A Jewish Education in Zimbabwe

October 22, 2010 • Features • Views: 4455

by Anya van Wagtendonk:

Clement Mpofu looks out at the camera, smiling broadly. He waits patiently as his interviewers decide where to begin, his shirtsleeves rolled up against the heat of a Zimbabwe spring. Atop his head rests a blue kipah, the skullcap that reminds Jews of their humility beneath the Divine. But Mpofu is not Jewish. Moments before the camera was switched on, he paused, fumbled around in his desk, and came up with the blue garment. It is important that he wear a kipah when speaking to the public. He is, after all, the headmaster of the Carmel School, one of the last Jewish schools in Zimbabwe.

A School is Born

Fifty years ago, members of the Jewish community in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, petitioned to form a school for their children. In 1958, eight students came together in a one-room schoolhouse as the first class of the Carmel School. Within two years, 160 young Zimbabwean Jews were studying Hebrew and the Old Testament alongside math, biology, and the indigenous language, Ndebele.

A class photograph of students at the Carmel School. (Courtesy Gabrielle Elkaim, Carmel '95)

At the time, Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, and a white minority government forcibly ruled over the black majority. After a 14 year civil war, which the white minority lost, the first truly democratic elections were held. Robert Mugabe, who remains the leader of Zimbabwe, was elected in 1979 and sworn into office as President in 1980. At this time, Carmel became integrated and the school committed itself to promoting a diverse student body of all religious backgrounds.

Today, thirty years later, there are hardly any Jewish students left among the 200-person student body. Gabrielle Elkaim, who graduated from Carmel in 1995 and is the daughter of Carmel’s very first student, reported that there is only one Jewish student left. “And by December this year,” said Elkaim, “she will graduate, and there won’t be any Jews there.”

The absence of Jewish students at the school reflects the struggles of the greater Zimbabwean Jewish community, which is but a shadow of what it once was. By the 1970s, the Jews in Zimbabwe numbered 7,500, most of them descendents of the first traders who arrived in the 1890s or of European refugees searching for new homes in the years during and after World War II. Today, the community counts fewer than 300 to their ranks. Most live in either Harare or Bulawayo, cities of a million and a half people. One-eighth live in the Savyon Lodge, Bulawayo’s Jewish retirement home. In 2003, the hundred-yearold Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation burned down; while its walls once sheltered 3000 people, fewer than 120 members now gather for services at Savyon Lodge.

Leaving Zimbabwe

But Zimbabwe is losing not only Jewish residents. A recent BBC survey suggests that, since 1990, millions of Zimbabweans have chosen to start new lives in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and surrounding African countries. Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, spiritual leader of the African Jewish Congress, an organization that sees to the needs of sub-Saharan Jewish communities, insisted that “it is not a Jewish issue.” Rather, he pointed to the “starving masses and fat cat politicians” that have preoccupied news stories about Zimbabwe since Robert Mugabe declared himself the first executive head of state—effectively, dictator for life—in 1987.

Mugabe entered office in 1980 as a champion of the people, an anti-imperialist who had fought against British rule in the Zimbabwe liberation struggle. But over time, his rule became increasingly authoritarian. Today, reports of human rights violations stream across the border accompanied by stories of censorship, corruption, and oppression, of government-ordered assassinations and torture. Ethnic tensions have also increased under his reign: Mugabe has referred to white Zimbabweans as “British settlers… citizens by colonization,” and, in 2000, ordered a land-grab operation wherein 4,000 white farmers watched their land get forcibly taken from them. Mugabe is also largely blamed for the economic turmoil of recent years, wherein hyperinflation rendered the Zimbabwe dollar nearly valueless.

“A lot of people have left the country because of the situation where you know that you cannot, you cannot get any basic food on the shelves… And that’s not fair,” Mpofu explained. The purpose of the video becomes clear: It is a farewell of sorts, filmed weeks before his decision to resign and leave the country in 2007. “It’s a very traumatic situation for me because I never wanted to go. But because of what is happening in the country…” He trails off. “I’m just praying that something is going to happen soon.”

