April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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Shabbat in Rwanda: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at My Shabbat Table

This summer I volunteered to participate in a program run through Montefiore Hospital and the HRH (Human Resources for Health Program) to help educate physicians in Rwanda. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I knew there was no Chabad in Rwanda and I was eager to connect with other Jews.

Before I left for Rwanda I had hoped that by the time I spent a few weeks there, I would be able to get a minyan of men together for Kabbalat Shabbat. One of the well-known restaurants in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, is called Heaven. An American-Jewish couple owns it, and my dream was to daven Kabbalat Shabbat there with a minyan so that I could say I davened “Shabbat in Shamayim.”

My dream never came true, but I had some amazing Jewish experiences during my 10 weeks in Rwanda, and on the last Shabbat, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z”tl even joined me for a beautiful Shabbat meal. No I am not crazy, I know he is dead, but he did sing at my Shabbat lunch table. So here is a little glimpse of some of the wonderful people and Jewish experiences I had in Africa.

Thanks to the Internet and our wonderful Jewish small world, Dena, my wife, had already connected with some Jews who were living and working in Rwanda before I ever got there. My daughter Shira (a senior at The Frisch School) and I landed on a Thursday night at the beginning of July and by the time Friday rolled around, I had an email from Sue, a doctor who had been there since March and was dying for a Yiddishkeit injection. She called and asked if she could come over to light Shabbat candles as she was tired of lighting alone and her cat did not provide good harmony for Kabbalat Shabbat.

She had heard through the HRH grapevine that an Orthodox Jew was coming. Shira, Dr. Sue and I davened a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat and enjoyed a nice home-cooked Shabbat meal. Big shout out to Empire frozen chicken in a bag, which was a big attraction for all the Jews (and even the non-Jews) who shared my Shabbat table.

Sue told me that she skypes sometimes on Friday nights with her chavura friends back in Seattle, but the time difference (she has to wait until 2 a.m. Rwandan time) killed her the next day. She spent a few Shabbatot with us and even gave us a beautiful Havdalah candle.

The next Shabbat we had Michael Kasdan, a fellow Teanecker, over for Shabbat. Michael is a tzadik, one of the many people who I met who understand what it means to give to others. Michael is a graduate of NYU and has spent the last year in Rwanda working in Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. This village takes care of high school-age orphans. They provide them with a place to live, a high school education, and, really, a family. By day Michael works in the finance office and at night he is a mentor to 17 teenage boys.

He also wears many other hats, like the head of woodworking (yes, he really is Jewish) and head of their debate team (sounds more like a nice Jewish boys job).

The majority of these kids go on to attend colleges in Rwanda, and while I was there I even read about one of the graduates who made it into the University of Pennsylvania. The people who work at the village are amazing, becoming role models and teachers to these kids who are orphaned and have grown up with nothing. Most do not speak English well if at all when they arrive. Many never had a modern toilet or indoor plumbing.

The village was started by Anne Heyman, who died tragically this past year in an accident, and is modeled after an orphanage in Israel called Yemin Orde. Other members of the Agahozo team that spent Shabbat with me during my stay and lit up my Shabbat table were Arielle, whose father is a chazzan in Westchester. She is in charge of arranging tours and greeting visitors to the village. We also had Lee and Samantha, a young couple who had spent several years in Prague before joining the Agahozo team.

To give you the complexities of being in an African country for a long period of time, Lee had to be hospitalized with malaria during his stay here, and had to run from doctor to doctor for a spinal issue. Scary stuff when you are far from home in a country with limited resources. These unbelievable people are spending a year working (some through the Joint Distribution Committee) to really change the lives of young men and women. They are giving up the comforts of living in the U.S. to live in a village where there are no warm showers. Rice, beans, cassava and potatoes are the staples of their diet, and entertainment is very limited.

Each of the volunteers have 16 students in their “family” and they are like big brothers/sisters to them. During the two-week summer vacation where the kids go back home, Arielle went to visit some of her family to get an insight into their lives. She was shocked to see their living conditions and what life was like before they came to the village. She is spending her last weeks there trying to visit each and every kid in her family because she loves them and feels so connected.

On Motzei Shabbat of the second week in Rwanda, after 25 spiritual hours with Shira and Michael, I was a little stir crazy and wanted to get out of the house I was sharing with two other doctors. They were heading to Heaven for a Saturday night dinner before going back to the States. Shira and I tagged along and had a few drinks in this beautiful restaurant which is set on a stunning outdoor porch covered by the arching branches of centuries’ old African trees. The ambiance was wonderful and the stark contrast between the restaurant and the conditions that most Rwandans live in was stark. At the end of a fun evening, our Rwandan waiter approached me and shyly asked, “Are you Jewish?”

I was wearing a kipa you might think he was asking the obvious. But walking the streets of Kigali and being called Papa, because people thought I was a missionary priest (either that or they thought I was the pope) and being asked for blessings and being told how much they love Jesus, I realized most people here had never seen a kipa or met a Jew. I said yes, and his face lit up. Our waiter’s name was Steven Messia (pronounced messiah) and he said, “I love Rabbi Shlomo.”

