KIGALI, Rwanda — Fourteen years ago, Jewish humanitarians Josh and Alissa Ruxin moved from New York to the east-central African nation of Rwanda. Soon after, they rented a house in Kigali’s fashionable Kiyovu district, which had endured horrific bloodshed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw almost a million Rwandans killed, mostly ethnic Tutsis, by Hutu extremists.
“One day, a family came to our gate. They knew their brother had been killed in our backyard,” Alissa recalled. “We let them start digging. They ended up finding his bones and his skull. They were so grateful for the opportunity to do that; it was like a huge relief for them to give him a proper burial.”
Alissa still has a photo of herself and her baby daughter Maya beside a bucket full of bones.
“Several years later, they started paving the roads, and the same thing happened; bones started appearing,” she said. “It was unbelievable as a foreigner to witness this. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Since their arrival here, Alissa and Josh have amassed a lifetime of unforgettable memories. In 2013, Josh put them together in his inspiring 308-page memoir, “A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda.”
Alissa, 45, is originally from San Francisco. Josh, 50, is a native of Ridgefield, Connecticut. The Ruxins, who own the Heaven Restaurant & Boutique Hotel in Rwanda’s capital city, are among the few Jews in this lush, mountainous land of 13 million people.
Growing their business from the ground up, the couple has become one of the few employers in Rwanda to provide full medical coverage and a private company physician for employees and their dependents.
Alissa seeks out artisans and craft people for Heaven tours, which connects guests to local Rwandan life, shining a light on young and emerging designers and artists who may otherwise be overlooked.
And Josh estimates that he and his wife have trained more than 1,000 people now working at every major resort in Rwanda.
Interviewed during this reporter’s February visit — just as the coronavirus pandemic began to make headlines and local health officials started screening all passengers arriving at Kigali International Airport — the Ruxins explained why they gave up their comfortable Manhattan-based lives to “make a difference” in Rwanda.
They spoke from the poolside bar of their upscale property, just down the hill from the Hôtel des Mille Collines, which served as a refuge for more than 1,200 people during the 1994 genocide — and which was the setting for the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda.”
From high-school activist to global consultant
Josh said he first came to Africa as a teenager in 1987, as a direct result of studies for his bar mitzvah at Congregation B’nai Chaim back in New England.
“During the height of the Ethiopian famine, my rabbi, Charles Lippman, was a real mentor for me,” he said. “He was a very early leader in everything from representation of gay rabbis in the Reform movement to finding a peaceful solution for Palestinian statehood. He was always clear that he cared much more about what I did in the world than what I studied or memorized.”
In 1984, Lippman brought the leaders of Operation Moses to speak, and Josh was deeply moved by the plight of Ethiopian Jews and the clandestine mission to bring them to Israel. He soon became a high-school activist — and that’s ultimately what brought him to East Africa three years later.
During a visit to a remote village in northern Ethiopia, some local kids showed him their mud-and-thatch classroom. On the wall was a poster with a large picture of American high-school students who had raised money for them; Josh was in the photo.
From that moment on, the Jewish high-school kid from Connecticut knew that Africa would be his destiny.
A Truman scholarship while at Yale University led Josh to a Fulbright Scholarship in Bolivia, then a Columbia University master’s degree, and eventually high-level jobs in international consulting — and finally to a first date with the woman he would soon marry.
Alissa, a Wellesley graduate with a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University, had worked for the New York City Health Department, the United Nations and later Goldman Sachs. But, like Josh, she was itching for an adventure that would bring meaning to her life. They found that adventure in Rwanda.
“The minute we landed here, I realized there’s this world of people who need us,” she said. “It really changed who I am, to be focused on helping others. Josh was always that way, and that’s part of what I fell in love with.”
Expanding on a successful recipe
In Kigali, Alissa volunteered at an orphanage and became inspired to help those who had lost everything. Six months after their arrival, Alissa decided to open her own place, to be called Heaven Café.
“My business plan was plastic tables and chairs, and to serve coffee and tea,” she said. “But then Bourbon Coffee opened in Kigali, so I decided to open a restaurant. I wanted our clientele to be a mix of Rwandans, expats, business travelers and tourists.”
The Ruxins, working with a staff that had never even eaten in a restaurant, soon turned their business into a profitable venture. They expanded it into a hotel in 2011 by converting an unused house on their property into a three-room guesthouse, and advertising the rooms on Expedia.
The resort now has 43 rooms, with 31 of them at Heaven Boutique, where rates average $90 a night. Another 12 are at the Retreat, an adjoining luxury resort that costs $700 per night. In addition, eight villas are now under construction at the Retreat; each one will have its own pool. When finished by October, the villas will rent for $1,800 a night.
