KASUKU, Kenya — A stone’s throw from the Equator, near where the hippos play in Lake Naivasha, the wind roars up from the Great Rift Valley to the Kenyan highlands. Up in the hills — 8,000 feet above sea level and miles from paved roads — a synagogue built from plastic sheeting snaps to and fro in the gusty air. The frame is made of rough-hewn wood, as are the benches. The doorway is an old shawl, and the floor, like all of the surrounding houses, is hard-packed dirt. Outside, someone has painted a Jewish star and the words “Beit Midrash” on the plastic near the door in blue.
The 60 members of the Kasuku Gathundia Jewish community are sprinkled across these Kenyan highlands, eking out a living as subsistence farmers during the week by raising cows and maize. On Saturday mornings they unwrap an old United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism humash — a bound copy of the Torah (not a scroll) — from a canvas bag and read the weekly parsha, partly in Hebrew and partly in the local Kikuya tribal language.
“The synagogue is small, but it is a place of shechinah,” said Yehuda Kimani, using the Hebrew word for “God’s presence.” The 26-year-old Kimani is a passionate leader of Kasuku’s Jewish community, dedicated to connecting the few members to the wider Jewish world.
Local African Jews are not a new phenomenon on the continent. The Abayudaya Jews of Uganda have gone from a struggling, isolated outpost of Judaism to a vibrant Jewish community. Almost every Shabbat they host visitors from around the world, and they’ve recently exhibited the best indication of a healthy and growing Jewish society: dividing into competing synagogues.
But over the past 15 years, another group of rural African farmers has quietly struggled to build a Jewish life in Kenya.
The Kasuku Jewish community is located near the town of Naharuru, in the interior of the country. The highlands where they live form one side of the Great African Rift Valley. On the highway, you can feel the expansive emptiness of the Rift Valley just beyond the edge of the tarmac, as if the world is about to fall away beneath your feet.
The story of how Kasuku’s Jewish community started is unclear. Yosef Ben Avraham Njogu, the community’s patriarch and the father of Yehuda Kimani, explained that Kasuku also happens to be the headquarters of Kenya’s sizeable Messianic Jewish congregation. In the late 1990s, some of the Messianic Jews decided that it was time to fulfill the prophecy and move to Israel. So the leaders of the Messianic church reached out to the Israeli embassy in Nairobi, inquiring about the process of moving to the Holy Land.
Njogu said the Israeli embassy and representatives of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, a 100-year-old Jewish synagogue in the capital made up mostly of ex-pats, came to visit the Messianic church in Kasuku in 1998 to determine if the rumors of a local Kenyan Jewish population were accurate. However, neither the embassy nor the Nairobi congregation has any recollection of this meeting.
“They came and observed, and they found it was Messianic and not Judaism,” explained Njogu, who was one of the leaders in the Messianic church. “Some of us started asking, if this is not Judaism, then what is Judaism?”
He and other members of the church traveled to the capital and attended services at the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation and borrowed religious books from them.
“We started to understand there’s a difference between Messianic Judaism and Judaism, and some of us chose to turn to Judaism,” said Njogu, sitting in his living room adorned with an Israeli flag and a poster of the Hebrew alphabet.
But most of the Messianic church did not agree. So, Njogu and another church elder, Avraham Ndungu Mbugua, broke away and started studying Judaism in depth, keeping the Sabbath and other holidays based on books about Judaism they photocopied from the library. A few other families left the Messianic congregation and joined the small group of families studying Judaism.
In 2002, Ugandan Abayudaya leader JJ Keki visited Nairobi and met some of the members of this local group of self-taught Kenyan Jews. “This was the first time we knew that there are Jews in Uganda,” said Njogu. “It was very interesting to us, because we didn’t know that there are other Africans interested in Judaism.”
Abayudaya leaders visited Kasuku, a four-hour drive from Nairobi, in 2004. They invited 10 of the Kenyan children to study at their Jewish school in Uganda. In 2006, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu converted the majority of the Kenyan Jewish community with the help of the Beit Din from the Conservative movement in America.
Now, the Kasuku Jews are considered full members of the Abayudaya Jewish community and part of the worldwide Conservative movement. However, while the Ugandan Jewish community has grown significantly in the past decade with international support, Kenya’s Jewish community has struggled to grow due to dire poverty and isolation.
While the Kasuku community has found some recognition, it has no connection with the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation nor the Israeli embassy.
“The embassy is fully aware of them, but there isn’t much contact,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon. “I have no idea whether this community is Jewish or not, and the Israeli embassy is certainly not the adequate organization or body to determine whether someone is Jewish or not, that’s not our job,” he said.
“Nobody in the community has any recollection at all about this meeting [between the Messianic church and the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation],” said Ashley Myers, the Honorary Secretary of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation. “We have nothing to do with them at all.”
Myers noted that in earlier years, they sometimes had African guests at Shabbat services but he was not sure if these were members of the Kasuku community.
“The Orthodox community doesn’t consider them Jewish, so we have no more to do with them than any Muslim or Christian congregation,” Myers added.
Keeping kosher in Kasuku
The struggle to practice Judaism in rural Kenya is a daily battle against isolation and poverty. Only when faced with this kind of isolation does it suddenly become apparent how many expensive physical objects are involved in Jewish rituals. Books, of course, but also things like mezuzot, torahs, tefillin, kosher wine and tallit, among others.
