How does it feel to give a sefer Torah to a Jewish community that needs it?
It would have to feel deeply moving, no matter where the community is.
But what if that community is in Tanzania?
What if it’s a very small Jewish community, remote from the rest of the Jewish world? What if the last — maybe the only — sefer Torah it had owned was burned deliberately in the 1970s, destroyed along with the ark that held it and the synagogue that held the ark? What if that fire was set at the suggestion if not the actual command of the country’s government, made up then of zealous, missionary-minded fundamentalist Christians?
What if the scattered community had been brought together only recently, and had longed for a Torah scroll?
Although she couldn’t have imagined what it would feel like to bring that community a sefer Torah before it happened, now Stefanie Diamond of Teaneck knows exactly how it feels, and that feeling leaves her feeling transformed.
Last month, Ms. Diamond, who is a professional photographer, and her husband, Matt Diamond, joined a group of 36 other people, led by her brother-in-law, Rabbi Eytan Kenter of Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa, in bringing a Torah scroll to the Jewish community of Arusha, Tanzania.
While everyone suspected that the trip would be emotional, none of the travelers — including Rabbi Kenter’s wife, Staci Zemlak-Kenter, Ms. Diamond’s sister — had any idea of how profoundly moving, how absolutely world-shaking — the act of handing over that Torah scroll would be.
The North American part of the story began in Ottawa. Rabbi Kenter’s Conservative shul, within the city limits, is the result of a shul merger in 2016, and those synagogues, too, were the results of earlier mergers, as the Jewish population of Canada’s capital city moved out to the suburbs, or even farther away. “Long story short, we found that we were in possession of 34 Torah scrolls,” Rabbi Kenter said. Most of them were somewhere between 30 and 50 years old, and few of them had any documentation or provenance.
Also, “they were not all kosher,” Rabbi Kenter said. “When I arrived” — that also was in 2016, as he moved from being associate rabbi in a shul in Atlanta to undertake the responsibilities of being the senior rabbi for the first time — “I saw an overwhelming number of them awkwardly stacked on a table, one on top of another.
“So I called Sofer on Site,” a Miami-based company that includes diagnosing and restoring sifrei Torah as part of its mission, “to find out how many of them are kosher, and how much it would cost to repair them.”
Sofer on Site’s Rabbi Moshe Druin flew to Ottawa, looked at the cache of Torah scrolls, “and says, ‘I can’t help but notice that you have 12 spaces in the ark. What is your plan for the rest of the Torahs?,’” Rabbi Kenter reported.
“And I said that I would love to find emerging Jewish communities that couldn’t afford to buy their own Torah, and donate them.” Rabbi Kenter hoped to develop an ongoing relationship with one or more of those communities. “In my head, those would be in places like Windsor,” a city not far away in Ontario, “or, say, a women’s minyan in Toronto.
“But six to eight weeks later I got a phone call from Rabbi Druin. He says ‘I got an email from a gentleman in Tanzania who is looking for a Torah scroll for his community. He wanted to know if we had one.’
“Rabbi Druin said ‘I don’t have one, but I think I might know of someplace that does.’”
So Rabbi Kenter decided to give a sefer Torah — now repaired, made kosher, and ready for use — to the Jews of Arusha. His board agreed — “You can’t dispose of an asset without approval, and we got overwhelming approval,” he said.
But “you can’t just FedEx a Torah,” Rabbi Kenter continued. “And we wanted to develop a relationship with the community we were giving it to.” So he assembled a group of people — most from his shul, some local friends of friends, and some from Manhattan, some from Washington, D.C., and his in-laws, Stefanie and Matt Diamond, from Teaneck. Most are Conservative, but the group ran the gamut of Jewish life; some, like Matt, are Orthodox, some Reform, and one is a non-Jew married to a Jew. And they ranged in age too, from their 20s to their 70s; one woman is in her 80s. That was exactly what he wanted, Rabbi Kenter said; “If we are trying to develop a meaningful relationship with the community, the bigger the group, the better.”