“An Example of True Coexistence”

But something is happening, inside the walls of the very school that Mpofu left. Even in the absence of a sizeable Jewish student body, the Carmel School has remained staunchly Jewish. All students celebrate the Jewish Sabbath, observe Jewish holidays, study the Old Testament, and perform plays from its stories. Among the required school supplies listed in the student handbook is a kipah for the boys. Pork products are banned from school grounds in accordance with the Jewish dietary laws. And although most students come from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or other backgrounds, all students participate fully in this Jewish experience. David W. Rix, who replaced Mpofu and presides over the school today, said the non-Jewish parent body remains “adamant” that the school retain its Jewish ethos.

Consequently, the school serves as a model of multiculturalism. “It’s amazing that the children are all getting along together,” Mpofu observed. “Many parents prefer to bring their children in that type of environment which is more or less a setup of how we want Zimbabwe to be,” Michelle, a non-Jewish student from the mid-1990s who asked that her last name not be used, has put her own children in an international school “to gain the same experiences that I was lucky enough to experience” at Carmel. Elkaim remarked that she has never come across another Jewish school as diverse as Carmel, with students from such varied religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.

“This is a real reflection of the Bulawayo community,” she asserted, “and as far as I’m concerned, is the most overlooked part of our community which should be an example of true coexistence to the rest of the world.”

Looking Forward

In his departure interview, Mpofu expressed many hopes for the future of the Carmel School. Some, like the continued existence of the school’s Hebrew program, did not come to fruition: although students still learn Hebrew blessings and prayers, the language is no longer taught. But the emphasis on multiculturalism is still very much present, as evidenced in the school charter which holds hateful or discriminatory language or behavior as its highest offense. Mpofu’s biggest concern—that, as the Jewish population continued to dwindle, the school would lose its distinct Jewish character—does not appear to be an issue. The same school charter states its objective to retain “the Jewish traditions and character of the school.” When asked about the current state of Jewish affairs at Carmel, Elkaim echoed Rix’s claim that “the non-Jewish parents have insisted that Carmel stay a Jewish school in nature.”

Ultimately, Mpofu believes that these students, those whose minds and values have been shaped within the confines of a school dedicated to tolerance, harmony, and respect, will be the ones to restore this broken country. As renewed hope promises to turn Zimbabwe around, “we will need them to come back to the country, or even stay here, to actually run the economy in the future. They are the ones who are going to be responsible,” he explained.

The school symbol is the eight-armed menorah lit during Hanukah, the Jewish holiday of light. This candelabra was lit, so the story goes, after Judah Maccabee and his makeshift army led a successful revolt against the Greek Emperor who wanted the Jews—and all other ethnic minorities in the region—to become Hellenized. The Carmel School uses this symbol to represent its commitments to “the characteristics of determination, courage and tenacity associated with the heroic figure of Judah the Maccabee.” With these characteristics Carmel hopes its students will shape the future of their country.

As he gazes out into the camera, it is clear Mpofu doesn’t know when that future will be realized. Until it is, he will not return to Zimbabwe. If conditions do improve, though, he knows what he wants to do. “If I’m going to come back,” he grins, “I want to come back and teach at Carmel.”

Anya van Wagtendonk ’12 is an English major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at anya.vanwagtendonk@yale.edu.

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4 Responses to A Jewish Education in Zimbabwe

  1. Ivan Fleisch says:

    I was one of the 9 (not 8) first pupils of Carmel school in Bulawayo in January 1958.
    There is a great photograph that documents it (CA Zionist Digest -December 1979)and shows the 9 of us at the Hannukah party.Exactly enough pupils to make a complete Hannukia.
    It was also my honour to be the first Barmitzvah boy at the school and first Headboy.
    Anyone needing more info of those times should contact me via e-mail.

  2. Ronnie Elkaim says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. I was the first secretary of Carmel School. My son, Ilan, was the first name registered on the “waiting list” which was started the night the definite formation of the school was formally announced at a meeting in the library of the Jewish Guild Hall in Bulawayo.

  3. Jack Chadowitz says:

    A small correction. We did not learn Ndebele which is really a pity. I was in the second class of Carmel.
    Also, Ndebele was not offered at Gifford Tech. The public “white” high school I attended after Carmel.
    We were offered Afrikaans or French.

  4. Brenley says:

    An inetlligent point of view, well expressed! Thanks!