In Zimbabwe, fasting in the midst of food shortages

A small enclave of Jews in Bulawayo observes Yom Kippur amid hunger and heated politics.

From sunrise Sunday to sundown Monday, Jews around the world fasted, reflected on the year just past and the one to come, and atoned for their sins in observance of Yom Kippur. In Zimbabwe, in the midst of widespread food shortages and a government policy that has whites feeling on edge, the country's dwindling enclave of Jews observed this year's holiest of days with mixed emotions.

"To reflect ... does not mean to think about oneself," Rabbi Cyril Harris reminds the small congregation. "When your stomach begins aching from hunger, remember that is the way a good proportion of the Africans in your country feel every single day."

But President Robert Mugabe's program to evict white farmers from their land has others feeling the persecution that their relatives had come to Africa to escape. "I do feel badly for those starving here," says Hilton Solomon as he closes his store and heads to prayers. "But I have become harder.... My empathy is low these days, for my country has turned against me."

It wasn't always this way. The Jewish presence in Southern Africa dates back to the early 20th century, when Jews fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Others joined them, both from Europe and elsewhere, as they arrived in droves throughout the 1930s and 40s. By the 1960s, South Africa had over 100,000 Jews; some 1,000 had settled in Zambia, and a few hundred had ventured into Malawi and Botswana. Zimbabwe's Jewish community was 7,000 strong, divided up mainly between the capital, Harare, and the dusty town of Bulawayo.

A school was built here, and an old-age home was opened. Stained glass windows were commissioned for the synagogue, and a kosher butcher was flown in every few months from South Africa.

At that time, whites were the privileged minority, and there was little discrimination against the Jews. The 250,000 whites living in what was then called Rhodesia were the self-proclaimed kings of the land. They sat on huge tracts of land, farming tobacco, raising livestock, and starting businesses. They built large houses and organized hunting clubs and spring balls. They went fishing in Lake Kariba on the weekends, and generally felt fortunate to be living in such a pretty paradise. Even after independence in 1980, many stayed, agreeing – or at least accepting – that black majority rule was right, and that some form of land reform was in order.

But Mr. Mugabe's fast-track land reform program has caused commercial farming to grind to a standstill and the economy to falter. Over 6 million Zimbabweans lack enough food to get them through the next six months, and the country is tense, divided, and ostracized internationally. Those who can are fleeing.

In better days, as many as 2,500 would turn out for prayers on the eve of Yom Kippur. Families were assigned to specific rows and seats. Today, there are fewer than 300 Jews in town. Out of tradition – or perhaps nostalgia – they still sit in those places designated years ago.

Their children have gone to seek better lives elsewhere. The Brenners have one daughter in South Africa, and two in San Diego, Calif. The Roths have a daughter in Sydney, Australia, and a son in London. The Veisenbachers are moving next month. There are no children running down the aisles.

When Hilton Solomon's grandfather arrived in Bulawayo in the 1920s, he had nothing. The trading post he started has now become the town's premier supermarket. These days the young Solomon is in negotiations with a big supermarket chain, thinking of selling out. His wife is sick of all the uncertainty. "I love this country and do not want to leave," he says. "But as time progresses, I feel more and more like a visitor, an expat."

Bulawayo's rabbi emigrated two years ago, and so South Africa's chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, flew over this year to lead Yom Kippur services. He came, he explains, to encourage the community. "It has not been an easy year here," he says, "and we do not know what is coming next."

In 1994, right after the first free elections in South Africa, Harris spoke to his congregation in Johannesburg and offered a different sort of encouragement. The apartheid regime was over, Nelson Mandela's government had swept into power, and many whites were feeling insecure and frightened that they might not be welcome in the new South Africa. "This country needs you and wants you," Harris told them back then. "I urge you not to leave." He made no such plea in Zimbabwe this week.

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