The flight to Tanzania was long; the Canadian travelers went first to Toronto, then to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and finally to Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha. The city is the gateway to Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti, so it’s a major tourist hub. On all the flights, the Torah scroll, protected in a red duffel bag, had its own seat, between Eytan and Staci. Belted in securely, “it enjoyed its own kosher meal,” Rabbi Kenter said.
“And then we landed in Arusha, made our way through customs, and Yehuda and a couple of other community members were there waiting for us.” Yehuda is Yehuda Amir Kahalani, a lawyer and a college professor; he is also the leader of the community, the son of the last leader, and the man most responsible for the ingathering of that group from the places to which they’d been scattered over the last generation or two. (He’s also got another name, Peres Parpaih, which he uses professionally. It’s not been safe to be openly Jewish in Tanzania for much of his life.)
“That’s when we did the official handing-over of the Torah,” Rabbi Kenter said. “The way he held it when we gave it to him — it was like when you have a newborn child. It’s joy — and also panic. His smile is humongous — but he’s also clutching the Torah with both hands, like he’s afraid he’ll drop it. When he went home, he didn’t want to put it down.
“Everyone was crying. We were all super-emotional about this moment of transition.”
But one of the most extraordinary revelations of this trip was that “every moment that you thought would be the biggest moment — there was another one that felt even bigger.”
Some history might be in order here.
The Jewish community in Arusha is descended from Yemenite and Moroccan Jews who went to eastern Africa in the 1880s. “There was a good number of Yemenite and Omani Jews in Tanganyika,” Mr. Kahalani wrote in an email. (Tanganyika was the name of an earlier state; most of it is now Tanzania.) “Among them were Jews from Mawza and Sanaa, as well as Jews who immigrated from Ethiopia down south up to Tanzania. In the 1930s, more than 5,000 Polish Jews who came as refugees also added to the number of Jews of Arusha.
“Our grandparents first arrived to Arusha from Zanzibar more than 150 years ago, arrived to Zanzibar from Sana’a and Mawza in Yemen, arrived in Zanzibar as traders and later to the mainland seeking for kudus horns for shofars to be sold to Yemenite Jews, later they discovered that there are some Moroccan Jews of Arush families and Luria, hence had to stay and continued the trade, after the First World War,” his email continued. “Some later left the country and some remained, another waves left soon after independence, yet some remain.
“Since then there was also some Beta Israel from Ethiopia, it was easy some how to get wives and husbands, but most Ethiopians also left. Later on majority went undercover and practiced Judaism secretly, some assumed Maasai names and learned even their language as a cover, yet they continued practicing kosher and observed Shabbat and brits milah.” (The Maasai are a large tribe; Maasai people are native to Kenya and Tanzania, and they are well known outside there for their distinctive clothing and customs.)
Since then, he continued in his email, the community shrank, and it was scattered in response to the persecutions of the 1970s, but at least some of its members never stopped practicing Judaism, and never stopped hoping for the freedom to be openly Jewish, and to reconnect.
Mr. Kahalani and his wife, Efrat Yosef, are the community’s leaders. They’re both well educated; both left Africa for college, and met there, Ms. Diamond said. (Ms. Yosef’s public name is Lilian Looloitai. In that other identity, she is the managing director of a nonprofit agency called CORDS, which works with rural Maasai villages in Arusha, helping with sustainable development, land-use planning, and women’s rights, among other pressing issues.)
“They were both born Jewish, and they met at one of the universities, where Efrat was studying and Yehuda had gone to visit a cousin,” she said. “Efrat met Yosef, and he was wearing a Jewish star, and she asked him what that was. He said ‘I’m wearing this because I am Jewish,’ and she said ‘Oh, I’m Jewish too.’ The question was a test, and he passed it.”
The older generations had kept in touch after they were dispersed, Ms. Diamond said, but not all the younger people knew where everyone else was, or even who they were. “I heard about another man who didn’t know he was Jewish. He knew that his family didn’t work on Saturday, and they only ate vegetarian. His family always told him that when he went to a friend’s house and someone offers you meat, don’t eat it. And there were some days of the year when he wasn’t allowed to do anything; later, he realized that those days were Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
But Mr. Kahalani’s father, who died in about 2010, didn’t let his son forget who he was or where he came from. “On his deathbed, Yehuda said, he asked his father ‘What do you want from me? How can I live up to your expectations? What can I do to carry on your work?’
