly bleak neighborhood of Windhoek, the capital city.
I dearly hope he arrives on time, because it is getting dark and this does not feel like a neighborhood in which you’d take a leisurely stroll or hang around. I spot him a few meters away and call his name.
“I suppose I’m fairly recognizable,” says Gorelick, as he shakes my hand by way of introduction. Well, yes, he is. With his Father Christmas-like long white beard, he looks unmistakably like the man I’d seen in a book on the history of Namibia’s Jewish community that I perused a few days earlier in a bookshop in Windhoek.
After unlocking the front gates and disengaging the alarm system, he leads me through the synagogue’s front doors. Once inside, this place of worship looks decidedly familiar. I note the wooden pews, an elevated carved wooden bima and a decorated holy ark behind which, Gorelick assures me, is a Torah scroll. There are kippot and siddurim on a wooden ledge, alongside old copies of communal newsletters.
A corridor leads us to a kitchen, where we sit at right angles to each other. He puts the kettle on, makes us a mug of coffee each and offers me teiglach, traditional knotted pastries boiled in a honeyed syrup. “It’s kasher l’Pessah [kosher for Passover],” he encourages me, “and best eaten by dunking first in the coffee.”
There is something immensely likable about Gorelick, with his rolling laugh, long beard and baseball cap he wears in lieu of a kippa. He is what secular Israelis would affectionately describe as “baba sababa” – a religious man with a modern demeanor.
“I was one of the few kids who carried on after bar mitzva,” he tells me when I ask him about his Jewish education. “It was just a thing for me. I enjoyed closing the windows after everyone had gone,” he recalls, smiling. This is apt because, after 91 years, the last functioning Namibian synagogue looks set to close its gates – and it might well be Gorelick himself who closes the windows, switches off the light and locks the gates for the last time.
THE COMMUNITY has seen a number of changes in its numbers, luck and fortunes, but it seems now to be heading inexorably towards its demise. If it weren’t for Gorelick, they would have already arrived at this inevitable conclusion. In many ways, he is the linchpin holding the community together; the proverbial keeper of the flame.  It wasn’t always like that, he explains.
“When the first white people came here in the mid-1800s, Jews came with them; there was always some Jew with a wagon-load of goods that he was trying to sell.” He recounts the history of Namibia’s Jewish community as an expert in the subject matter, reeling off figures, dates and names with remarkable fluency. The discovery of diamonds at the turn of the last century brought a number of Jews to the area and, as their ranks swelled, they grouped and formed a Jewish communal life in different parts of what is now Namibia. There were communities in Luderitz Bay, Swakopmund and Keetmanshoop.
Swakopmund had a synagogue which was part of an existing wooden building above a stable, but it burned down in 1914 – and with it, the Torah scroll. By that time the center of business had already moved to Windhoek, and in 1924 the Jewish community built a synagogue there. “The biggest mistake they made was not to build a mikve [ritual bath] right away,” asserts Gorelick. “Most managed without one, but the very religious people found it difficult and left.”
He takes me back to the community’s heyday, in the 1950s, as a nostalgic walk down memory lane. At the time there were some 120 Jewish families in what was then South-West Africa. “We had rabbis. We had teachers. We had a Jewish day school. When I was a child, there was a cheder [supplementary classes in Hebrew and Jewish subjects] and a daycare for Jewish kids. We even had a Shabbat children’s service in shul.”
But by his own admission, community life was always held together precariously. He ascribes this to the fact that “religion was not the sole goal of life.”
“South African Jews would go to shul on Friday night and wear a tallit at the Shabbat morning service. If there was a hag or an event, you’d go to that. But that’s about it. We were not taught to wear tzitzit; we did not wear a kippa all of the time and we weren’t taught to pray three times a day. Boys would study in cheder but as soon as they got to bar mitzva,” he bangs his fist on the table for emphasis, “that’s it, they stopped coming.
“Still, my father and his contemporaries felt that religion should be taken seriously. They would dress up for it. Any shul occasion was a tie-and-jacket affair, with top hats on yontif [holidays]. But as their generation passed away, these customs disappeared.”
THE EROSION of customs alone cannot account for the changing fortunes of Namibian Jewry; numbers can. Many of the Jews who arrived in Windhoek in the aftermath of World War II used it as a provisional base to improve their financial situation. As soon as they were able to get enough money together, they relocated to Johannesburg, Cape Town, Australia or Israel. In the 1960s, Jewish parents started sending their children to universities. There was no higher education in Windhoek, so most Jewish parents sent their children to Cape Town or Johannesburg to continue their education – and when they didn’t come back, their parents followed them.
