Johannesburg — During his latest visit to a small Jewish community north of South Africa, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft dealt with his usual duties as spiritual leader to half a continent: carrying medical supplies, arranging worship services, comforting elderly Jews.
But he didn’t have to help plan for an evacuation.
As executive director of the African Jewish Congress, a creation of South Africa’s Board of Jewish Deputies that serves the scattered Jews of sub-Saharan Africa in 13 countries, Rabbi Silberhaft makes monthly visits to Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), the site of massive social upheavals in the last decade. The AJC is supported by the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
At the behest of President Robert Mugabe (critics say he has stayed in office because of election fraud), poor black have threatened and displaced thousands of white farmers, forcing them to flee the country, bringing the land to the point of bankruptcy and causing widespread shortages. Although Zimbabwe’s Jews are not a special target of the violence, most, as members of the minority white community, have left, reducing Zimbabwean Jewry from about 7,500 in the 1970s to fewer than 300 today.
Most who remain are businessmen or retirees; the few Jewish farmers are gone.
About 40 percent of the émigrés have settled in neighboring South Africa, many more in Israel. And they’re probably not returning unless “the country turns around,” Rabbi Silberhaft says, adding that “99.99 percent are not going back.”
The Zimbabwean Jews who have chosen to stay, because they are too old or poor to relocate, or because they can’t move their businesses, are maintaining a functioning Jewish community in Harare, the capital, and in Bulawayo, the country’s second-biggest city, with old age homes and day schools and a synagogue in each city, the rabbi says.
Despite a recent upsurge in violence and a crackdown on journalists, the remaining Jews do not seem worried, says Rabbi Silberhaft, who visited Zimbabwe last month as part of the 50,000 air miles he logs each year.
He sensed no panic there, he says.
The rabbi, a native of Israel who moved with his family to South Africa as a child, was ordained by the Jerusalem rabbinate.
In South Africa, the displaced Zimbabwean Jews, most of whom have settled in Cape Town, are assisted by the Board of Deputies, the country’s main Jewish umbrella organization. Until they establish themselves here, they receive help in finding new homes, and limited financial grants.
Some apply for South African citizenship, Rabbi Silberhaft says. A few, busy setting up their new lives, have become active in the wider Jewish community, socializing primarily among fellow ex-Zimbabweans.