Wow! I thought to myself, these drinks are pretty strong, I thought he said he loved Rabbi Shlomo. Sure enough he was a Shlomo Carlebach fan. He said he had always felt connected to the Jewish people. He also loved music and while cruising the web found Rabbi Shlomo and downloaded some videos. We connected for a while and after explaining that it was Motzei Shabbat and telling him I just sang a Rabbi Shlomo tune to end my Shabbat called Eliyahu Hanavi, he without missing a beat started singing Reb Shlomo’s niggun. In the middle of Heaven, I got up with him and we sang together–me and a Rwandan Messia.

Our friendship grew over my few weeks in Rwanda. The restaurant, a haven for expats, was a major social hub for meeting many Jews and non-Jews who came for Shabbat meals. On another Motzaei Shabbat on my way out I wished Steven a Shavua Tov. He smiled graciously as he always did and responded back Hinei Ma Tov? Sure enough right on key we found ourselves harmonizing and rocking out this classic to the enjoyment and bewilderment of fellow diners. Look for our upcoming CD entitled an OB/GYN and the Messiah Singing Shlomo, Live from Rwanda.

Over the weeks I met many interesting people whose paths I crossed because of our shared belief system. Chaim Motzen, who lives in Israel, does work in Rwanda and connected me to quite a few people. More importantly, he supplied me with kosher wine to use for Kiddush. I had never met Chaim before I got to Rwanda; a mutual acquaintance connected us by email.

During my second week in Rwanda, I was attending a dinner at the Rwandan Society of Ob/Gyn when Chaim called to say he was flying back to Israel that night and he’d like us to meet. He met me at the hotel and pulled up a chair at the table. There we were: a Jew in a kippah, an Egyptian couple, wife in full burka; a South African, a Rwandan Army general, a woman from Lebanon who was a sales representative for a surgical company, and Chaim, an Israeli. Chaim runs a solar energy plant (next door to the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village) which provides Israeli technology to Rwanda, and has been contracted to supply 7% of Rwanda’s energy needs. This is new technology in the region, so his company brought in many expats including some Israelis, to help with the start-up. They also train, educate, and employ local Rwandans for the future growth of this technology, and handed me a bottle of kosher wine before he left for the airport.

Chaim connected us to Kaylee, a young lady from Israel who was in Rwanda for a technology innovation conference. She was our guest for the following Shabbat. She works at Tel-Aviv University where they are looking for partnership opportunities in growing nations. After spending a week at the conference, and impressed at the way cell phone technology was being used for for local commerce, she was thrilled to have a nice Kabbalat Shabbat with Shira and Dr. Sue. She walked four miles back to her conference Shabbat morning and was so happy to have had some kosher chicken and kugel in Kigali.

After that third Shabbat, I had to say goodbye to Shira, who helped me transition as a stranger in a strange land, which would have been a very lonely experience. A few days later, my wife Dena and Ariella, my eldest daughter (a Stern girl) came for the next few weeks. We planned to have Michael Kasdan and a friend of his, Sigal who was visiting from the States, for Shabbat. We also invited Stephen from Harvard through the Chaim and Kaylee connection. They met him one night in Heaven and somehow made the Jew connection. Stephen was thrilled to come but could not get there before Shabbat started. We told him vaguely where we lived and told him to come at 7 p.m. but weren’t able to get in touch with him on Friday to give him better directions and we weren’t sure if he was coming at all.

Here’s the thing: houses in Rwanda don’t have addresses. There are no postal deliveries to homes. You use landmarks to describe where you live. For instance I lived off the Prison road, down the hill from the British Council in the house with the green gate and a white tent in the front yard. So describing it to someone who doesn’t live in Rwanda, and telling him where to come for a Shabbat meal was a challenge. 7 PM rolled on by and no Steven, so I decided to go hunting.

The good thing about looking for some Jew from Harvard you never met in Rwanda who is coming for a Shabbat meal is that he will probably be the only white guy on the street. Sure enough I found him roaming nearby. Stephen was doing a Harvard summer internship on information technology. He came from the most unaffiliated Jewish home you could imagine, had just come back from a Birthright trip and was turned on to his Jewishness. He so loved his Friday night experience; with our transliterated Princeton Shiron (Artwork courtesy of [email protected]) he even came back the following week for Shabbat lunch. He couldn’t believe that Dena made chicken soup and gefilte fish. Dena also connected him with a friend of ours in the Harvard Hillel and hopefully he will continue his Jewish journey.

An interesting thing to note about Rwanda is that Shabbat comes in at almost the same time all year round, 5:45 pm. Which means it always gets dark the same time. No summer long evenings and no winter short evenings. They are near the equator and every day is the same length.

