Nyarobi Enkare, “place of cold water,” in the language of Maasai tribesmen, was the name of the swampy plain that was to become the city of Nairobi, Kenya. At first inhabited only by Maasai tribesmen and their herds of cattle, Nairobi became a city because of the new railway line connecting the harbor of Mombasa to Kisumu on Lake Victoria 700 kilometers to the northwest. It is home to a small nucleus of Jews who have maintained a community despite the odds. And it was my home until 1988 when I left for Israel.
The Beginnings of a Community
In 1899, the first Jew, J. Marcus, arrived in Nairobi from India. An entrepreneur, he began to export local produce, mostly potatoes. Two years later, the Jewish population in Nairobi doubled when M. Harrtz arrived to open a tinsmith business. A handful more Jews began to trickle in and most took up farming.
In 1905, a Zionist commission arrived in Kenya to investigate the possibility of a Jewish homeland in the Uasin Gishu Plateau. This plan is often misnamed ”The Uganda Plan” as the designated area had recently been removed from the Uganda Protectorate and incorporated into Kenya. The British settlers didn’t view the plan favorably. They were afraid of a mass invasion of poor Jewish immigrants. Two years later, the Zionist Congress rejected the Uganda Plan so as not to endanger the chance of acquiring a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But individual Jews continued to make Kenya their home.
In 1908, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation (NHC), numbering about ten souls, purchased land and began to build a shul. The aim was to ensure burial services and provide a place to daven for the High Holidays. Today, the beautifully renovated shul, with its stained-glass windows, twelve of which represent the Twelve Tribes, stands in splendid gardens. The shul is proudly Orthodox, even though few of its members define themselves that way.
The post-World War I years brought an economic boost to the country. Avraham Block, originally from Russia and one of the four Jews who had been part of the commission to the Uasin Gishu Plateau, purchased the Norfolk Hotel (close to the shul) after leaving farming behind, and started the Block Hotel empire. Growing up in Kenya in the ‘80s, I remember Sunday tea at the Norfolk Hotel as a special treat, as was a Coke under the horizontal branches of a thorn tree around which the café of the New Stanley Hotel was built.
During the 1920s dozens more Jews arrived. Among them were the seven siblings of the Somen family. Jews integrated into life in Kenya to such an extent that in 1955, Israel Somen, who had worked extensively on the Lunatic Line (the colloquial name for the railway that was forged madly through forests and ravines, troops of tribesmen and lions) was elected the mayor of Nairobi.
With Hitler’s rise to power, dozens of refugees arrived. Despite their professional qualifications, they were sent to work on the farms in the Highlands. In 1938, Abraham and Rachel Szlapak arrived in Kenya, now home to about 45 Jewish families. After starting out with a second-hand clothing shop, the family became hoteliers. Today, the four-star Fairview Hotel, with its extensive gardens, is known as the country hotel in town. I remember Mama Szlapak, as she was affectionately known, her round face and warm eyes, and the gefilte fish she served at her full table on Friday nights.
In 1938, a nucleus of Jewish families in the Nakuru area, north of Nairobi, bought a plot of land thanks to a donation from Baron Rothschild’s daughter, who was farming in the area, and set up a shul. Tiny congregations also existed in Mombasa and north-west Kenya, but these were closed in 1963, when many of the Jewish refugees left Kenya.
At the start of the WWII, all of the refugees in Kenya were interned as enemy aliens. Probably the most famous internment camp was at Gilgil, near Nakuru. Three hundred Jews, members of the Stern Gang and the Irgun, had been arrested in Palestine and sent there for safekeeping. However, nine months into their stay, six of the prisoners escaped, were driven via Uganda to the Belgian Congo, and then flown back to Palestine.
During the 1950s, the first Sephardi Jews arrived in Kenya. Samuel Abraham Mesha had left Aden, Yemen, in the 1930s and settled in Mogadishu in Somalia. Twenty years later, his family, my father among them, moved to Kenya. My childhood in Kenya was wholesome, sheltered and relaxed – to such an extent that until the beginnings of my teen years, I thought that anti-Semitism was a relic of the past.
The 1950s Mau-Mau rising, in which the Kikuyu tribe began a struggle for independence from British rule, ended in 1963 when Kenya gained independence. A year later, the first Israeli Embassy, opposite the Fairview Hotel, was opened. It was, however, closed in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War, when the Organization of Africa Unity (the OAU) made all of its members cut ties with Israel. Unofficial ties continued and in 1988, when the OAU lifted its ban, Kenya was one of the first countries to reestablish official ties with Israel. During the1970s, Israelis began arriving in search of economic opportunities and also to contribute to the country’s social development.
For example, in the ‘70s, HZ Company, an Israeli construction company owned by Gad Zeevi, originally located in Uganda, drove its machinery over the border into Kenya to avoid the political upheaval and anti-Semitic rantings of Dictator Idi Amin. Other construction companies soon followed and about 200 Israeli families relocated to Kenya for work. Airports, bridges, dams, petroleum refineries, high-rise buildings, roads and hotels all mushroomed thanks to the Israelis. During the ‘90s, when Israeli involvement in the construction business dwindled, China moved in.