Moreover, when South Africa won independence from the Commonwealth and declared itself a republic in 1961, many Jews feared they were going to be displaced, so they “upped sticks” and left. During the 1960s Windhoek saw its biggest exodus of Jews, and the community headcount diminished dramatically. The number of Jewish families currently residing in Windhoek stands at somewhere between 12 and 15. “Much depends on definitions,” notes Gorelick.
“Some are families of mixed marriages, where the women like to think that their children are Jewish – and halachically they’re right – but there’s no Yiddishkeit at home at all. They don’t light Shabbat candles, they don’t keep kosher, they don’t send their children to cheder. When I tell them not to send their children to school on hagim...” his voice trails off in frustration. “Nobody listens,” he sighs with tired resignation.
The new generation of Jews in Windhoek is farther and farther removed from its Jewish roots. It is a trend which, for many years now, Gorelick has tried valiantly to reverse. “I used to go from house to house for nearly 10 years to pick up the children to teach them,” he recounts. “I would teach them the Hebrew alphabet, Jewish laws, Jewish songs... some Yiddishkeit. If it was the time leading up to Passover, we’d talk about Passover, and during Succot we’d talk about that.”
He pauses, reflecting. “The parents wouldn’t bring the kids to me, so I used to fetch them by car and that was okay for most of them. After 10 years I decided I could not carry on, and insisted they come to me. And that’s how cheder stopped!” he laughs goodheartedly, dipping his teiglach into his mug of coffee.
It is astonishing that there’s no rancor in his words, no ill feelings in his heart; only a genuine desire and an unremitting drive to save the community from extinction. When I mention an unpleasant incident involving a member of the community, he asks me to excise it from the interview – it falls under lashon hara (slanderous talk), he explains. Although he runs the services at the synagogue, Gorelick is not a rabbi.
“Whenever I represent the Namibian Jewish community in different forums, I state clearly that I am not a rabbi. I tell people I am the spiritual leader of the community. I’m a layperson; and in the end they still call me a rabbi!” His infectious stentorian laugh fills the room. Gorelick’s job descriptions and titles within the community form a long list. He is an honorary life president of the synagogue. (The current president of the committee is his brother, Nachum Gorelick.) He has also been secretary of the committee since 1971. He represents the community in various forums, including interfaith dialogues.
“I became the community’s bookkeeper,” he mentions, “not by choice or nomination; it was foisted on me. I introduced electronic banking and none of the other committee members know how to do online transactions, so I’m the only one who can do it. All the payments, all the balances for the auditor...I do it.”
In the past these were paid roles, but now he fills them as a volunteer – as the coffers are virtually empty. The only regular revenue is generated by membership, which stands at an annual 1,000 Namibian dollars (less than $100) per family. He makes a living out of a number of business enterprises that include tourism and home renovation.
OVER AN hour later, I still feel I do not know much about Gorelick-the-person or what drives him, so I change tack and ask him directly to chart out a map of his life path that has led him to where he is today: the face of Namibian Jewry. He appears reluctant initially, but relents when I assure him that certain events and details of his biography will remain off the record. At 65, Gorelick can safely say he’s been around the block, both physically and spiritually.
Son of a Russian-born father and Canadian mother, he was a sickly child and spent much of his childhood in bed. It was during this time that his father sat with him over long hours teaching him prayers and songs; this is how and when he imbibed his Yiddishkeit. His sister married Lionel Mirvis, father of Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. His father was an active member of the Jewish community of Namibia (“If he wasn’t the president or the vice president, then he was something else”) who was also a successful businessman and representative of ZIM, Israel’s navigation company, in South- West Africa.
It was when Gorelick moved to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, to study architecture, that “he drifted quite far from Judaism” – as he puts it. He joined a rock band, playing the guitar and singing in nightclubs, and was sucked “into the culture,” taking a route which he describes as leading him “pretty far off the path.”
In 1970 he returned to Windhoek to work for his father and was “pretty clean for a while,” but financial stress and work frustrations took their toll on him and soon, he was “straight back into it.” It was in the shower, he says, that he would hear a voice telling him, “If you don’t clean up your act now, you’re going to go down” – and “his act” was not clean by any measure. On one of these occasions, when he heard the voice berate him “This is your chance, now,” he resolved then and there to listen to the voice. The smoking and “other bad habits” ceased immediately.