“And his father said ‘I want three things. I want you to gather all the Jews who were dispersed and bring them back. I want you to get a sefer Torah’ — and Yehuda, who had never seen one, thought ‘How would I do that?’ — ‘and I want you to move to Israel.’
“Yehuda told us this story, with tears in his eyes,” Ms. Diamond said. “You have helped me fulfill my father’s wishes. I never thought that I would see a sefer Torah.’”
On the question of whether the community is halachically Jewish — a question that it seems callous to ask but incompetent not to ask — Rabbi Kenter explained what he knew. Tanzania was a British colony; once the community was discovered, it was accepted into the U.K.-based Commonwealth Jewish Council. “Yehuda and Efrat had their bona fides verified by the Council,” Rabbi Kenter said. “And a lot of the others are all relatives. It didn’t matter to us.” Many of the community members’ grandparents had been forced to convert to Islam or Christianity, but they retained their own true identities, hidden under the assumed ones, and they have the family stories and ancestral Judaica to show it.
Meanwhile, back in Arusha, the North Americans who had given the sefer Torah, along with suitcases full of mezzuzot, tefillin, talessim, siddurim, machzorim, books (many children’s books donated by PJ Library), and other necessary Jewish objects to the community on Wednesday, went back the next day to welcome the scroll with a Hachnasat sefer Torah.
“Our bus pulled up, and we got off on a dirt road, and we heard them singing,” Ms. Diamond said. “They were walking down the road with a chuppah — a tallis on four poles — singing and dancing.
“They still were carrying the Torah in the bag it had traveled in. They said that they were afraid to take it out of the bag. They didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t want to do anything wrong. And Eytan said ‘This is yours. Do with it as you wish.’
“And they started to sing the first song. They sang ‘Shalom Aleichem.’ It was one of the only one or two Hebrew songs they knew. Efrat wrote a song in Swahili” — the local language — “welcoming us to their home, thanking us for the gift. She sang as the women threw rose petals at us. They took the Torah out of the bag, and the men each took turns carrying it.
“And then we marched into the shul. We sang ‘Etz Chayim.’ We took the lead then; they sang along with us, with tears running down their faces, and the biggest smiles.
“Yehuda said that we have heard about Har Sinai,” Mount Sinai, where the Israelites received the Torah, “for all our lives. This moment is our Mount Sinai. We have now experienced what Moses felt.
“That day, Eytan opened the Torah and layned,” read from it, “for the first time. To see all these children standing around, with their eyes so big in their heads.”
Mr. Kahalani studies the Torah portion every week through an online organization called Partners in Torah; it provides learners with study partners, who work together by phone or some form of videoconferencing. Most of the rest of the community know very little about how to practice Judaism, but they want to learn. They’ve been using Xeroxed, stapled-together booklets as siddurim. Now they have the real thing.
The next day, Friday, the North Americans toured Arusha. That afternoon, they moved to a hotel within walking distance of the community. That evening, they went to the shul. “Yehuda said to Eytan, ‘Rabbi, lead us,’ and Eytan said ‘It is your shul. You lead us.’
“Yehuda started singing the kaballat Shabbat in an African chant. I lost it. I cried.” As she recounted the story, from her home in Teaneck, a few weeks later, Ms. Diamond began to cry again, just a little bit. “This was the first moment when I really realized that across the globe we look different, we do some things differently, but at the heart of it there is so much that is the same. The words are the same. They are our words.
“They have their own heritage; they were singing a tribal African chant. And my husband said that you can hear the Arabic call to prayer that you can hear in Jerusalem’s Old City in their chant too.
“That blew me away it was so powerful.
“And then Yehuda said, ‘Eytan we want to learn from you,’ so we sang our tunes. And then Efrat cooked dinner for all of us.” The 38 foreigners joined about 25 Tanzanians — Efrat and Yehuda had to turn people away, Ms. Diamond said, because there just wasn’t any more room for any more people.
“On Saturday morning we walked to shul, and we sat all interspersed with them,” she continued. “My husbnd was sitting between a woman and a little boy, showing them where we were in the siddur. Neither of them could read a word of Hebrew, yet they wanted to see those words.
