Notes from Beyond Google Maps
I dismounted the motorcycle taxi with the finesse of an intoxicated toddler, my overstuffed backpack swaying behind me. In the hilly farmlands of Kenya, Yosef stood in front of his modest home with a huge smile and kippah sitting atop his head. “Shalom,” he said.
I lived with Yosef, Ruth and seven of their thirteen children this summer. They live in Gathundia, a village so small that it doesn’t appear on Google maps. Kulanu, an organization that supports small Jewish communities in developing countries, asked me to go and enhance their Jewish education.
The community of 40 Jews-by-choice, most of whom have converted through the Conservative/Masorti movement with the Abuyudaya Jews in Uganda, had never had a rabbi or teacher stay with them for an extended period of time. Living in Gathundia reminded me of the beautiful diversity of klal yisrael and the responsibility that we have to support each other.
Yosef embodies Shammai’s teaching in Pirkei Avot: “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance” (1:15). On Monday and Thursday mornings, Yosef insisted we gather for shacharit services before morning tea, even when we knew we would not have a minyan. After the house work was done — gathering water from the spring, plowing, planting, or harvesting his crops and sending the cow and sheep to graze — we spent time learning together. Primarily self-taught through books brought by Jewish travelers, or borrowed from the nearest synagogue four hours away in Nairobi, Yosef was eager to learn with me, his first hevruta. He asked deeply theological questions about God’s treatment of the Israelites. He asked to learn about the Amidah’s themes and historical development. After school, the neighborhood children gathered in Yosef’s house to practice reading and writing Hebrew and learn zemirot to sing around the Shabbat table.
While working on the farm, Yosef, Ruth and their children asked about Jewish agricultural laws. Having never lived on a farm, I didn’t know many of the answers. Exemplifying another rabbinic teaching, Yosef was never shy to ask a question. His enthusiasm for expanding his Jewish knowledge is unquenchable.
Learning isn’t enough for Yosef. As the de facto community leader, he works hard and dreams big to physically and spiritually grow the community. Walking through a patch of farmland, he pointed to the grassy hill where he hopes to build a permanent brick synagogue, replacing the current sukkah-like structure formed from wood posts and plastic sheets. After breakfast one morning, Yosef announced that we must travel to a village 90 minutes away to help Avraham, a community member, prepare for his non-Jewish father’s funeral. Yosef wore his kippah, telling me we must be proud to be Jewish and show our neighbors the loving way we care for one another.
On Shabbat mornings, the synagogue felt alive with Hebrew melodies from the siddur. In place of reading from a Torah scroll, people took turns reading the weekly Torah and Haftarah portions in the local Kikuyu language from Bibles translated by Christian missionaries who left years ago. After giving my sermon, which was translated line-by-line into Kikuyu, the community gathered to eat lunch — cold rice and beans prepared on Friday to avoid building a fire to heat and cook new food on Shabbat.
As we sat around the table on my last night, one teary-eyed child said in broken English, “Thank you for seeing us.” In addition to feeling proud of their Jewish community and a deep sense of belonging to Am Yisrael, many also feel unseen due to their isolation from other Jewish communities and new status as Jews. They seek (like the rest of us) validation and support.
There are dozens of small Jewish communities like Gathundia throughout the world. When I return, I hope some of you will join me to teach, learn and feel the dynamism of Jewish life in the hills of Central Kenya.
Elie Lehmann, WGF Fellow (Class 26), is in his final year of rabbinical school at Hebrew College and currently serves as Rabbinic Fellow at Tufts University Hillel. Prior to rabbinical school, Elie volunteered for a year in Thailand and Kenya through American Jewish World Service. Elie is an alum of Mechon Hadar, Columbia University and The Jewish Theological Seminary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.