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Shalom, Nairobi: A Jewish Culture Guide

A vacation to the Kenyan capital may be straightforward, with a trip to the Congregation center and a safari throughout the wild African plains, but it will be among the most memorable to be sure.

By: Anthony Marcusa
Published: April 16th, 2013 in Culture » Society » News
Nairobi National Park

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, Nairobi

Nairobi National Park

Lush gardens and beautiful flowers surround one of the most significant Jewish buildings, as inside the hallowed halls social events, cultural celebrations, and religious observances carry on today just as they did over 100 years ago.

Next year will mark 110 years since the founding of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation , an establishment built in full in 1912 in the capital of Kenya. It was the first, and today is still the only synagogue built in the east African country. Shabbat services are held with regularity as well as holiday observances, educational services and even sporting activities. What’s more, the Congregation imports kosher products, including wine and matzot.

The first Nairobi Synagogue 1912-1954

It remains as a focal point of Jewish faith in Kenya even if the attendance in particular and population in general are meager in Nairobi.

At the time of its founding, the Jewish population in Kenya consisted of about 20 families. While it grew to roughly 150 a half-century later, today the number has dipped from its peak in the 1960’s as approximately 400 Jews live in Kenya today. A majority, naturally, live in Nairobi.

Jewish settlement in what is now known as the republic of Kenya, a country resting on the equator and abutting the Indian Ocean, began in the early 1900’s. The first population boom came during World War II, and like so many other countries around the world, Kenya experienced an influx of Jewish families following the Holocaust.

The year 1957 marked the high-water mark for Jewish population, as roughly 167 Jewish families lived in Kenya, and they flourished to such an extent that Israel Somen, the president of the Board of Kenya Jewry, was elected mayor of Nairobi.

Though there may not exist a booming population, there certainly are strong ties today and throughout much of their history between Kenya and the State of Israel. Prior to Kenya’s independence, Israeli professionals assisted Kenyan political and community leaders and were influential in the creation of such organizations as the National Youth Service, based on Israeli’s ‘Gadna’ enterprise.

Nairobi Hebrew Congregation now

Even more telling however in relationship between the two countries involve a pair of terrorist incidences. In 1976, an Air France plane was hijacked, and as Israeli soldiers undertook a rescue missions, Kenya allowed for planes to land and refuel on its own land. Decades later, in 1998, when the American Embassy was targeted by terrorists, the Israeli Defense Force was the first international team to arrive on the scene.

For a dramatized version of one part of Kenyan Jewish existence, a worthy place to start is with a film. 2001’s ‘Nowhere in Africa,’ written and directed by Caroline Link, and based on a novel by Stephanie Zweig, tells the story of a German Jewish family that flees their home in 1938 and takes up residence in Kenya. A thoughtful father of an upper-middle class German family travels to Kenya alone before settling in and sending for his wife and daughter. The pair hastily escapes before the borders close off, and so begins a new life that is as much about living in a different country as it is living with each other. The compelling film earned the year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language picture.

Discover more incredible places to visit while in Nairobi, Kenya on page 2!

Related articles: Shalom, Nairobi, Kenya, Africa, Jewish, Israel, Holocaust, Immigrants, Journey to Africa, Travel, Tourism, Vacation, Safari, Wildlife, Giraffe, Black Rhino
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