But the “mess inside” continued and did not stop until the day he put on tefillin. Prayer and tefillin, he insists, were the decisive forces that got him back on track. More than 20 years have since passed and in this time Gorelick has become more observant, focused and determined. This was the path he trod which drew him back to the community, and has galvanized him to support, energize and now, try to save it.
I ask him what brand of Judaism he identifies with. “My brother-in-law insists I am Chabad,” he replies, “but I’m not. Some would label me as United Orthodox, but I’m just a Jew!” Health problems, he explains, have rendered him lazy of late. “I need an injection of a couple of Jews to put on tefillin together. When I go to a shul in Israel or Johannesburg, they give me an aliya [call me up to the Torah]. Here I don’t get a minyan, never mind an aliya.”
Indeed, his religious beliefs and practices apart, Gorelick is a realist and the limitations of his work are clear to him. “We are now the only shul in Namibia. We’ve reached a point where we can’t make a minyan out of the local members. If needed and on special occasions, to recite Kaddish for example, we call on the Israeli businessmen residing here working in the diamond industry to help form a minyan. We have good relations with the Israeli families here, but they are largely secular and are not actively engaged with the community. There are currently six other men running the community; not one of them is shomer Shabbat [Shabbat observant].”
Given this, how does he see the future of the community? “It will disappear,” he answers wistfully. “The shul will close. There will be nobody to run it.” The door opens and a number of men walk in. They are here for the Friday evening service, which Gorelick is leading. He invites me to participate, and I accept. I count six of us in total, all men. Two are local Namibians who are converting to Judaism; one is a young American student in Namibia on an exchange program. Zvi and his brother represent the community.
I wonder, knowing what I now know, how painful this pronouncement is to make for one who has invested so much time, energy and resources in saving his community. But just then, his voice rises abruptly – and the tone is upbeat.
“We still have a voice, we still have koyach [strength], and we are finding ways to make the Namibian Jewish community continue. Our only asset is the shul, and if we can sell it for a big enough profit then that profit can maintain a smaller shul. We will then be able to pay for a visiting rabbi, and it can become a Jewish center.”
As he expounds on this idea, I note his incorrigible optimism. It is remarkable.
Gorelick is living proof that hope springs eternal in the human breast; that a spark is all that’s needed to engender a great fire.
A personal testimony
On January 14, 2008, a small Cessna 210 airplane carrying five Israeli businessmen from the diamond industry crashed in Windhoek, instantly killing all six on board. It was a Friday afternoon, and Zvi Gorelick remembers it vividly.
“The plane caught a pole and the pilot lost control. It was very close to the ground already, and then it swung into a house. “[The Namibian] government doesn’t recognize the State of Israel. It was in exile with the PLO and they believe that until the Palestinian issue is resolved, they are not going to recognize Israel.
“But in the aftermath of the plane crash, the government allowed an Israeli military plane to land in Windhoek with a forensic team, an anti- terrorist team and a bunch of guys from ZAKA [rescue and recovery organization]. This was the very first time an Israeli plane had ever landed in Namibia.
“The Israeli forensic team taught the Namibians a lot about identifying disaster victims. They went in with their hands and turned over rocks to find pieces of shoes and other personal items that could help us identify the victims. It took them over 70 hours but eventually they came up with six coffins, each body identified.
“We held a vigil outside the mortuary where they carried out the autopsies, from the first hour. We were always two or three men reading Psalms. For 70 hours we held a vigil outside there, including with other Israelis who were here in the diamond industry; people didn’t go to work. It brought a real community spirit and also opened the government’s eyes as to how the Jewish community stands together.”
Gorelick, who was subsequently made an honorary member of ZAKA, continues: “[The plane] crashed into Maggie Edmond’s house and caught fire in her daughter’s bedroom. The daughter had been in there two minutes before; something made her leave her bedroom and call her mother.
“Maggie is an evangelist and in that bedroom were a number of Jewish artifacts she had collected: a Magen David, quotes from Isaiah. She ran into the room to find flames everywhere [...] But when the flames were put out, the only things surviving in the room were the Jewish artifacts. Everything else had been destroyed.
“This had a profound impact on her. She has since learned to speak Hebrew and goes to Israel every year, twice a year sometimes, and she comes to shul as often as she can.”
The Windhoek Hebrew Congregation synagogue committee is scheduled to meet in the near future, to come to a final decision on the fate of Namibia’s last surviving synagogue.