Nairobi, Kenya — As the terrorist attack enters its third endless day at Westgate, an upscale mall in the center of the city, with the death toll reaching 70, and the terrorists still holed up with an unknown number of hostages, I sit in my new home glued to the television and wondering just how on earth I ended up here.
It all started innocently enough. My husband, Brachyahu, and I were eating out in Manhattan with friends. One was a Kenyan Jew, Mark, born and raised in Nairobi, now living in New York City. In the course of the conversation, Brachyahu mentioned that he had almost completed his four-year rabbinical training at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, and was looking for a community rabbi position.
The rest, as they say, is history. Half in jest, Mark said that his parents’ community back home, the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation (NHC), the city’s only synagogue, was on the lookout for a new rabbi. I replied, half in jest, “Oh, how about Brachyahu becoming your new rabbi?” One thing led to another — Skype calls, meetings in New York, a trial visit in June — then a job offer.
And now here we are, less than one month into our new life in Nairobi, and to say that we’ve been thrown in at the deep end would be an understatement. Settling into a new city, country, and continent is not easy at the best of times. But combine that with the synagogue’s High Holy Days “peak-season” and its heavy load of concomitant rabbinical duties, and now, the pastoral responsibilities for the entire Jewish community suffering the aftershocks of the Westgate attack, as well as having to deal with our own fears.
Luckily, all community members have been accounted for since the attack. This is in no small part thanks to the bar mitzvah of an Israeli diplomat’s son taking place at the synagogue at the time of the attack on Shabbat. Many secular Israelis, who rarely come to synagogue, attended the celebration; very likely, some of them would have been at Westgate otherwise, the mall with its classy cafés and boutiques being a favored hangout for Israelis and other expat communities on the weekend.
Yet, many people close to us have suffered losses at Westgate. In fact, in just this short time in Nairobi, I’m horrified by the number of people I know who have been personally affected: One Kenyan community member lost her uncle who was shot while having a coffee on the terrace of Israeli-run Artcaffe at the mall; the synagogue’s Indian plumber tragically lost both his mother and 17-year-old son in the attack, while American community members are close friends and USAID colleagues of a fellow American who lost his wife, who was seven months’ pregnant with their first child.
The degrees of separation between us and the dead are far too few.
One Israeli working in the mall was shot lightly in the foot. Other community members were also in the mall at the time, but escaped unscathed. The Israeli wife of NHC’s president was trapped for over six hours, hiding in a storeroom with three other people, texting her husband non-stop as she could hear the terrorists’ shouts and gunshots, until she was rescued. Another member, a South African who recently arrived in Kenya, was eating lunch with her two teenage children when the gunmen first stormed the mall. They had to lie on the ground cowering under the tables for more than two and a half hours until they were saved.
I definitely felt panicked when we first heard what was going on at Westgate – especially given that the mall is part-Israeli-owned and there are a number of Jewish businesses operating there. Was al-Shabab striking the upmarket retail heart of Nairobi as retaliation for Kenya’s military operation in Somalia, or was Westgate’s Israeli connection no coincidence? I felt the same fear I’ve felt in Israel when a ‘piguah’ (terrorist attack) strikes, but without the sense of belonging and familiarity.
One part of me wanted to run straight back to Riverdale, where we spent four peaceful years while Brachyahu completed his rabbinical training. Westgate is just too close to home, both geographically and metaphorically speaking. It is the expat hangout place, and in fact, the very first place I was taken to the day we arrived in Kenya by a local friend who wanted to show us a nice place to have a coffee, and to buy some basic provisions in Nakumatt, the supermarket where the terrorists are still hiding with an unknown number of hostages.
Yet, in spite of shocking turn of events, we were attracted to the community because it is probably one of the most eclectic Orthodox communities in the world. It numbers around 500 or 600 people, and is made up of (white) Kenyan Jews of European origin, some of whom have now been here for three or four generations; many Israelis — on long or short contracts, working at the Israeli Embassy, for two or three large Israeli construction or agriculture companies, or running their own businesses; American, British and South African expats working here; and also a contingent of (black) Kenyans who have aspirations to become Jewish. There is also an ongoing stream of Jewish visitors, here on safari tours or for business.
Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, Orthodox and liberal Jews, English, Hebrew and Swahili speakers are all thrown into the mix together. Yom Kippur services were a real jumble of Ashkenazi and Sephardic tunes and rites. But in spite of all that could divide, the community comes together for every holiday and event.
Now, with the new rabbi in place, the aim is to rejuvenate the community and make the synagogue hum once again with activities, classes and cultural events, as well as livened-up religious services.
Even without the backdrop of terrorism, a challenge, indeed.
Rebecca Schischa is a British freelance writer based in Nairobi. She has lived in London, Paris, New York City and Tel Aviv.