(I invite you to enjoy this extraordinary reflection from my extraordinary niece, Elizabeth Davidson, who works for KIVA (check it out) in Nairobi.
High holidays are a hard time to be away from family, but I wanted to give your a peak into what mine were like.
I spent Rosh Hashanah in Nairobi and attended services at Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, Nairobi's one and only synagogue.
Founded in 1904, the shul is still officially Orthodox, despite the fact that most of the congregants are not. You can imagine the kinds of synagogue politics this creates, the most recent being around the new rabbi Chabad is sending (half of the congregation thought a Chabad rabbi was better than nothing; the other half vehemently did not agree). Apparently, the congregation's real reluctance to drop the Orthodox front (women sit on the side of the congregation and the whole shabang) is because doing kashrut certification in Kenya is their one main source of income.
There is also some interesting tension around the black Kenyan Jews (not to be confused with the white Kenyan Jews, who are still a dominant faction) in the congregation, who pray in Hebrew and observe rituals in the same way as everyone else. Many congregants are wary of this group, fearing that they are actually Messianic (apparently a large population exists in Kenya) or will somehow corrupt the traditions of the synagogue. There is also some wariness around the conversion of these individuals by some rogue Chabad guy in Uganda and Western Kenya. I don't fully understand the complexities around this, but it's been interesting to observe.
One of the coolest things about Nairobi is the huge population of young-ish Jews. We've had a social justice Passover seder, countless shabbat dinners, and, most recently, pulled together a big Rosh Hashanah dinner (yours truly made the challah - thank you Aunt Ann and Mom for showing me how it's done!). A couple of my closest Jew friends and I even went to a nearby park to do tashlich. Here is my friend Elana throwing bread into a less than clean creek. Needless to say, we did not feel bad about polluting.
(First picture below)
Yom Kippur this year was an even more unique experience. I spent it in a refugee camp in northern Rwanda. While not the most traditional or kosher way to spend Yom Kippur, it was a pretty moving experience and gave me a lot of time to reflect and food for thought.
(Second picture below)
This refugee camp has been around for 20 years. Can you imagine 20 years of not knowing how long you'll be somewhere, not knowing where you'll end up? The parallels to 40 years of wandering in the desert are pretty obvious.
(Third picture below)
Despite this, the camp is lively and full of activity. Children go to school (and sport shoes donated by TOMS - apparently they do actually do that one-for-one giving thing), local vendors sell phone credit, and women hawk vegetables and charcoal on the side of the road.
(Fourth picture below)
Many of the people in this camp have been cleared for resettlement in the US; however, it could be a decade before they actually get to go. So they wait, dreaming about the promised land (again, the parallels!). A few of Kiva's partners, including African Entrepreneur Collective, have been asked by UNHCR to come work in the camp to help grow the local economy, so I had the chance to sit with many entrepreneurs and discuss their businesses, in a mix of French, Swahili, and Kinyarwanda (the last one through a translator since I don't speak much of it!).
(Fifth picture below)
After 20 years, this camp doesn't look much different from rural villages across Rwanda. And refugees in Rwanda (there are about 300,000 today, mostly from Congo and Burundi) have rights many refugees dream of -- they can work, move freely across the country, and access education. But they still have uncertain futures. Most could never afford to live in a regular village, never mind a city, in Rwanda. Entire generations have grown up here with little prospects of gainful employment. They can't go back to Congo, but have no clear timeline or idea of what's next. Most are just trying to live their lives and eke out something modest to live on.
(Sixth picture below)
All of this to say, I spent a lot of YK thinking about social justice, oppression, forgiveness, equality, and especially tikkun olam...and my role in it all. It's something I still grapple with.
And in the spirit of Yom Kippur, the camp's resident crazy person followed us around yelling "G-d." A good reminder not to forget about the spirit in the sky on the holiest day.
(Last picture below)
Peace, love, and happiness in the new year. Look forward to seeing you all in December.