Wrapping Up and the Future of HLS

After returning to the U.S. a few days ago, I have (with some difficulty) beaten my jet lag and can finally put together a coherent sentence. Twenty-five hours of flying also gave me some time to reflect on my three and a half months in Harare, especially the last couple of weeks I was there. 

After much thought and discussion with those close to me, I decided to return a bit earlier than I initially planned, and, as a result, there was a lot of material to cram into my last few lessons. In the remaining three weeks, the students learned thirty new vocabulary words in Hebrew, six different holidays, the rest of the seldom used Torah trope notes I had not yet taught, about one thousand years of Jewish history, and a few new songs and t’fillot. As always, the students at Harare Lemba Synagogue (HLS) persevered with incredible motivation.

The last week, everything seemed to slow down. My lessons came to an end, and I spent the remaining time saying goodbye to some of the wonderful people I met during my time in Harare, both from the Lemba community and others I encountered along the way.

This was a truly unique opportunity. I learned so much from my time with the Lemba in Harare, and I loved the time I spent teaching and learning from this community. I am personally enriched by this experience.

I look forward to seeing where HLS will be in the future, five years from now, or even just one year from now.  There are a few congregants, in addition to Modreck, whom I see not just as active participants, but as future leaders as well. Besides the adults in the congregation though, I am excited to see the number of children who are actively engaged, attending services every Shabbat, learning to sing along with songs and t’fillot, wearing kipot and tzitzit. In these kids, I see the future of this Lemba community and I see great possibility.

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Me with Aviv and Shlomo, regular attendees of HLS

There are many big plans for the Lemba in Zimbabwe in the near future, beyond continuing to learn. This includes a conference for young adults to be held this June or July and congregants both from Harare and the community in Masvingo being trained as mohelim. With the help of Kulanu, the Lemba will continue to grow as a Jews.

My hopes for the Lemba is that not only will they be embraced by the larger Jewish community and continue to embrace traditional Judaism, but that they will also develop rituals in a way that is true to what they believe as Lemba. I’ve learned, working with so many different types of Jews in different movements of Judaism, that there is a spectrum of observance, and while the Lemba are learning from different teachers and different sources, I hope they evolve some of their own customs and hold onto their traditions, and that the Jews around the world will open their ears and their hearts to learn from the Lemba as well.

I am grateful to so many people for this experience. Less than a year ago, I was sitting with Daniel Laufer, director of Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY), in his office, telling him I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life after TRY, and I have no idea where I would be now had he not said “you know, I have an idea” and picked up his phone to connect me with Kulanu.

To everyone working with Kulanu, it is truly amazing to see first-hand how much of a difference this special organization makes in so many people’s lives. I would like to thank Jack Zeller, founder of Kulanu, and his wife Diane, for putting so much faith in me, inspiring me, and making the whole experience possible; Harriet Bograd, president of Kulanu, for helping with all of the preparations for the trip before I left; and Sandy Leeder, treasurer of Kulanu and liaison to the Lemba, for the advice and support he gave throughout the time I was in Harare. I am incredibly thankful to Mordy and Mickey Feinberg, who not only left the students at HLS in a wonderful place for me to pick up where they left off, but acted as mentors to me before and during my trip, whenever I needed anything at all. To Modreck, Brenda, and their two beautiful boys, Aviv and Shlomo, for welcoming me into their home, and to Pinky and George for being to me not just friends, but siblings. I’d like to say thank you to the HLS community for welcoming me into their community and being so kind during my visit. And finally, a huge thanks to my loving and supportive parents, who made my time away so much easier by always being around, day and night, for anything I needed, even from so many miles away. 

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George and Pinky, my mishpacha in Harare

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Back with my parents in freezing cold New Jersey!

My time in Harare and all that I learned from the people I met there is something I will never forget. Above everything else, it was a chance for me to see Jews reaching out to our brothers and sisters to acknowledge that we are all one large family. Hamlet Zhou is a Lemba musician whom I was lucky enough to meet while I was in Harare. He is extremely talented, and will hopefully one day go to Israel to record with other Jewish artists, sharing one thing that always brings people together: music. This version of Salaam that he arranged, with words in Hebrew, Shona, and Arabic, express that someday, peace will come to us and to everyone around the world.

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Exploring Zimbabwe

This past week, I finally went to see some of Zimbabwe’s more touristy areas. Despite some of the more rundown areas I have seen, Zimbabwe is a beautiful country. I am glad that before going home in a little over a week, I had the opportunity to explore it a bit more outside of Harare.

