A Detour through Rwanda
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A Detour through Rwanda

A Detour through Rwanda

How volunteering in a remote part of the world profoundly impacted my Jewish identity.

by Heather Gelb

What was I, a small-town American Jewish girl, doing in the middle of Africa?

Ostensibly I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer at a health center nestled among the green hills of Rwanda. Cut off from any Jewish community, I thought my strong drive to volunteer in a remote part of the world, far from Israel, had little connection with my Jewish identity.

But after several months of hard work adjusting to my new responsibilities and the Rwandan culture, I received a powerful letter from my good friend, Joe. Though he, too, came from a minimally observant Jewish American background, he was becoming a serious student of Judaism and was preparing to fly to Israel for a year of learning.

What impacted me the most was the letter's short discussion on Rabbi Kook's ideas concerning the nature of the Jew. Joe wrote:

"Rav Kook says that the basic nature of the Jew is to serve God and to be His partner in perfecting the world. Even the Jew who doesn't follow any religious law has this basic drive. He calls this nature or essence of the Jew the "segula" [treasure]. This has carried all the way from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and we try to benefit from their righteousness. Anyway, this treasure is very powerful, and the theory is that by serving God we will come to know Him better, and come to desire to learn more...

"What you are doing out there is a wonderful mitzvah! Love of your fellow man and woman is definitely an important Jewish ideal -- not just love of your fellow Jew. I hope throughout the next two and a half years your energy never wanes. But if you do have your Torah with you, I hope you make the time to read it, to keep in touch with Judaism, and most importantly, God. You have a unique experience, seeing His wonders from a different perspective...."

Joe's letter made a profound impression on me; I could not stop thinking about it. Me, have a treasure? My work took on whole new layers of meaning as I attempted to apply these words into whatever did. I was working to perfect a small corner of God's world by helping local farming co-ops and women's groups procure funds for their various developmental projects, helping local teachers write skits and puppet shows with good health messages for the school children to perform for one another, and teaching and promoting good nutrition to all the villagers who came to the health center. I was caring for and feeding the many undernourished children who came to me for help, even teaching some of the local women how to ride a bike, and generally strengthening the relationship between me and the culture I represent with the friends I was making in Rwanda.

TORAH THROWN OUT THE WINDOW

Surprisingly, being so cut off from a Jewish community yet surrounded by a very spiritual people turned some of my deep yearnings toward strengthening my own unique Jewish identity, yearnings which had been sparked the previous summer in the introductory Jewish learning program in Safed called Livnot U'Lebanot where Joe and I had first met.

I recalled the warning I heard during our last days at Livnot about "not throwing the Torah out the window on the plane ride back home". I felt compelled to look over the few Jewish belongings I had brought with me: a small prayer book, a collection of Jewish stories, and a couple tapes of Jewish music. I realized that I didn't even think to bring a Jewish calendar and completely missed the High Holidays. But somehow at that point in my life it felt right to be living in the middle of Africa, and that I was closer on many levels to Israel than from my hometown of Ohio.

I wrote Joe a letter expressing my wish to learn more about how to be Jewish in Rwanda and asked if he could take the Torah I had "thrown out the window" and mail it to me as soon as possible.

A few months passed until I received Joe's next letter and the Bible, I had asked for.

I felt his excitement for Torah. He even got me involved in some long distance learning. Since I now had my Bible, I looked up the weekly Torah portion, read the verses as Joe directed, thought about what I had read, then referred to what he had written.

In his letter he also wrote several suggestions about how I could make Shabbat more holy so as to set it apart from the rest of the week. Since all my cooking was done on a stove top, I built myself a solar oven out of two large cardboard boxes, tinfoil and a glass lid so I could bake challah. I also attempted to capture the interest of my Rwandan friends and neighbors, hoping they would also want such a contraption to save on limited firewood.

I played Jewish music Friday afternoons to create a Shabbat mood for myself after a long day of work at the health center. The ancient and modern melodies emanating from my dusty tapes tugged at buried memories, releasing a renewed commitment to connect with anything Jewish, whether through the physical touch of a prayer book filled with Hebrew letters or through a meditative walk outdoors, reaching between the birds and trees to touch something indescribable yet real.

SHABBAT IN RWANDA

Just before sunset, I sat by the side of a small foot path on the top of a grassy hill near my house and welcomed the Sabbath, gazing off into the distance, soaking in the peaceful life of the surrounding hilly farmland: Orchards of ripening banana, avocado and coffee bean trees stood quietly in the fading light and fields of soya, white sweet potatoes, millet and cassava hugged the fertile reddish-brown earth. In the distant valley was the faint, glimmering outline of the rice paddies and fish ponds. Smoke drifted lazily up from one of the small, mud house as the darkening sky ushered in glorious combinations of red and purple. The sounds of cows and children at play mingled with my humming of Lecha Dodi. The scene was so perfect that at times I felt as if I were part of a living picture that had expanded beyond its frame to draw me into its reality.

Lighting candles was another way I gradually brought the holiness of Shabbat into my life. On one particular late Friday afternoon, I took out two candles and placed them into the clay candle holders on the mantle. After lighting a match I touched the burning flame to each wick, then waved my hand gently three times over the shining candles as I had seen my mother do. As the light shone through my fingers, I sang the blessing welcoming in the Shabbat. Just as I sat down preparing to sing the few Jewish songs I either knew by heart or were in my tiny prayer book, there was a knock at my door.

Although they understood neither Hebrew nor English, they really enjoyed looking at the Hebrew letters.

