KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — There are some places one just doesn’t associate with Jews. I think the Democratic Republic of Congo, more commonly called the DRC (or sometimes DR Congo, Congo-Kinshasa, Zaire-Congo), is one of those places. What first springs to mind for most people is something more like political unrest, malaria, even Ebola hemorrhagic fever. But “Jews” should be part of the mental image of the DRC, particularly among Jews, for there has been a Jewish presence and influence here for about a century. In some regards, that influence has been disproportionate for their minuscule population (currently estimated at 200 in the capital Kinshasa, 12 in Lubumbashi, capital of the southern Katanga Province, whose governor, Moise Katumbi Chapwe, is Jewish on his father’s side).
The vibrancy of Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa) today belies the community’s diminutive size and fractured nature for all but a few of the people who comprise the community range from transient, temporary, to-and-fro, fleeting, to curious visitors like myself. A mere handful of people could be described as local.
I couldn’t quite figure out just what was what or who was who before I got here as details were sketchy. Internet searches turned up very little in the way of specifics and the contacts seemed reluctant to correspond with me. It only all made sense once I finally arrived.
There are really two distinct halves of the community, particularly in Kinshasa: the Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa, presided over by Aslan Piha, and Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, directed by Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, who runs Yeshiva Ohel Moshe. The twain are almost, but not quite, like oil and water: they mix but they do not quite stay blended.
What is regarded as “the community” has its offices, classroom, synagogue, and functions at a single complex. Both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila have their offices here, but the community and Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa operate as separate entities, though they have combined certain logistical forces. At least, that’s how I understood things to be.
I arrived in Kinshasa from Lubumbashi a day late due to a flight delay, uncertainty, and ultimate cancellation on Korongo Airlines (more aptly named, Koro-no-go Airlines). In fact, I eventually flew on a Safair Airlines plane leased by Koronogo which blew a wheel upon landing in Lubumbashi causing the problems. I didn’t feel “safe-er” on Safair. I was just glad to be on the ground (finally) in Kinshasa. Their tag line is, Experience, Expertise, Excellence; it felt more like Confusion, Consternation, Chaos.
The delay left me with a day and a half to get my photo work done. Like so many times before, things just seemed to work out and I found myself busy from start to finish. I was also warmly welcomed.
Arrival wasn’t quite so pleasant, however. I was slightly alarmed when no one was at Kinshasa airport to meet me as I thought had been the plan (at least it was the day before when someone was waiting for my non-arriving flight). It was a stroke of good fortune when the person I asked for help was not merely familiar with the airport and where someone meeting me might be waiting, he let me make a couple of calls on his cell phone. When I couldn’t reach my contacts, he offered a lift to my hotel in town. Turned out this Belgian guy grew up here and had recently returned. As we drove into town, he pointed out “that’s where I used to live” (pointing to a dilapidated building) and “that’s where I used to play” (pointing to the old port).
Once settled in my downtown hotel, I was able to reach Aslan. Twenty minutes later, his driver came to fetch me and take me the two or so kilometers to the community center. From then on, everything worked like a charm.
After meeting with both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila, I spent an unhurried afternoon photographing Beit Yaacov Synagogue, the mikvah, and various parts of the building, including an inner-courtyard lined with pillars that resemble giant Olympic torches
Perhaps the coziest, most colorful, and cheeriest place in the complex is the classroom. Under the direction and commitment of Myriam Bentolila, the Rabbi’s wife, she’s meticulously created a happy space for teaching the youngsters “our holy heritage,” as Rabbi Bentolila put it. She wouldn’t allow me to take a photo until everything was just so. I liked that.
I also photographed evening services and a study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa. Yes, there is a yeshiva in the DRC. Located a few blocks from the Community Center, it houses 8 young men at a time. They come from various places including the USA, Canada, and Israel, and they generally study here for about a year.
Between the service and the study session, Rabbi Bentolila invited me to dine with him and his wife Myriam and a few other guests in their home which is on the upper floor of the Community Center.
What started as a day of complete uncertainty — from my uncertain flight to my lonely arrival — turned into a hectic, busy, interesting, and photographically productive day.
I was up early the following morning to photograph the 8:00 a.m. service. That over, I headed back to the yeshiva for a bit of breakfast with the boys. Though they have people to prepare their food, they usually help out, so it created a bit of action in the kitchen for me to photograph too.
From there, it was back to the Community Center. By this point, I had really completed my photo work. The only details remaining were chats with both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila about a few things pertaining to the community and to get brief video commentaries from them. Aslan wasn’t due in until mid-afternoon. Rabbi Bentolila, meanwhile, disappeared. Several hours of waiting later, he reappeared from his abode, having taken a long nap due to not feeling so hot.
I spent the time rephotographing the synagogue, this time with the lights off. The big chandeliers combined with a yellowy ambient light and daubs of natural light all created a challenging luminescence that resulted in some overexposed light fixtures. Hence, I retook many of the same angles from the previous day. The results were remarkably different. I filed both “lights on” and “lights off” versions of Beit Yaacov Synagogue.
After finally catching up with Aslan at nearly 4:00 p.m. and recording a video commentary, I returned to my hotel for a while, then came back yet again a few hours later to have dinner with the Rabbi and his wife. Before calling it a night, the good Rabbi recorded a video comment for me.
HISTORY. A meaningful Jewish presence in the DRC goes back to about 1904 when, under King Leopold II (1835~1909), the 2nd King of the Belgians and founder and controller of the Congo Free State (1885~1908), Jews arrived from Belgium and South Africa. They were Ashkenazi hailing mainly from central Europe, Lithuania, and Russia. A second wave of Jewish arrivals came in 1923 and they were predominantly Sephardim from Rhodes Island. With the building of a railway from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean, Jewish businesses of all sorts cropped up along the line, even in remote areas, but eventually, the Jewish communities grew in the main towns of Elizabethville (today, Lubumbashi), Luluabourg (today, Kananga), and Leopoldville (today, Kinshasa). Some of the early Jewish pioneers included Solomon Benatar, Ruben Amato, Nelson Hazan, Simon Israel. Other Jewish names include Surmani, Habib, Blattner, Alhadeff, Cohen, Piha, and Mizrahi.
These Jewish pioneers faced many challenges including the threat of malaria (the disease is still today a huge risk in the DRC). While they helped establish the Belgian Congo, the 1929 stock market crash left many in the Congo in bankruptcy forcing them into a sort of economic exile. The majority of the Ashkenazi Jews started anew in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Zambia. The resulting mainly Sephardic community enticed Rabbi Moses Levy, from the Rabbinical College of Rhodes, to the Congo where he presided as the community’s Chief Rabbi for more than half a century (1937~1991).
The Communauté du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi, the Jewish community center, was established in 1911. The first synagogue was consecrated in 1930 in Elizabethville (Lubumbashi); the second synagogue — Beit Yaacov — would not be built until 1987 in Kinshasa.
Prior to independence, approximately 3,000 Jews lived in the Congo; 50% resided in Elisabethville and about 70 Jewish families were based in Kinshasa. Jewish children were provided classes in Hebrew and Judaism. In 1960, the Republic of Congo established diplomatic relations with Israel. Zaire broke relations with Israel under Arab pressure in 1973. A decade later, Zaire was one of the first to reestablish relations with Israel. Today, Israeli expatriates make up the majority of the Jewish community of the DRC.
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