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Last Wednesday, I spent the day at Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo. I took three others along, two of whom had never been before. (At first I thought this was strange, until I realized I had never been to the top of the Empire State Building, which is a closer distance to my home). Great Zimbabwe holds the largest collection of ruins in southern Africa. It was built sometime between 1000 and 1400 CE, and discovered by the Europeans in the 1900s. Great Zimbabwe was most likely built by the Lemba who arrived here around the beginning of the second millennia, but this is not spoken about on the tour, because this theory is a bit controversial.

We hiked up a mountain to see where the King’s palace was, and down below where he built smaller homes for his many wives. There are many superstitions surrounding these ruins, including the existence of lingering spirits. When we finished making our way around the top of the mountain, we asked if we would be heading down. The guide responded, “If you’re allowed by the spirits”. The view itself was really beautiful. We walked around a mock-village where some locals performed traditional dances.

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Pinky and me in the King’s palace

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View from the top of the ruins

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View of the mock village down below

After we descended (by permission of the spirits, of course), we went to see the famous monument, which has become a national symbol of Zimbabwe. We walked around a mock-village where some locals performed traditional dances. We also visited the museum, which is filled with many artifacts found in the area. All in all, it was a wonderful and interesting day, and I was pleased I could share it with others who were also seeing it for the first time.

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Locals giving us a little show

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All of us at the Great Zimbabwe Monument

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VICTORIA FALLS

On Friday, I left for a solo weekend getaway to Victoria Falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. As one of the (original) Natural Seven Wonders, it was definitely on my bucket list, and I knew I could not come all the way to Zimbabwe without making the trip.

Before leaving, I found a blog claiming that Victoria Falls was “just another waterfall” and a bit disappointing, so I was nervous I would find this to be the case. When you get into the Victoria Falls Park, you walk around, peeking through to the falls from different vantage points. At the first two viewpoints, I began to fear this blog would be true. Don’t get me wrong, the waterfalls were nice, but nothing bigger than Niagara, or even the falls at Ein Gedi. Nonetheless, it was still a gorgeous day and the park was pretty incredible as well, so I continued on.

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One of the first views of the falls

What I soon discovered was that this blog writer could not have been more wrong. Each vantage point gave increasingly more open views of the falls. Each time I peeked through, the falls began to grow and the beauty became more and more overwhelming. At about the ninth or tenth point, I arrived at a place called “Rainbow Falls” where, true to its name, I looked over the edge and saw spectacular rainbows at the foot of the falls. I could have stayed there for hours, but I continued on to see views that were even more stunning. Finally, after walking through this magical-feeling rainforest, filled with flowers, families of warthogs, and huge butterflies, I arrived at a point that could be the home of mermaids. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The walk around Victoria Falls Park itself would have been lovely, but the falls made it an unbelievable experience.

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Note: When you are confronted by a warthog who seems to feel threatened by you, the correct thing to do is not, in fact, to sing Hakuna Matata to it.

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I also walked across the bridge to Zambia and got to be in two countries at once!

Over the next few days, I explored the town, which is clearly geared towards tourists, with a souvenir shop on every corner and people outside harassing you to buy their tiny figurines of the Big Five that are obviously unique from the figurines someone tried to sell me thirty seconds before. I also zip-lined over the gorge at the falls (meaning I got to cross zip-lining off of my bucket list as well!), which not only gave me yet another spectacular view of the falls, but also the type of rush I love to experience when I travel to a new place. The people I met on my zip-lining tour were great company and the time we spent up in this canopy of trees was a very fun time.

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View from the zip-line

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With Innocent, one of our guides

While I was there, I also took a day-trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana. We spent the morning on a boat that went around the Chobe River. Our captain’s name, funnily enough, was Captain. He showed us countless species of birds, crocodiles, buffalo, water bucks, hippos, and many elephants. The view was stunning. After having lunch at a local lodge, we set out to the safari portion of the day. We drove through the park in a jeep, seeing baboons, hornbills (or Zazoos, as we were calling them), giraffes, and antelopes, along with more of the animals we had seen earlier. Unfortunately, we did not get to see any lions, due to bad luck, and no rhinos, due to poachers leading them into extinction. It was still a fantastic and exciting day.