“The children sat in shul for three hours, and they didn’t make a sound. And when they held up the Torah for hagbah, the looks on their faces…”
Each of the men who wanted one had an aliyah, Ms. Diamond said. “It was their bar mitzvah for each of them. We didn’t realize that we’d be doing that, we hadn’t thought it through, but what an opportunity it was.
“We layned, because they didn’t have the skills to do it. We called each one up and Eytan said the words of the brachot, three words at a time, and they would repeat them back, and at the end of the aliyah we said the Shehecheyanu” — the prayer you say for something new — “and sang Siman Tov,” as you do at a bar mitzvah. “The Shehecheyanu and the Simon Tov didn’t get old.
“I asked Efrat if she wanted an aliyah, and she said no,” Ms. Diamond continued. “But in the end she dressed the Torah,” readied it to be returned to the ark. “And how cool would it be if this was her role every week — to dress the Torah, or to have the girls dress it. To get to be more hands-on with the Torah.”
Rabbi Kenter is Conservative; in his shul, women have aliyot and leyn. The customs in Arusha, however, are an amalgam of the ones the community inherited from their Mizrahi forebears and the ones they learned from the surrounding culture, not Rabbi Kenter’s. “They are so isolated that they can do Jewish however they want to,” Rabbi Kenter said. “They also don’t know what is possible. We were falling all over each other to be respectful to each other.
“It is clear that there rarely is a minyan, and they do not count women. If they were to count women, there would be a minyan. It became clear over the course of the weekend that they had no idea that there is such a thing as egalitarianism.” What their relationship to it will be is something the community itself will have to figure out.
On Shabbat afternoon, some of the visitors, including Ms. Diamond, stayed; they talked to the adults and played with the children. One woman taught a Hebrew class and another led yoga on the lawn. For Mincha, the group took out the Torah, but they did not read from it. “Eytan took it out, and opened it on the table, and gave a d’var Torah with it open,” Ms. Diamond said. That was to make clear that there are precedents to be followed, and other precedents to be set. By them. “They have a unique position,” she said. “As the only Jews in the area, however they do what they do is great. They have the opportunity to create Judaism for themselves in an authentic way. We wanted to be sure that we let them do it.”
They put off making Havdalah until it was very late, “well after Shabbat was over,” Ms. Diamond said. “No one wanted it to end. And there were no dry eyes.”
The trip was planned in two parts — first the handing over the Torah, the second a safari. “If you are going to schlep all the way to Arusha, you have to stay for at least a week,” Rabbi Kenter said. It’s more than a day’s worth of flying, plus all the time hanging around airports, waiting to board. “And we couldn’t impose on the Jewish community there all that time.” And given that Arusha is the gateway to the Serengeti, a safari seemed a no-brainer. At first, in fact, Rabbi Kenter said, it seemed that the Torah part would be more or less the virtuous vegetable, and the safari would be the dessert. “And then it turned out to be dessert and dessert.”
Or, as Ms. Diamond put it, “we were leaving for safari the next morning, and I said to my husband ‘I am so spiritually fulfilled and empowered that I could leave without even seeing an elephant.’
“And then I saw my first elephant, and I said ‘I was kidding.’”
In fact, she and Rabbi Kenter agreed, the safari, which included large amounts of jaw-dropping beauty, was the perfect complement to the emotional intensity of the first part of the trip.
Ms. Diamond’s photographs show some of the extraordinary beauty of her trip. “The Serengeti is by far the most magical place I have ever seen,” she said. The purity and strangeness of what they saw, combined with the emotion of the visit to Arusha, worked to forge the 38 visitors into a tight unit.
They plan to work together to help the Jewish community of Arusha, to keep in touch, to help, and to return.
“I realize that we did more than bring them an actual physical sefer Torah,” she said. “What we did was continue to let them live as Jews. To validate them.” Remember, she is a photographer. “What we did was really see them,” she said.
Her brother-in-law agrees that the visit was transformational not only for the Tanzanians but for the North Americans as well. “This was more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “It has not happened before, and it cannot happen again.”