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Touring a War-Ridden Country

Thursday, 3 November, 2011 - 4:14 pm

Touring a War-Ridden Country
Nov 3, 2011


Yaacov Behrman blogs about the time he spent touring Kenya while the African country was fighting al-Qaeda-linked Shabab militia.

Yaacov Behrman,

A hundred years after the Kenyan Jewish community built their first synagogue in Nairobi, I celebrated Sukkot there.

I was planning a trip to Kenya with some colleagues anyway. Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, Chabad representative to Central Africa, asked us to stop on the way and spend the first days of Sukkot and Shabbat with the community in Nairobi.

Jewish settlement in Kenya dates back to 1903. As a proposal for a Jewish homeland, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered Theodore Herzl 5,000 square miles of the Mau Plateau in what was then Uganda. The land has since become part of Kenya.

The World Zionist Organization sent a delegation to scout the land.

The observers returned and reported that the land is filled with dangerous wildlife. They also informed the Zionist Organization that the Maasai tribe (a large number lived in the proposed homeland) were opposed to an influx of European Jews.

In 1905, the Zionist Congress voted against the idea.

Some Jews decided to move to Kenya anyway but settled in more urban areas. In 1912, sixteen Jewish men built the first Synagogue in Nairobi, Kenya.

Currently, the synagogue is a beautiful structure located on a huge compound in the center of Nairobi. A splendid garden takes up most of the compound.

Though Nairobi seems pretty safe, Kenya is no stranger to terrorism. In 1998, the US Embassy was bombed. A few years later, in 2002, terrorists attempted to shoot down an Israeli passenger plane. Within minutes of the missile attempt on the plane, terrorist crashed a car bomb into the Jewish owned Paradise Hotel in Mombasa.

So security is tight. The entire compound is surrounded by a concrete wall. The only entrance into the property is well guarded by armed officers.

Services are held weekly on Shabbat and Jewish Holidays. Approximately twenty five members attend synagogue on a regular basis. The High Holidays draw over a hundred.

We left Nairobi Sunday morning and headed for the Maasai Mara.

We drove along unpaved roads zigzagging around potholes to avoid getting stuck and stranded. There's no AAA to call if that happens here. Not for the faint-hearted, who are better off flying.

We spent three days in the Mara. The accommodations at the Simbo lodge were excellent and the kitchen staff worked overtime to ensure we had kosher food. They even allowed us to set up a sukkah near the eating area.

On the first day of our Safari, in response to numerous kidnappings on the Somalia border, Kenyan forces entered Somalia to push back the al-Qaeda-linked Shabab militia.

If not for the one TV screen in the lodge lobby, we’d have never known the country was at war.

Before we left, the manager thanked us for coming to Kenya during these troubling times.

The lodge received many cancellations because foreign countries issued warnings against travel to Kenya.

He smilingly told us that the Israelis aren't cancelling. Even more, he told us happily, are coming now because of cheaper prices.

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