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During my time in Victoria Falls, I met up with a friend of a friend, named Etty. She is an Israeli who met her husband on a trip to the falls and decided to move there. They have two adorable children and four very sweet dogs. Tom, Etty’s husband is an amazing professional photographer. On my last morning in Victoria Falls, Tom took me to watch the sunrise from Devil’s Cataract, right at the edge of the falls. We only spent a little bit of time there, and I did not get a chance to take pictures, but I won’t forget this extraordinary view. What a special way to spend my last day there and my last two weeks of being in Zimbabwe! I am so thankful I could see a bit more of the country before I head back to the States.

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It took me quite a while to find my gate in this huge airport…

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11 Years Later…

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Bar and Bat Mitzvah. The time when Judaism decided that children, in their most awkward stage of life, become adults. Girls have their bat mitzvah at twelve, when they have not yet figured out how to tame their hair, and boys at thirteen, when their vocal chords have not yet figured out in which pitch their voice should be. We practice relentlessly to get up in front of our loved ones and classmates to lead and leyn as much as we can, from being called up to the Torah for an aliyah to leading some of the service. And the only way of getting through it is to accept it will be awkward and to have Ben Stiller’s voice in the back of your head telling you to repeat, “I love that I suck!”

Most of my own Bat Mitzvah is a pretty big blur to me. I do very distinctly remember the fire alarm going off in the middle of the a cappella concert we had after Kiddush, and 300 people having to stand in the synagogue’s parking lot in -3 degree weather (fahrenheit). I remember Michael Jay and Howie Feiwus performing the “Flumda Sara Eisen” song that haunted me well into my high school years. I also remember much of the build up to my Bat Mitvah, practicing every day (or so I told my parents) for about six months to finally read Parashat Vayechi on January 10, 2004.

My first time reading Torah was on Simchat Torah when I was 6-years-old. It was five words out of the third aliyah of V’zot HaBracha. My first “real” Torah reading during a Shabbat service was when I read the maftir aliyah at my sister Hindas Bat Mitzvah. I pride myself on the fact that regardless of the countless numbers of Torah reading teachers I have had throughout the past seventeen years, I still stay true to the Steve Eisen (my father and first Torah reading teacher) trope.

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May 1999 – Reading maftir at Hinda’s Bat Mitzvah*

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January 2004 – Reading at my own Bat Mitzvah, in all my awkward glory*

The past three months, I have had the pleasure of passing that same trope on to the Lemba community in Harare. Every Tuesday, we have Torah trope class at HLS. We have reviewed almost every single trope combination now, along with different methods of learning to apply the trope to readings. These readings include all three paragraphs of Shema and three of the Rosh Chodesh readings. Many of the students had been exposed to Torah reading before, but they can now independently identify trope notes, chant them, and apply them to Torah readings.

This Shabbat was a big one at HLS. It was the 11th anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah and the very first full Torah reading here. The students who participated absolutely blew me away. In a month and a half the students learned anywhere between three to seven p’sukim, which is no easy task, especially since they started learning Torah trope this year.

I am so honored to share the anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah with what will now be the anniversary of this momentous Shabbat at HLS. Reading Torah takes many years of learning and practice. I am so proud of all of the work the students have put in so far. Until now, HLS has been using a learner’s Torah. There is a Torah waiting for them that they have decided only to accept when they feel they are ready to read from it. I cannot wait to come back someday to see them reading from that Torah and hear these Torah readers who have already come so far. 

Students practicing earlier in the week reading out of our learner’s Torah and gabai-ing for one another:

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Again, a big kol hakavod to the students at HLS!

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*Note: All photos were taken before Shabbat.

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“Welcome to the Real Africa”

People here often ask me what I expected Zimbabwe to be like before coming here. I didn’t have many expectations, and when I found out I’d be living in a city, I pictured something similar to how Harare actually looks. Many of my friends and family, however, pictured huts and dirt roads, no electricity, and no plumbing. Well, I finally saw that side of Zimbabwe when I went on a short trip to the countryside last week.

During Christmas time in Harare, everything closes down (unfortunately for the Jews, even the Chinese restaurants and movie theaters). Many people will take trips or go back to the villages where they grew up since there is not much to do around here. I was lucky enough to tag along and travel to Modreck’s parents’ farm in a village called Bedza about three hours from here (which, in Zimbabwean, actually means about five hours) in an area called Buhera. Although we only spent three days there, it was such a wonderful experience.

