Shmuli’s Big Yom Kippur Adventure
The Chabad did it again!
They graced the Jews of Dar es Salaam with a very special gift.
They sent us Shmuli.
Sweet, earnest, lovable, rabbinical student Shmuli. From Australia via Brooklyn – but with a Yiddish accent from the old country. Dressed for Crown Heights, with bright orange hair, Shmuli was one of the most endearing people I’ve met in a long time. Because he came to us so eager to please, to reconnect us with our “Jewish souls”, and to help us understand that we may be far from the Jewish center, but we carry our Jewishness in our hearts, always.
And poor Shmuli. He had quite a tough job.
The Jewish community here in Dar is a rag-tag group of immigrants far from home. (Kind of like the characters on Battlestar Galactica.)
There are not many of us – probably less than 40 in the entire country of 40 million or so people. And we are mostly evenly split between Israelis and Americans – with a smattering of Brits for good measure. The Israelis and the Americans don’t interact so much. There’s actually not that much to say. But what brings us together is the presence of one Middle Eastern restaurant run by an amazing and oh-so-stereotypically Israeli family – a mother with a larger-than-life personality and her three lovely daughters. They keep a list of the Jews who find them by word-of-mouth – drawn to them like notes to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. They know that there is a strong and inexplicable need for the Jew alone and abroad to seek out other Jews and let them know they, too, are here. We are connected, even though our affiliations are limited. And that means something when you are so far from home.
So when the call came that Shmuli was in town, that the Chabad had sent us a rabbi from Brooklyn for Yom Kippur - and that this rabbi, who came to Dar via Nairobi where the synagogue there entrusted him with one of their most valued items, a Torah, which he aimed to read (for the first time in Tanzania that anyone knows of), we all came running - American (enthusiastic) and Israeli (rather grudgingly) alike.
The problem was – we needed a minyon. Ten men. Were there 10 Jewish men in Dar?
Actually… no one was sure.
Shmuli counted, I didn’t.
The brand new guy at the American Embassy (single and sort of cute – but that’s another story) counted, but my girlfriend Mari who works for CDC didn’t.
(By the way, as far as we all can tell – Mari and the new guy are the ONLY Jews in the entire official US delegation. Can you believe that?)
I wanted to walk right up to Shmuli and say, “Listen here young man, you are in our territory now! You may be observant, but the rest of us aren’t. (In fact the Israelis are downright secular – it was like pulling teeth just to get some of them to participate.) Women count. We’re here in Tanzania telling the Tanzanian’s that women count – so we sure as hell can't have them not count here.”
But OK, sue me. I didn’t do it.
I was too intrigued by the game… sitting around… watching every car that drove into the compound to see if they contained men, and if so, how many.
Erev Yom Kippur for Kol Nidre somehow we pulled it off. Nine guys showed. Shmuli was there. We had a minyon but all it meant was that we could say the Kaddish. Nice, but not earth-shattering. Still… the Torah lay there on the table that straddled the partitioned women’s and men’s sections – and that was pretty awe inspiring in and of itself.
At the end of the evening, Shmuli begged the men to come back the next day.
At 11 AM on Saturday morning there were only two men there at the appointed hour, and then three, and finally four, and at about 11:30 an SUV of Israeli men (the only American man was the guy from the Embassy) showed up. We had nine including Shmuli. It didn’t look like we were going to make it.
And then one of the daughters from the restaurant announced, “I’m going to do what I was avoiding. I was hoping that it wasn’t going to come to this. I’m calling my schmuck of a Stepfather and getting him over here now.”
And low and behold, the Stepfather showed about 10 minutes later. We had a minyon!
So Saturday morning Shmuli read from the Torah, with the help of the nine other semi-reluctant but nevertheless present guys, for the first time ever in Dar, and maybe even ever in Tanzania.
And it felt like it was meant to be. I can’t tell you why. But it was how it felt. Everyone in the room knew it, too.
Shmuli was so happy when it was over, grinning ear-to-ear. He had us sing a song of celebration at the end of the service and entertained us with a lovely story about Henry Kissinger and Golda Meir.
And it was telling that six hours later, when it came time for breaking the fast and Havdallah service (end of the Sabbath) that everyone came back again, and shared sweet kosher wine sent to us as a gift from the synagogue in Nairobi, and ate wonderful honey cake made for us by one of the most reluctant of the Israeli guys.
We were, we are for now, a community of Jews in Dar.
Shmuli leads us in prayer for Kol Nidre
The Torah is read on Yom Kippur in the morning.