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Jewish Journal

Chanukah in Rwanda

by David Druce

December 18, 2009 | 8:47 pm

When Karen Shulman was hired to work in Rwanda, many of her friends and family wondered what she would do for the Jewish holidays.  More than a year later, she has celebrated the entire Jewish calendar in Rwanda and has drawn a diverse group of friends to join her. 

Many joined her for the Hanukkah Hano party, which translates as ‘Chanukah is here’ in Kinyarwanda, the national language. Billed as a chance to ‘come out and enjoy the Jewish Festival of Lights- Kigali style!’, Hannukah Hano was held at Shulman’s house last Saturday night.  Over thirty people from such countries such as Canada, Israel, Rwanda the United States and Uganda attended the party.  Of those, Shulman estimated over a third were Jewish and the rest were friends and well-wishers interested in learning a little something about Jewish culture and holidays.  Latkes made from potatoes and plantains were served along with homemade apple sauce and ‘sour cream’ made from the local, thin yogurt. Sufganiyot (jelly Doughnuts) were specially ordered from a local bakery that also bakes challah on request.  Shulman had hoped to have the neighborhood wood carvers create a Menorah with the phrase ‘a miracle happened here’ written in Kinyarwanda. But when the Menorah was not ready in time for Chanukah so she improvised and used a variety of different sized beer bottles from Primus, the local brew to hold the candles.

Improvisation is a quality one needs when wishing to observe the ritual holidays in Rwanda.  The small East African nation has no organized Jewish community due to the transient nature of the Jewish expats who live there.  It has no synagogue or holiday services and Chabad’s nearest outpost is four hundred miles away in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Jessica Smolow helped Shulman feed a crowd of 20 at a Passover Seder this spring and broke the fast with her on Yom Kippur.  An educator who was the Rwandan coordinator for the WorldTeach organization, she noted that Rwanda differed from Namibia, a nation with an established Jewish community where she worked before.“ I loved celebrating the holidays in both Namibia and Rwanda.  In Namibia, there is a synagogue in Windhoek,..they are very welcoming to everyone.  After both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur sevices, they had a wonderful dinner and everyone got to talk and meet’ she says.

Smolow says that in Rwanda without that gathering place, it’s been nice to have someone like Shulman around to organize events for the holidays.  “Karen really has done such an amazing job of bringing the traditions of the holiday(sukah, menorah, etc.) with traditional food that non-Jews really get to learn about some of the traditions of the holiday.  (It’s been amazing bringing the traditions of the holidays like a Sukkah and Menorah and serving traditional food so that non-Jews really get to learn about some of the traditions of the holiday are all about.”

Shulman and Smolow are part of a growing number of young professionals working in Rwanda, some of whom are Jewish.  Guests have included young filmmaker from New Jersey, a journalist from Poland, and entrepreneurs from Israel.  In addition there are Jewish staff members and volunteers at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwamagana.  Largely from English speaking countries, there also is an established Francophone community dating back to Rwanda’s time as a Belgian colony.

A 27 year old social entrepreneur from Los Angeles, Shulman lived in Israel and New York before finding herself in Rwanda. as a volunteer to help to coordinate construction of a community center in Nyamata. She spent Rosh HaShana in Nyamata, a town village in the Bugesera district, infamous for its high concentration of victims in the 1994 genocide and earlier massacres. 

Later Karen joined the staff of Aegis Trust, the UK-based organization that manages the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center.  There she worked to develop programming dealing with tolerance education.  Occasionally Karen gave tours of the museum to Jewish visitors who ranged from participants on human rights programs as well as students on educational tours.  ‘I found it especially meaningful walking through the museum with other Jews discussing the historical linkage between Rwandan and the Jewish people.’

Shulman enjoys combining the Jewish holidays she observes with elements of Rwandan art and culture.  She and her roommate built a Sukkah making sure it was fully kosher. The Sukkah’s walls were colorful fabrics bought at the nearby Nyabugogo originally from countries like Burundi, Tanzania and Cameroon. Shulman’s roommate Andrea Thompson, a journalist from Caledonia, Ontario helped to build the Sukkah.  ‘It was really exciting to be able to make a Sukkah and share someone’s background’.  Thompson said.’ This little hut brought so many people together.  Our Rwandan friends were really amazed by it all. They kept asking me-is this hut mentioned in the Bible?’

Innocent Niyezemana is an engineering student at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.  Born in a village in the Kibuye province, he lost his family in the genocide, escaping to the Congo through the help of a neighbor.  Like the majority of Rwandans, Innocent is a religious Christian right down to his name Nizeyimana which means ‘I believe in God.

A devout Catholic.  Innocent takes pleasure in attending parties for Sukkot and Chanukah.  ‘Karen was the first Jewish person I had ever met’ he says.  At her Passover Seder, Nizeyimana read a portion of Psalms aloud for the assembled guests in his native Kinyarwanda.

Rwanda is a largely Catholic country , though more and more people are joining the evangelical branches of Christianity or converting to Islam.  Shulman says she is surprised by how much her Judaism is embraced by Rwandan people.  ‘They know about Israelites from the Tanach but I think it also has a lot to do with what some people would call our shared history’ she says.  Nizeyemana agrees ’I knew about Jews from the Bible and about the Holocaust.  We were treated the same way Jews were treated during the Holocaust.  The way we live and they live is very similar.’

That link, between the Holocaust and the 1994 Genocide is one of the reasons why some Jews come to Rwanda to volunteer, work and live.  To Shulman it means a lot to give people like herself somewhere to share the holidays. “I have always been one to reach out to a Jewish community when I have lived away from home. It’s been nice to know, that even in Africa you can do the same” Smolow says.

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