Some neighborhood friends and children had come to visit. As they walked in, they gazed over at the two candles shining brightly across the room. Puzzled, they asked if I was having problems with my solar powered lights. I explained to them that I lit them to mark the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. They noticed my prayer book and wanted to see what was written inside. Although they understood neither Hebrew nor English, they really enjoyed looking at the Hebrew letters. As they crowded around, I decided to teach them a simple Jewish song. They were eager to learn. Soon we were singing rounds of "He'nay ma tov u'ma na'im." We translated the words into their language, Kinyarwanda, and sang the song in both languages till my friends drifted away into the warm night.

RUNNING IN SKIRTS

I tried to find other times to connect to God, not only on Shabbat. I felt particularly close to God and appreciative of being alive early in the morning. I'd wake up with the sun, put on my running shoes and special running skirt, and run along a small dirt path.

At first it seemed awkward running in a skirt, but since the Rwandan social code in my area frowned upon women wearing pants or anything that revealed their knees, I displayed a sensitivity to this standard by maintaining a wardrobe of dresses and skirts, even for exercising. I owe my greater consciousness toward the modesty of clothing to the country women in my neighborhood. After a few days I actually began to prefer running in a skirt over shorts or sweats. It gave me a different sense of freedom.

Many times as I ran along the top of a hillside, breathing in the fresh warm air, my eyes gliding through the soft mist rising from the awakening earth, I felt profoundly thankful to God for giving me eyes to see such a breathtaking view, legs to experience the freedom of movement, the opportunity to meet such wonderful people, and even the consciousness to appreciate the beauty of this world and my place in it.

I found purpose in the world and was grateful for the Almighty's gifts and the beauty of this world, even when shadows of tribal tensions and threats of violence moved closer to my community. Unlike the more turbulent areas in the northern part of Rwanda, there was a respectable amount of tolerance and peace among the two main ethnic tribes -- the short, dark Hutus and the tall, lighter skinned Tutsis -- that lived and worked together in our more southerly town.

Tired families fleeing one of the isolated massacres were given food and shelter in our town until it was safe to return to their homes.

I noticed the concern on the faces of my friends as news of murderous hatred and random explosions further north filtered down into nervous conversations in the waiting line at the health center and around the communal water spring as women filled up their water jugs. Tired families fleeing one of the isolated massacres were given food and shelter in our town until it was safe to return to their homes.

Despite the growing threat, life continued as normal for most of the year and a half that I lived there. After the studies and the chores of the day, no one needed to be persuaded to join into an evening of song, dance and storytelling. I enjoyed the people of my community and I saw no deep difference between my Tutsi and Hutus friends. To me, they were all my Rwandan friends.

THE WHITE JEW

I learned soon enough just how they saw me -- first and foremost as a white American, and all white Americans they had previously known had glorified the church. They were fascinated when I tried to explain my Jewishness. Being Jewish raised a dilemma for some -- how could I simultaneously be a Jew and an American? Since the only prior exposure that most Rwandans had to Jews was through the Bible, they believed that all Jews lived in Israel. A Jew who lived anywhere else was inconceivable. And I thought I was idealistic.

"One day I would live in Israel," I told them, and actually believed it, keeping in mind a young man who was studying at a yeshiva in Efrat -- my lifeline to Judaism.

I tried to bring them up to date on Jewish history. I also tried to explain to them why I did not attend one of the many local churches on Sundays. Debating with Rwandan preachers, some of whom, interestingly enough, referred to me as a 'daughter of Abraham' in their language, was no easy task. Being immersed in their culture and having many willing tutors aided greatly in my Kinyarwandan proficiency. However, my expression was still limited. Eventually, they were satisfied that at least I prayed, even if it was in my own home and on Saturdays.

Joe and I shortened the distance of our study sessions from a continent to a breath away.

After the dangers of war forced Peace Corps to evacuate me from Rwanda in 1993, I eventually traded in my pen for a wedding ring, and Joe and I shortened the distance of our study sessions from a continent to a breath away.

Only now can I see clearly that my "detour" through Rwanda was full more of purpose than of mystery. If I understand Rav Kook correctly, then this basic nature of a Jew that I and all other Jews have, this incessant drive to perfect the world with whatever tools I have and wherever I am, led me from Ohio to Africa and finally, on to Israel, with a strong desire to learn more.

Peace has returned to the hills of Rwanda, but for me it is Israel where I have returned and have chosen to live. Joe and I have built our own home in the hills of Yehuda, immersed in our family and Jewish community.

Published: December 6, 2008


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Visitor Comments: 21

(21) Hadassah, June 21, 2012 2:33 PM

amazing

What an inspirational story! It is interesting that people find it easier to accommodate to other culture's demands for modesty that Judaism.

(20) Lori Laws, December 20, 2008 2:57 PM

Beautiful story

"I eventually traded in my pen for a wedding ring, and Joe and I shortened the distance of our study sessions from a continent to a breath away"...what a beautiful story, not only with Joe (which is great), but also for your love for Israel and Rwanda. I loved the running in a skirt thing:) I knew you went to Africa, but I didn't know the story. Very good writing!! God bless you and your family!

(19) RL, December 14, 2008 1:58 AM

I totally enjoyed it. It was wonderful. thank you!

(18) Anonymous, December 13, 2008 1:33 PM

FUTURE PERFECT....

Very inspiring.... It was heart-warming to read how this 'daughter of Abraham' maintained, and indeed enhanced her Jewish-consciousness, in such a remote area of the planet. Even moreso, she had an impact upon the peoples of the land. She appeared to be the only Jew any of them knew. Maybe the only one they will ever know- but it is enough. She positively touched their world, made it better. Put them in touch with a Jew for this Age. They will raise their children and recall her, her ways, her sincerity, her G-d.... It is enough......

(17) Tova, December 11, 2008 1:02 PM

beautiful

That was a beautiful and heart warming story. Thank you for sharing it.

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