“There’s a synagogue in Kenya?” I was incredulous when Dave told me that he, Brenda Harcourt and US Navy Chaplain Jon Cutler attended an Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the middle of Nairobi.
It is a beautiful synagogue with attendants ranging from a world-renowned heart surgeon, the Israeli ambassador to Kenya, a variety of people from other countries and some Kenyan converts to Judaism, who’ve been attending for 17 years.
But how did Kenya end up with a synagogue? Apparently, according to descendants of the original Jewish settlers, around 1900, the English decided to rid their country of Jewish people by offering them a state of their own in Uganda. (Uganda since split and formed Kenya.) Many Jewish families left England and sailed around Africa, landing in Mombasa, Kenya and trekked overland to what is now Nairobi.
However, the English already living and farming in the area were none too pleased that their country gave land to the Jewish people. So they hired Maasai warriors to “scare, but not kill” the Jewish people. It worked and many families went back to Europe although about 300 families stayed behind. Of those 300, only three families were left in Nairobi at the time of Dave’s visit. The rest moved to Israel when that country was formed.
“All this makes me wonder how the world would be different if Israel was formed in Africa instead of the Middle East,” Dave said.
As is the tradition in the Orthodox Jewish community, Brenda sat in the women’s gallery and apparently the women could not believe Dave was not the Rabbi. The women thought he looked Jewish. The women also had a hard time understanding that Dave and Jon were military chaplains visiting religious leaders in Nairobi.
Jon was put on the spot and asked preach. “He did great,” Dave said, holding true to the adage that chaplains need to be ready to preach and/or pray at a moment’s notice.