When she graduated as a communications major from Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 2014, Sara Eisen of West Caldwell said she “was determined to get more involved Jewishly.”
Then, after a year in Jerusalem staffing a semester-abroad program for North American high school students, she chose a path that few people her age would consider.
Eisen volunteered for Kulanu, a nonprofit organization based in New York that supports emerging Jewish communities in developing countries. They asked her to serve an ancient Jewish community called the Lemba, which is based in Zimbabwe.
“I barely knew where Zimbabwe was on the map, and I didn’t know much about the Lemba,” Eisen told NJ Jewish News in a Feb. 26 phone interview. “I had no idea what to expect.”
Genetically — and there is DNA evidence to prove it — the Lemba are descended from ancestors who left Judea 2,500 years ago. Their descendants “are very interested in connecting with the Jewish world. They have Semitic traditions but not exactly the same as ours,” said Eisen. “They keep the laws of kashrut and do not slaughter animals the way other Zimbabweans do.” And, she added, “they observe Saturday as the day of rest.”
Zimbabwe has a population of 24 million, including some 50,000 Lemba; members of the group are also found in Malawi, South Africa, and Mozambique. But Kulanu president Harriet Bograd believes “there could be 100,000 Lemba in Zimbabwe. Many have converted to Christianity or Islam but some have asked for help from us because we connect with the worldwide Jewish community.”
From early October 2014 to late January, Eisen lived with the Lemba and spent most her time volunteering at the Harare Lemba Synagogue in Zimbabwe’s capital city.
In addition to assisting at services, she taught seven different classes on Hebrew language, holidays, rituals, Torah study, and Jewish music.
When she first arrived, the community was conducting services largely in English. “But when I left,” she said, “the majority of the service was being conducted in Hebrew, with some songs performed in the Shona language,” the native tongue of Zimbabwe’s majority culture.
Eisen said the Lemba “are trying to figure out where they want to stand on the spectrum of Jewish movements. They consider themselves Orthodox, but women do come to the bima and read the Torah, and some of them are starting to wear a tallis. Men and women daven separately, but there is no wall between them.”
The synagogue in Harare does not have a rabbi, so services are conducted by a “leader” whose hope is to someday go to rabbinical school.
In many ways, the Lemba and other Zimbabweans “are definitely integrated with one another. They attend the same schools and are friends with one another. You could not tell them apart by looking at them.”
Eisen does not believe the Lemba face any anti-Semitism, but “some others look at them curiously. One reason is that a Lemba will not eat in the house of a non-Lemba because of kashrut and will only marry another Lemba.”
Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, suffered an apartheid system as brutally racist as South Africa’s once was.
Only 1 percent of Zimbabweans are Caucasian, and the 150 Jews among the white population have virtually no contact with the Lemba.
“Because racial tension is very prevalent,” Eisen said, “the Jews really could help one another, and I think both would be open to it, but no one is willing to make the first move to connect with the other community.”
Eisen said her white skin “made it difficult for me…. Some people looked at me funny when I was out in the street. I felt uncomfortable, but I never felt unsafe. However, when I was in the synagogue, they never treated me like an outsider. They were so thankful that someone was there to teach them.”
She said the Lemba “are figuring out exactly where they stand and what kind of Jews they want to be, and I think that while they learn from us, we can also learn a lot from them. This is a totally different strand of people with different traditions, which are interesting to the rest of us. They have a story which they are in the process of writing in their own Haggada. They were persecuted by both Christians and Muslims and had to get rid of all of their written texts and practice Judaism in secret.”
But, she added, “they are our family. We are all descended from the same people but they were very isolated from the rest of the Jewish world. They want to be part of the Jewish family.”