“When it comes to the haggim [holidays], we don’t have the things that you’re supposed to have, like wine, matzah, or a lulav and etrog,” said Avraham, one of the original elders who broke off with Njogu. “We’ve heard about a lulav, but we don’t know what one is,” he said.
[The lulav, a palm branch, and the etrog, a yellow citron, are used symbolically during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.]
Kaningi pointed out that even some objects, like a shankbone for the Passover seder, are impossible because they don’t have a shechter, or kosher butcher.
The neighbors are also skeptical about this “new” religion.
The Kenyan Health Ministry refuses to allow the Jewish community to circumcise their boys at eight days, believing it is a barbaric practice
“They ask us, ‘How Jewish are you? Can you follow all those laws?’” said Kaningi. “It’s like they’re mocking you, they don’t understand what it means so it can be hard to interact with them. When they have events on Saturday and you can’t go, they misunderstand you and think you don’t want to cooperate. Schools won’t accept it if you miss something on Saturday.”
Another issue is circumcision. In Kenya, male circumcision is a rite of passage usually done at puberty, during the summer vacation after 8th grade. The Kenyan Health Ministry refuses to allow the Jewish community to circumcise their boys at eight days, believing it is a barbaric practice. That means the community must go to Uganda for the ritual, which must wait until the mother and baby are well enough for the arduous journey.
The Abayudaya community of Uganda is at least a 12-hour bus ride away from Kasuku, so children must choose between a Jewish education or staying at home. Additionally, the Uganda community is located in the tropical lowlands. The Kenyan children, who grew up in the mosquito-free highlands, have no natural defense against the mosquitos and are often debilitated by malaria, forcing some to return home. As the children grow, there’s also an issue of finding a good Jewish match.
The community is in the planning stages for building a synagogue. They need to raise $10,000 for the construction, though they already have land and a plan donated by an architect associated with Kulanu, a non-profit organization in New York that assists isolated Jewish communities around the world.
Yehuda Kimani, Njogu’s oldest son of 13 children, is the community’s biggest advocate. (Last names are not the same across families, as the second name is given to honor a specific relative according to birth order.) The computer whiz and Facebook maven is currently in his second year studying tourism. When he graduates next year, he hopes to start organizing “Jewish safaris” for international guests, combining a traditional safari with Shabbat in Kasuku, to provide a sustainable source of income for the community.
Kimani’s brother Samson is currently in Uganda attending Rabbi Sizomu’s yeshiva, and is studying to be a spiritual leader for the Kenya community. His sister Hadassah also lives in Uganda.
Visiting the Promised Land
The original desire to move to Israel that brought the Kasuku community to the path of Judaism has faded. Part of the reason is due to the fact that because the community converted under the Conservative Beit Din, their conversion is not recognized in Israel.
“When we were following the conversion process we didn’t know about all these types of Judaism,” explained Kangini. “We thought it was one state with one God, we didn’t know there were so many movements, we thought it was all Judaism.”
The community does not want to move to Israel because they know land is so expensive there they would not able to continue their livelihood of agriculture, she said.
But Njogu said he hopes that something will be resolved that will allow the community to visit Israel for a short pilgrimage, because it will help them grow spiritually.
“Though we’ll be denied aliyah, we still think that this is our land, that it’s a promise to the Jews. We can wait until every Jew has a right to be in the Promised Land, that’s our hope,” he said
“What we’re fighting for is how to stand firm and follow the precepts of our creator in heaven,” added Naomi. “We have a good life following that here. We’re not after land in Israel.”
‘The foreigner residing among you’
Friday night’s Kabbalat Shabbat Service is celebrated at home, because the distances to the synagogue are too far for some to walk in the dark. The government installed electricity in the area a few months ago, but currently no one in the village has enough money to pay for a connection. At night, people use kerosene lamps and the sky is so full of stars it looks crowded.
On Shabbat morning, the community gathers from a few of the surrounding villages in the plastic sheet synagogue. Njogu’s many children, ranging from Sarah, the youngest at age 6, to Yehuda, take up the front two rows, and sit in perfect silence during the entire service. They sing the same tunes as the Abayudaya in Uganda, peppering their speech with Hebrew words they’ve soaked up from visits to Rabbi Sizomu and the few Jews that visit.
Since there is no oven, Njogu’s wife Ruth makes a crispy deep-fried challah for Shabbat out of an oily dough called ndazi.
They host the Kiddush for all of the congregants in the middle room of their wooden home with dirt floors. They’ve decorated the wooden slats of the walls with Jewish posters and Israeli signs from visitors, and use flattened cardboard boxes to provide insulation against the constant wind.
I visited Kasuku in January during Parshat Bo, the portion of the Torah that details the last plagues before the Jews are freed from slavery in Egypt. A community member read most of the portion in Kikuyu translation, but Njogu drew their attention to one specific line during his sermon.
“A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you.” (Exodus Ch 12:48-49)
This line should resonate deeply with everyone in the community, said Njogu. “It means that any devoted foreigner outside of Israel can become a Jew. Hashem [God] has opened a door, and we have used that door to become who we are today.”
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