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Jewish tradition thrives at Zimbabwe school with no Jews

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Yiddishkeit is alive and well at Zimbabwe’s Carmel School, in spite of the fact that there isn’t a single Jewish child or Jewish teacher at the school.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Nov 29, 2018

Every Friday at the 200-strong primary school in Bulawayo, a kabbalat shabbat (receiving the Sabbath) takes place. The formal assembly opens with a rousing prayer, Modeh Ani – the Jewish prayer recited daily upon waking – and concludes with the belting out of the Israeli anthem, Hatikvah.

Young girls smartly dressed in their school uniforms take turns to light the Shabbos candles while reciting the traditional blessing. This is followed by the blessing over a covered challah. The boys, wearing kippot, likewise say a prayer over wine and partake in the ceremonial washing of the hands.

Carmel is a Jewish primary school, says its mission statement, one that “provides quality education in a multi-cultural environment”. It is owned by the Bulawayo Jewish community, and even though there are no Jewish pupils left at the school, it remains true to its founding ethos and traditional values.

Principal Crispin Eley told the SA Jewish Report this week that the children love maintaining the traditions upon which the school was founded.

“It gives us a feeling of unity and tradition, and we feel special and different,” he said.

“It is a totally multicultural environment with a lovely mix of religions and cultures. The fact that it is a Jewish school adds another wonderful dimension,” said Eley.

“We are the only Jewish school in Bulawayo, and we do not have a single Jewish child – or even a white child.”

The slightly larger sister school in Harare, Sharon School, operates on much the same lines, with Jewish traditions forming part of school life. Currently, two Jewish pupils attend the school. It is also owned by the Harare Hebrew Congregation, and the lay spiritual leader there, Yosi Kabli, offers some insights on the weekly parsha (portion) on Fridays.

Both schools are closed over Shabbos, and on Jewish chagim (festivals). No pork is allowed on the property, and they remain largely meat free, with a milk tuckshop and kitchen.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, rabbi to country communities at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, makes regular visits to both schools over religious festivals. He said both schools were “special, unique places fostering an understanding of yiddishkeit in a respectful atmosphere of learning”.

“This is how one should teach people what Judaism is all about – in an interactive, meaningful way. It does so much more than the usual giving out of sandwiches and soccer balls.”

These children, he said, have cultivated a genuine understanding and deep respect not only for Judaism, but their own religious practices at home.

There are about 65 Jews living in Bulawayo, and about 140 Jews in Harare. In its heyday in the 1960s, Zimbabwe had about 7 000 Jews.

“In spite of the dwindling numbers, these highly respected and sought-after schools are upholding Jewish traditions in a spirit of unity and respect, and this is what makes it so important to maintain, said Silberhaft.

He fondly recalls one year on Purim at Sharon School.

“There was a Purim play, and a Muslim boy took the part of Mordechai the Jew, and a Jewish child played the role of Hamman. It was amusing and touching.”

Silberhaft will visit Sharon School next week to do a Chanukah presentation at the end-of-year prize giving ceremony, where they will light the menorah.

During Rosh Hashanah, Silberhaft visited Carmel School with cantor Eric Wener of Johannesburg, who regularly spends the high holidays with the Bulawayo community, acting as its spiritual leader.

Said Wener, “I was amazed when I heard the children singing in perfect Hebrew with smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts. It was extremely moving and emotional to see the traditions being so strongly adhered to with such love and respect. It gave me goosebumps.”

Following the visit by Silberhaft and Wener, the school posted on its website that it had been an “honour and a privilege” to share Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with them. They “took time to visit the school, address the children, and give them a deeper understanding of the sacred traditions” of the holidays, it said.

Wener said the Bulawayo Jewish community is dedicated, warm and welcoming.

Carmel, which opened its doors in 1958, recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. Local historian and archaeologist Paul Hubbard made a presentation at the Diamond Jubilee Dinner on the history of the school and the Jewish community in Bulawayo.

He ended by saying, “With its continued emphasis on aspects of Judaism for students of such diverse faiths and backgrounds, Carmel serves as a model of multiculturalism. The vision and mission of the school have created the type of environment which, to me, is more or less a setup of how we want Zimbabwe to be. Your students, your children, those whose minds and values have been shaped within the confines of this great school so totally dedicated to tolerance, harmony, and respect, will be the ones to restore this country.”

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