A Torah’s Journey to Tanzania

The moment of revelation at Mount Sinai is one of relationship. There are the Israelites who are honoured to accept the Torah, excited for all that the Torah will allow them to do.  But it is also a moment of pride and enthusiasm for the Holy One.  After reaching out to other communities that all refused to accept and value the gift of Torah, God had found the people who would not only receive it, but love it and use it to better the world.  While that moment of revelation, of giving and receiving Torah, remains one of the great moments in our Jewish story, it is the relationship that followed and all that Torah would enable for generations to follow that is too often ignored.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the tremendous privilege, along with 37 others, to deliver a Torah to Arusha, Tanzania.  Following a more than 24 hour journey, with the Torah sitting next to me along the way, we arrived at the airport and met Yehudah, the leader of the Jewish community of Arusha, for the very first time in person.  As we unzipped the bag, removed the Torah and placed it his arms, his smile spread from ear to ear and he held that Torah as one would hold a newborn child: with joy, pride, nerves, and gratitude.  The Torah had made its way home to Arusha.

The next day, we would celebrate together as the Torah made its way to its permanent home in the ark in Arusha’s small synagogue.  Carried by members of the community underneath a Huppah, a wedding canopy, it was hugged and kissed and tears flowed both from members of the Jewish community of Arusha as well as from our group from Canada and the United States.  Over the course of our weekend together, neighbours would visit to see what the celebration was all about.  Jews, former Jews, and future Jews alike would travel from hours away to see and experience the Torah for the first time.  They gathered close to see the print on the parchment for the very first time.  They kissed the Torah with the fringes of their prayer shawls (tallitot) connecting themselves with its ancient text and powerful tradition.

To this community, the receiving of this Torah was not simply about the ability to read from it 4 times a week.  It was about taking their place as part of the world Jewish community, feeling whole as a Jewish community once more after decades of persecution and oppression.  For decades, they felt forced to flee the country or hide who they were due to inter-religious skirmishes and anti-Jewish governmental policies.  They returned together, hoping for a better future, finding a more receptive government and increasing acceptance from the inter-religious brothers and sisters.  Because of our visit, they connected with the Commonwealth Jewish Council and they now can find support from Jewish communities around the world.  So, just as the Torah came home, so too did the community once again feel a sense of wholeness with the endless possibilities that the future holds.   They knew that they belonged not only in Arusha, but also within the larger Jewish community and proudly took their place at the table.

Along with the Torah, the community received prayer books, phylacteries (tefillin), prayer shawls, and Hebrew teaching texts.  As they gathered for morning services, for the first time, every member of the community could wear the traditional garb of Jewish prayer at the same time.  They could sit and study Hebrew together and spell their own Hebrew names.

Since we left Arusha, we have heard about one old man who traveled for hours to reach the Synagogue.  Upon touching the Sefer Torah, he declared that, “Now I am happy to die” having now the opportunity to touch the Torah.  Two women who had converted to Islam, came to Yehudah seeking guidance on how to return to Judaism.  One woman even brought with her an old Mezuzah with a scroll given to her by her grandmother, demonstrating that she had never truly left Judaism.

By bringing this community one of our Torah scrolls, we showed that we believed in them, their leadership, and their amazing future.   And now, the community feels empowered once more as a fully functioning congregation.  We know that our mission to deliver that Torah represents only the beginning of our relationship together.  The moment where the Torah was given and received initiated our relationship as it did centuries ago, and yet, we know that there is much more work to be done and we look forward to playing a meaningful role in helping the Jewish community of Arusha accomplish those goals.

As the community is based upon the centuries old traditions that they have inherited, so too are they building for the future.  They have already built a small synagogue building and have plans to also build a community learning space, ritual bath (mikvah), and accommodations to be able to welcome Jewish visitors from out of town.  We are working with them on establishing regular Hebrew lessons and opportunities for additional Jewish study as well as finding ways to provide funding for the many projects that they would like to pursue.

As we met together, Yehudah reminded us that the Torah wasn’t given in the land of Israel.  It was given in the Sinai desert.  The reason, he explained, was to teach us that Torah can and must be found everyone throughout the world.  And now, thanks to the amazing work of Yehudah and his wife, Ephrat, the Torah resides once more in Arusha, Tanzania, with amazing learning, praying, and people to be found there with it.  I hope that many more people will have the chance to get to know this community and support their outstanding endeavours.  Their Torah is something that we should all have the privilege of experiencing.

About the Author
Eytan Kenter serves as the Senior Rabbi of Kehillat Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Ottawa, Ontario.