I was definitely an outsider in this village, but around the house, I felt incredibly welcomed. Some of the relatives made sure that everyone spoke English around me so that I wouldn’t feel left out of the conversation. I was asked so many questions about where I’m from, my family, my time here in Zimbabwe. People made sure I understood the traditional customs of greeting one another and I learned a few more words in Shona here and there. I was really treated like this was my own extended family.

I spent some time exploring the area, hiking up a nearby mountain, and seeing rock paintings from many years ago. I was able to hang out with some cows and chickens, taste African beer (definitely not my cup of tea), meet tons of very distant relatives, all of whom are referred to as mother/father/brother/sister, so I am still not sure how everyone is related, and listen to traditional singing in Shona and African drumming. All in all, it was a nice few of days off, away from the city, finally getting to see, as someone referred to it as, “the real Africa”, baboons and all.

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Location of the village

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Embracing the Africa

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After we made it to the top of the highest mountain in the area!

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View from the top of a nearby mountain. We could see the small areas where it was storming.

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Hanging out with the aunts

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SO many cows SO close to us

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This is how the ladies get down in Buhera

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Sunrise in the village

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Part of my Harare family and grandparents

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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Winter has always been my favorite time of year. Not so much the painful cold, but the holidays and the way people seem to be a bit friendlier around this time (except for about 40% of the customers I came across all my years of working retail during the holiday season). But there was always something really special for me about walking into the supermarket and hearing Michael Bublé’s Holly Jolly Christmas or seeing trees and lights up all around town, because although I never celebrated Christmas myself, there was something different in the air. It isn’t so far from that here in Harare, although instead of a foot of snow, we have 80 degrees and rain. Whether we are celebrating Chanukah, Christmas, or Kwanza, from Thanksgiving until New Years, there is so much excitement around trying to tie up loose ends and finishing the year strong, spending time with those we love, and anticipating what could possibly come next.

Progress

It has been a while since I posted, mainly because here at HLS, we are progressing at a very steady, but very busy, pace. In our continuing Hebrew studies, the students are not only speaking and reading Hebrew, but beginning to write and (I just recently found out) have basic conversations with one another in Hebrew on a daily basis in person or even over text. In a week and a half, the students will be participating in a full kriyah of the parsha, doing readings they have been studying and learning on their own and with me. We now have a full repertoire of Hebrew songs, from Naomi Shemer to Arik Einstein to Hi-Five (because there’s always room for 90’s pop). Additionally, the students have gained an understanding of how to study parshat hashavu’ah on their own, asking questions and raising discussions.

Services on Shabbat mornings have completely transformed thanks to the dedication of the students who push themselves to learn new t’fillot every week and practice relentlessly (it isn’t uncommon to hear someone walking around the house singing parts of the Torah service or P’sukei D’zimrah on a regular basis). This past weekend we had Dr. Rabson Wuriga, the leader of the Lemba in Mapakomhere, staying with us for Shabbat. They have had very limited education there in terms of modern Judaism. In Dr. Wuriga’s Shabbat services, they typically read in English from the siddur and chumash, with the hope that someday they will be doing a full traditional service. Harare Lemba Synagogue started out exactly where he is now, and I believe seeing the potential of where his service could be with some help, really inspired him. It was really a pleasure for us to be able to show off, so to speak, how far this congregation has come in just a year.

Chanukah

Besides this being the first year I spent a birthday away from home (and I thank all the wonderful people I have met for making it a special one), this was also the first Chanukah I was away. Even during my time at Rutgers, I would come at least to spend a weekend or a night at home and light the candles with the whole family. Again, it wasn’t easy being so far from home on a holiday I love so much, especially after learning that my favorite vegan bakery was making sufganiyot this year. However, I won’t ever forget my first time lighting Chanukah candles in the summer, with people who were lighting for the first time, teaching children to spin dreidels for the first time, and singing all of the Chanukah songs I grew up loving. It was unique and beautiful. Even Shlomo seems to finally be moving on from singing Dayenu to Maoz Tsur (which will probably last until this coming Pesach).

Chanukah is a time when we remember the sacrifices the Maccabees made to fight for the right to be Jewish and practice Jewish traditions and rituals. Here, I am privileged to be with a group of people who withstood religious persecution and are still dealing with extreme separation from the rest of the Jewish world. A group that is continuing to stay strong in their beliefs of Judaism, continuing to take the time to learn and to be Jews the way we practice throughout the rest of the world. This is what Chanukah is about. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity I have, celebrating these times with the Lemba in Harare, and I continue to be thankful for it and look forward to making the most of the little time I have left.

