The Jews of Kenya

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Judi's Journal

By Judi Siegal

Africa. The very name conjures up mystery, exploration, exotic animals and the Jewish state. While Israel may seem like a non sequitur in reference to the Dark Continent, in an ironic turn of events, the Jews almost had a country in Kenya and while that never came to fruition, the history of the Jews in Kenya and its relations with the African country makes for a fascinating historical study.

The year was 1903. British colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain offered the Zionists a part of the territory in Kenya, in an offer called the Uganda Scheme, for an independent Jewish State. This proposal came up to vote at the Sixth Zionist Congress. It created quite a stir among the international Jewish community, many who felt that the land promised to the Jewish people, i.e. Palestine, was the only acceptable homeland. At the Seventh Zionist Congress, in 1905, the proposal was defeated but despite this, several Jewish families immigrated to Kenya.

In 1904, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation was established and by 1913, there were 20 families living in Nairobi and so the first synagogue was built. In 1945, the community had grown to 150 and after the Holocaust, there was more Jewish immigration to Kenya. In March of 1947, the British set up a detention camp at Gilgil where they interred captured members of the Irgun and Lehi, Jewish underground groups fighting for Israeli independence. During this time, the Jewish community of Nairobi did its best to be sure the Jewish detainees were treated fairly and that they had decent living conditions.

In 1955, a new synagogue was built and in 1957, there were 165 families. In that same year, Israel Somen, the president of the Board of Kenyan Jewry, was elected major of Nairobi.

Today, there are approximately 400 Jews who reside in Kenya, most of them living in Nairobi. The community has regular Shabbat and holiday services with separate seating for men and women following in the Orthodox tradition. Although the majority of the congregants are not Orthodox, a Rabbi Chananya Rogalsky, who is an American envoy to Africa from the Chabad-Lubavitch group, services the community. (There is a Chabad group in Marion County, which services the needs of the Jewish community in this area.) Kosher food is imported and social and educational events are held in the Vermont social hall adjacent to the synagogue.

The State of Israel and Kenya have had a good relationship since the early days of independence. Early in its statehood, Israel sent emissaries to many African nations, especially in the fields of agriculture and medicine. They helped the fledgling nation with governmental needs and helped create organizations for youth, based on Israeli models, whereby they enlisted the Kenyan youth for national service, especially in the field of agriculture. The semi-arid climate, common to Israel and Kenya, enabled the Israeli experts to share their expertise and knowledge with the Kenyans in order to increase crop yield and feed more people. Even before independence, Kenyans were invited to Israel to be trained in the latest agricultural techniques. In an agreement reached by then foreign minister, Golda Meir with Kenyan Prime Minister, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Israelis would work closely with the Africans and share know-how under a program called MASHAV. Even during the 1973 Yom Kippur War when diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed, this program of humanitarian aid continued.

This relationship of cooperation, mutual respect and friendship paid off for the Israeli state. In 1976, a group of terrorists hijacked an Air France jetliner to Entebbe, Uganda. In a dramatic rescue made popular by a novel and a movie, an Israeli commando team was able to rescue the hostages, which included many Israelis. This would have been impossible because of the distance involved, had not Kenya allowed Israel to refuel its planes carrying the soldiers and freed hostages to land in the African country.

In 1988, diplomatic ties between Israel and Kenya were resumed with Israeli experts arriving under the MASHAV program to train Kenyans especially in the field of irrigation, a field that the Israelis were especially knowledgeable, given the fact that they had worked on drip irrigation and had made the desert region of the Negev bloom.

When terrorists attacked the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998, the Israelis sent aid and soldiers to help in the rescue efforts. The Israeli team also trained the Kenyans in disaster management and emergency medicine, two fields that Israel is expert in given the volatile security situation in the Middle East.

In an ironic twist of history, even though Jews did not make Kenya the Jewish national homeland, their presence is there nonetheless, in the form of aid, good will and friendship.