Heaven Restaurant has since established a reputation for its African and international fusion cuisine. Alissa’s favorite items on the menu: Thai-style banana flower salad and Heaven’s signature filet of beef served with cassava leaf chimichurri.
The Ruxins say they have invested nearly $7 million in their business to date. Along the way, they had three of their own children and adopted three local kids — and Heaven Restaurant quickly became the unofficial focal point of Jewish life in Rwanda.
“When Alissa and I first moved here, we were not practicing Jews,” said Josh. “We did the High Holidays but didn’t observe Shabbat. After our first few years here, we decided to become more religious. A big part of it was that we started to view Shabbat as an opportunity to bring our family closer together.”
Israeli investment in Rwanda
Ron Adam, Israel’s ambassador to Rwanda for the past year, estimates the country has no more than 30 Jews in total. There were more, but many — including Chabad Rabbi Chaim Bar Sella and his family — left after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The rabbi is now back in Rwanda and the Chabad house is in operation at its location across the street from the Congolese embassy, and within walking distance of the Ruxins.
This past Rosh Hashanah, celebrated from the evening of September 18 to September 20, marked the first time in Rwandan history when the Torah was read in front of a minyan, or prayer quorum, according to Bar Sella.
Other prominent Jews involved in Rwanda’s business scene include Marc Holtzman, chairman of the board of the Bank of Kigali, and Ron Weiss, the CEO of Rwanda Energy Group, which owns the country’s main electric utility.
In fact, Jews have long been prominent in the Rwandan power sector. In 2014, a company headed by Yosef Abramowitz of Kibbutz Ketura built a $24 million solar field adjacent to the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village — a boarding school modeled on Israeli youth villages built for Jewish orphans following the Holocaust.
In addition, said Adam, the Israeli drip irrigation giant Netafim has a $65 million project in eastern Rwanda.
Last year, Rwandair began offering three-times-a-week nonstop service between Tel Aviv and Kigali, sparking hopes that large numbers of Israeli tourists would soon begin visiting the country.
One of the capital city’s biggest tourist sites is the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which serves as the final resting place for more than 250,000 victims of the 1994 genocide. The complex bears a striking resemblance to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem and includes an entire permanent exhibit dedicated to the Holocaust and Jewish suffering during World War II.
But Rwanda’s main tourist attraction by far is its population of endangered gorillas, which live in a national park about two-and-a-half-hours’ drive from Kigali. Seeing them doesn’t come cheap; the required permit costs $1,500 per visitor, and allows tourists only 60 minutes with the primates.
Rwanda begins COVID-19 recovery
Josh said he has no idea when Rwandair will resume flights to Tel Aviv; flights from Kigali International Airport resumed August 1 after having been suspended since late March.
Due to Rwanda’s total lockdown in spring and early summer, Josh said, hotel and restaurant revenues were only five to 10 percent of what they should have been for that time of year. The Ruxins had to lay off 80 out of 135 employees, though they let about a dozen staffers live onsite in isolation with them “while we were figuring out what was going on.”
Yet the “untold story,” he said, is that Rwanda’s stringent efforts successfully kept COVID-19 to a minimum. Most of the country’s 4,811 confirmed cases have been truckers arriving from Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda — all of whom are tested and put into quarantine if found to be carrying the virus. So far, 29 people have died from the disease.
“I worked in public health for 15 years prior to going into the hospitality business. At one point, we were getting daily emails from the US Embassy, warning of the last flights out of the country. But we didn’t have to think about it very long,” Josh said.
“Why would we leave when we knew Rwanda would do a better job controlling the epidemic than either the US or Europe? And we were absolutely right. Rwanda deserves a huge amount of credit for being one of the very few places in Africa that actually controlled the outbreak,” he said.
The 2020 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which was supposed to happen June 22-27 in Kigali, will now take place in 2021; rumors are that Prince Charles will be staying at the Retreat.
“We are also one of the few employers in Rwanda to provide full medical coverage and a private company physician for employees and their dependents. Of course, Alissa also seeks out artisans and craft people for Heaven tours, to shine a light on young and emerging designers and artists who may otherwise be overlooked,” said Josh.
Why would we leave when we knew Rwanda would do a better job controlling the epidemic than either the US or Europe?
Alissa said she’s never regretted her move to Rwanda — nor can she imagine her marriage, career as an entrepreneur, or role in life any other way.
“When I started, I had no idea of the impact a small business could have,” she said. “Since I’ve opened Heaven and saw how powerful the private sector can be, there’s no more charity. It’s not donor funding, it’s long-term sustainability, and Africa offers so many opportunities to transform from poverty to prosperity through entrepreneurship.”
She added: “Healing the world is about people making choices, and how you want to live your life. You don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer or have a special background to make a change.”