As young children, we learn the Chanukah story of the oil that lasted for eight days instead of one, only to learn around the time our friends learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real, that this story probably wasn’t either. However, one of the wonderful ideas that we will forever associate with Chanukah is this idea of perseverance and hope. That big miracles can happen and even when it feels like we have nothing left to give, we go on just a little longer. We go into the secular new year with the motivation to continue to grow and learn even more than we did the year before.

There is no question that HLS is finishing 2014, an incredible year, very strong. With the unfortunate fact that I will be leaving sooner than I had originally planned at the end of January, it is so comforting for me to see that the congregants here are lunging into 2015 with so much motivation and so much promise. I am looking forward to seeing how far they can go in the year to come.

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Aviv playing with his first dreidl (thanks to Mickey and Mordy Feinberg!)

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A Note for Thanksgiving

This past Sunday, I attended a piano recital here in Harare. This was the first piano recital I witnessed since I stopped taking piano lessons when I was thirteen, and it was lovely. The oldest student to perform was a man named Philip. He was probably in his 70s. There was an older woman who came with him, whom I was told was his sister. Philip was extremely nervous and froze at the piano, which is completely normal and understandable when trying to perform in front of a large group. In the end, he couldn’t get through the song (I did hear him play it later, and he was wonderful). But while he was sitting at the piano during the recital, something beautiful happened. As he was sitting there, trying to remember which note came next, I heard his sister call out, “you can do it, Philip!” I was so touched by this encouragement. Even so far from home, I receive so much encouragement from my sister and brother, Hinda and Avi, back in the States. I am so thankful for this support, and I hope that some day, when I am as old as Philip, I can repay them by standing by their side, cheering them on (or embarrassing them by doing the wave from the audience as our family tends to do).

This week will be my first Thanksgiving away from my family. It was always so important to us to all be together and spend that time with one another. I cannot say that I am not sad I will be missing it this year. But although I’ll be missing out on turkey, or in my case, tofurkey, Octoberfest, watching the parade on TV, and the big production of making my mom’s unbeatable pumpkin chocolate chip cupcakes look like a pumpkin patch, I know I can still celebrate the most important part of Thanksgiving: being thankful. And as my Dad and I told one another over Skype the other day just some of the things we are both thankful for, including good health, opportunities we’ve both had this year, and of course, one another, I realized I have a huge amount to be thankful for this year.

Since last Thanksgiving, I traveled to Israel, staffed TRY and formed a family of 55, returned to Poland, giving me an even greater appreciation of my history, explored two new countries with one of my closest friends, witnessed Hinda marrying the love of her life, spent Rosh Hashanah with the whole family and attended a service led by Hinda as a newly ordained cantor, came to Zimbabwe and was welcomed into the Lemba community with open arms, traveled to another new country where I made many new friends, celebrated (remotely) my parents’ 34th wedding anniversary – 34 years of pure happiness, and returned to Zimbabwe to continue my teaching. In addition to all of that, I have the strongest support system I could imagine back in New Jersey. If I did not know what appreciation felt like before, I definitely do now.

On Rosh Hashanah in Chevy Chase, the Rabbi asked what we hope for this new year. I raised my hand and said I wish for new opportunities and the ability to see the same situations with new eyes. It is hard being so far from my family, especially this time of year, but I am thankful for this opportunity. I am thankful to be learning so many valuable traits from the people around me, who are humble, gracious, and patient. I am thankful to be in a place that is opening my eyes to very new things. I hope for everyone else that this Thanksgiving will be filled with as much love and blessing as this past year has given me.

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In case you were wondering what a pumpkin chocolate chip pumpkin patch looks like…

In honor of Thanksgiving, Kulanu included this video in their Newsletter, and I thought it was really beautiful. This is the Lemba singing Hodu (Psalm 136), a psalm of thanks, in Shona.

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Interviews with HLS Students

I put together a few clips from interviews that I had with the students of my classes here at HLS. I think it will give some a better understanding of what we’re doing here in our classes and what we are accomplishing.

You can also watch the full interview of Modreck explaining more about HLS and the Lemba:

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I’d like to take this opportunity to ask for your help. The progress being made here can only be made possibly with the help of people like you! Even the smallest amount can mean a student will have the funds for the transportation to attend class. Any support is a huge help. To find out more about how to help, click here.

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