The search for economic opportunity extended also to agriculture. Back in the 1940s, Colonel Grogan, the first person to walk the length of Africa, used Jewish experts from Palestine to help him grow avocados and grapefruit. In the ‘80s, the Kenyan government began encouraging wheat farming in an attempt to cut back on imports. Yoram Rosen was allotted a10,000-dunam farm near Narok in the vast flat plains of the Rift Valley. He spent the next seven years growing wheat in Kenya. His wife, Rina reminisces: “Our home was built of hardened mud walls covered with white plaster. During the rainy season, we collected and stored our water in a large tank under the roof. A generator provided electricity.” Wildebeest were a constant scourge because they rammed down the fences to eat the wheat. As a child visiting the farm, I remember the cool evenings spent driving the perimeter to inspect the fences. Today, although no Israeli wheat farmers remain in the Rift Valley, Israeli involvement in agriculture has continued to be significant. In the first half of the 1990s, Israelis arrived in at Kibwezi in Ukambani, between Nairobi and Mombasa, to set up a demonstration farm and a training center. Their irrigation technology turned the semi-arid area into an oasis.
Kenya’s horticulture industry, launched in 1963 by Israeli-owned Amiran, the largest horticultural and floricultural export earner in East Africa, has continued to bloom. Large flower farms can be found around the farming areas of Nakuru, Eldoret, Mt. Kenya and Naivasha. While the farms are not owned by Jews, Israeli technology has helped them prosper. Agricultural advisor Ilan Bloomer (yes, that’s really his name), from Beit Lechem Haglilit, spent four years in Kenya in the early ‘90’s with his family. Says his wife: “My daughters gained tremendously from the music, dancing, sports and horse-riding classes in their British-styled private school. Elbows off the table is something they will never forget!”
Israelis have also contributed in the public health sector. In the early 1990s, Professor Hanan Zauberman from Hadassah in Jerusalem arrived to work in an eye camp set up by an Israeli eye doctor. It was so successful that when the former president Daniel Arap Moi needed a cataract operation, he asked that Professor Zauberman perform the surgery. This year, supported by community members, the Israeli Embassy embarked on the second phase to update the Children’s Oncology Ward at Kenyatta Hospital. In a separate project, Save a Child’s Heart Kenya sent six children in December to Israel for cardiac surgery and care.
In the political arena, Jews have always had a particularly warm relationship with members of the government. Kenya’s first two presidents, President Jomo Kenyatta and President Daniel Arap Moi, both developed a personal and political liking for Israel. This appreciation is still apparent in all sectors of society. On a recent visit to Kenya, while browsing through a Sunday craft market, one of the vendors spotted my son’s tzitzis and asked about them. “Jewish boys and men wear these,” I replied. “Jews, Israelis! Yes, yes, we like you,” the vendor replied. And the crowd that had gathered round nodded their consent.
Relations between the local Jews and visiting Israelis, in contrast, flowed less smoothly. Gershon Shaked, a construction manager for eight years in Kenya in the 80s, points out the polarity between the Israeli community and the local Jewish families. “We identified ourselves primarily as Israeli, while the local Jewish families were connected to each other through their affiliation to the shul. As a result, we remained two distinct groups and there was very little social contact between the local Jewish families and us,” he says.
Many worked to bridge this gap. Reverend Zev Amit and his wife, in Kenya during the 80s, formed a community center in the Vermont Hall adjacent to the shul, and held numerous activities that put the Israelis and the local Jews in social contact. After their departure, volunteers from Israel took over their roles. In 1998, Chabad in New York began sending rabbis like Rabbi Chananya Rogalsky and Rabbi Natan to spend the High Holidays in Nairobi.
The Community Today
The NHC, comprising about 100 members, continues to uphold its original credo. Shabbat and High Holiday services are maintained by dedicated community members and visitors. To strengthen the community, Chabad Africa, spearheaded by Rabbi Shlomo Bentolita, has been sending representatives to Nairobi. When my family visited the Vermont Hall in 2013, I watched two young yeshiva students who had come for Chanukah from the newly established Chabad yeshiva in Kinshasa, the Congo, open their books to study. In addition to the American and South African kosher products that dot the supermarket shelves, a new venture promises that kosher lamb and poultry will soon be available. Against the odds, the Nairobi Hebrew congregation is holding on.
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Hand-in-Hand Against Terror
On July 4, 1976, Jews all over the world celebrated the IDF’s daring rescue of the Entebbe hostages. Jews in Kenya had an additional reason to be proud: the Kenyan government had allowed the Israeli planes to refuel in Nairobi.
In 1980, a bomb exploded in the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, killing 20 people and injuring 80. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by an Arab group.
In 1998, two simultaneous attacks took place on the US Embassy in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks, which killed over 200 people and injured over 5,000, placed Osama bin Laden on America’s ten most-wanted fugitives list. Members of the Israeli Defense Forces Rescue team and Magen David Adom paramedics arrived to search for survivors in the rubble.
In 2002, a vehicle was driven into the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel and blew up, killing 13 and injuring 80. Almost simultaneously, two surface-to-air missiles were fired at an Israeli charter plane as it took off from the Mombasa airport. The plane continued to Israel. Israeli doctors and psychologists arrived in military planes shortly afterward and evacuated injured Israeli tourists and others. Following the attack, all flights from Israel to Kenya were indefinitely cancelled.
In 2013, Moslem Al-Shabab gunmen attacked the partly Israeli owned mall in Nairobi. The attack, which lasted for four days and resulted in at least 67 deaths, came in retaliation for Kenya sending troops into Somalia following a spate of kidnappings inside Kenya. Within hours of the hostage crisis, Israel dispatched an advisory, non-combat team to help authorities with the standoff. Later in the week, Israeli forensics experts helped the Kenyan government comb the site.