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Expanding its presence in Africa, Chabad faces unique challenges

by Ben Harris and Uriel Heilman, JTA

March 8, 2011 | 3:29 pm

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, right, dancing with Congolese officials at a gala dinner celebrating 20 years of the Chabad of Central Africa in Kinshasa, March 1, 2011. (Israel Bardugo / lubavitch.com)

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, right, dancing with Congolese officials at a gala dinner celebrating 20 years of the Chabad of Central Africa in Kinshasa, March 1, 2011. (Israel Bardugo / lubavitch.com)

Congolese President Joseph Kabila probably had other things on his mind last week other than the celebration in his capital city of Kinshasa marking the 20th anniversary of the city’s Chabad center.

On Feb. 27, about 100 fighters armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers staged two simultaneous attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of them directed at Kabila’s residence in an affluent neighborhood of the capital. More than a dozen people were killed, including several Congolese soldiers.

But a few days later, Kabila managed to take time out to call the local Chabad director, Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, during the Chabad celebration at the Grand Hotel, and to send a representative to deliver a speech on the president’s behalf.

The event coincided with the announcement that Chabad will open two new centers in the heart of Africa in the coming months—in Nairobi, Kenya, and Lagos, Nigeria. The one in Congo currently is the only Chabad in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa.

“The work is not easy, but we are seeing, thank God, fruits, and we hope to continue to see that,” Bentolila, the Chabad director for Central Africa, told JTA by phone from Kinshasa.

Chabad will send emissaries to the new centers, which are located in the capitals of the two countries.

Chabad’s Africa operations—now 20 years old and encompassing activities in 14 countries—are no stranger to political unrest or the unique challenges presented by working on the continent.

Bentolila, a father of four from Montreal, has survived two Congolese wars, including the revolution that deposed Mobotu Sese Seku. The rabbi went outside to greet rebel forces taking the capital who passed by his synagogue on a Shabbat afternoon in 1997.

“Those past 20 years have not always been easy for you and for your family,” Antoine Ghonda, the president’s representative, said at the Chabad celebration, according to a transcript provided to JTA. “But since you believe in this country, its people and its future, you continue to provide support.”

Like most Chabad emissaries who find themselves setting up shop at the perimeter of the Jewish world, Bentolila struggled in his early days in the Congo to secure kosher food and recruit a minyan quorum for Shabbat prayers. Today the community has a supply of kosher meat, a ritual bath and a small Jewish school.

Bentolila says the new centers were supported entirely by local philanthropy.

“We don’t go abroad to take money,” he said. “We support ourselves locally.”

Chabad centers in Africa play a unique role, serving Jews and Jewish communities comprised largely of expatriates—transient American, British and Israeli Jewish businesspeople and their families, and a few descendants of European Jews who fled to Africa during the Holocaust.

Unlike at many Chabad centers in other exotic locations, Chabad emissaries in Africa see relatively few tourists.

Chabad tries to do everything from fly in emissaries to lead seders and High Holidays services in cities all over the continent to helping orchestrate the return home of sick, stuck or deceased Jews.

“There are both physical and spiritual challenges to working in Africa,” says Chananya Rogalsky, a Chabadnik from the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s world headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., who travels frequently to Africa to perform Jewish outreach work.

Rogalsky recounts one episode in Tanzania that landed him in trouble, when he and a friend were stopped while immersing their dishes in a pool of water that served as a natural mikvah to render their kitchen utensils kosher for use.

“Before we knew it, we were surrounded by tribesmen accusing us of witchcraft and poisoning their water,” he said. “We had to bribe them to get out of there.”

The day before a seder in Angola for some 150 guests, all the food spoiled when the hotel’s electricity went out on a typical stiflingly hot day. While Bentolila made sure enough food made it to the hotel in time for the seder, Rogalsky was left with little more than a box of matzah and bottled water to make it through the remainder of the holiday week. He had some local fruit, but it turned his stomach.

The biggest scare, however, came when the Israelis at the seder starting running through the service so quickly that they reached the meal part in 15 minutes, he said.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t have a seder that ends in half an hour. This is ridiculous,’ ” Rogalsky said. “So we started singing songs, and everybody started singing along with us. That lasted five hours. Nobody left the hotel ballroom till after midnight. It was an unbelievable experience.”

Joshua Walker, a doctoral student from the American Midwest, said he discovered the Chabad in Kinshasa a few weeks ago and became a Shabbat regular in a matter of weeks.

“I’m not a Chabad person at all; I’m just a Jewish guy who happens to be in the Congo,” Walker told JTA in a phone interview conducted while he was riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi.

Walker had been at that Chabad center once a few years ago while in Kinshasa for a stint with the United Nations. Now back in Congo for several months, he returned to Chabad seeking out Bentolila.

“I’ve been thinking about faith in general. I had been raised mainly secular, with a few notions of Jewish holidays, and I want to know more,” Walker said.

“It’s about the timing in your life. There’s a moment maybe when you begin to consider spirituality. It’s also about finding something familiar in a place that’s unfamiliar, that isn’t the place where you come from.”

Rogalsky says such experiences are not atypical in Africa.

“In these places, they are so happy to have someone there bring the joy of Shabbat or any of the holidays to them,” he said. “They’re so bogged down in the physical, work and family challenges, just the fact that someone sings songs and gives them a nice d’var Torah makes a tremendous difference with them.”

Of all the places around the world in which he has done Jewish outreach, including Asia, South America and Europe, Rogalsky says Africa stands out.

“In Africa, there’s a certain light, a certain energy,” he said. “When you come there you’re able to illuminate people in a way I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world.”

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