After Shabbat with Michael, Sigal, and Stephen we decided to go to Heaven. While Ariella and I were happily drinking our smoothies, Dena was working the tables, connecting with the people eating there. She came upon a group of Holocaust educators. They were in Rwanda for a conference to train teachers to teach genocide prevention and how to memorialize their own trauma by using the model from Holocaust education programs. Dena pulled up a chair and sat right down. They told her they were bringing a Holocaust survivor to Rwanda to speak on Thursday night at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, would she like to come? Of course she would. As many of you know, in 1994 there was a genocide in Rwanda and almost 1,000,000 people were murdered in three months. The survivors are just starting to speak about their experiences 20 years ago, and Rwandan schools can learn much from our Holocaust educators. (Dena serves on the Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration Committee.)

On Thursday night Dena and I went to hear Louisa, a survivor, speak. She hid in an attic for close to three years in Holland. She was with her parents, older brother and a family friend. Interestingly, she came from the same hometown as my mother, who spent the Holocaust in three concentration camps.

Louisa’s husband, Sidney, had been a surgeon at Montefiore, the hospital I work at. After her presentation we asked them if they would like to come Friday night for a Shabbat meal. They were thrilled. There were 50 Rwandan educators in the crowd and one other American woman who sat down next to us. When she heard our names, she exclaimed, “You are Mark and Dena? I am Sarah Brown, I am coming to your house for Shabbat lunch! I am a friend of Chaim Motzen.” It is a small Rwandan Jewish World.

That Friday night we had Louisa and Sidney and Sarah. Louisa told of how in Haarlem, Holland, her next-door neighbors were very religious and that they would eat together every Friday night. Almost the entire family was killed, as they were leaders of the Jewish community. Only one daughter from that family survived, she hid with Louisa and her family. To be sitting at a Shabbat table in Rwanda freely practicing our religion was so meaningful to all of us. Sarah lives on the U.S. West Coast and is doing her PhD work on women and genocide.

We were privileged to meet Ayla during our weeks in Rwanda. This young lady came to us through a Chovevei Torah graduate who is the rabbi of a shul in Nairobi. He hosted Ayla for Pesach and knew she was based in Rwanda. We shared a Shabbat meal together. She runs an NGO in Rwanda that gives voice to women and girls by teaching them how to tell their life stories, giving them confidence and training in public speaking. She partners with schools and other women’s organizations to help them grow more confidant in the male-dominated culture.

Of course we invited all the doctors and the crews, Jewish and non-Jewish, who shared some beautiful Shabbat meals with us. When I got to Rwanda as part of the HRH program I joined the HRH Google Group. Usually used to post items for sale, where to find household help, how to get stuff to and from America, it’s like Teaneck Shuls off steroids. The first week I posted an invitation to anyone interested in sharing a Shabbat meal. I figured that there would surely be some Jews amongst all the doctors around. While I was right, I was more shocked by the amount of non-Jews who replied asking if this was an open invitation. Of course it was, even though I was a bit concerned about my limited kosher Empire frozen chickens, but I knew that in Rwanda a chicken could feed at least a dozen people.

The next Shabbat I was honored to have a wonderful young Rwandan lady who worked for the HRH. She helped me arrange my medical licensing and helped make sure that I had adequate accommodations. When we first met, Sage said to me “I like the Jews–they have the same history as us.” Sage said she loved the Jews and wanted to learn more.

Many of the Rwandans I met were devoutly Christian and really believed that the Jews are the “chosen people.” Sage brought along two of her children, Yehoshua and Yonatan (I thought I was back in Teaneck). When I asked her about her daughter’s name I was floored, her name was Shechina (quite a name to live up to). She, like so many others, was well-versed in the Old Testament and proclaimed her love of Jews and Israel. Her parents fled the country in 1959 due to persecution of the Tutsi’s and only returned after the Genocide in 1994. I found it interesting that in a country where the only news that I could get was from Al Jazeera, that these people overwhelmingly loved the Jews.

Many claimed they were Jewish because they were of Ethiopian descent or from the tribe of Menashe. People would stop me and ask to take pictures with me saying that they thought they would never meet a Jew. One man from the Congo whipped out his cell phone and showed me his screen saver which was an eye with the Israeli flag inside. His only wish was for me to send him a small Israeli flag to hang in his room.

One day walking home from work through the busy marketplace, where the lines of people waiting for buses snake along with no end, I heard a “Shalom! Ma nishma?” from a Rwandan who spent six months in Kfar Saba learning about drip irrigation. He asked if we could go out one night to practice his Hebrew. I was a little nervous that my Yeshiva Hebrew would be unable to keep pace with him. Wearing my kippa opened so many positive experiences and made me appreciate the role we should be filling as a light onto the nations. Many out there hold us in high esteem and we should live up to that responsibility.

Among the physicians we had the joy of hosting, were Dr. Carol, a pathologist, and Dr Robert, a pediatrician–both from Cleveland. We met them on one of our Motzoei Shabbat trips to Heaven. Whenever we walked into Heaven, we would be welcomed warmly by the staff. By the end of my trip, I felt like Norm when he walked into Cheers. As we would sit down to have a drink, Dena would size up the clientele. Being an unbelievable connector, Dena would often be friends with at least half of the diners by the end of the evening.

Carol and Robert had just arrived in Rwanda and joined us. After a pleasant meal I still wasn’t sure of their religious beliefs but offered them to come and join us for a Shabbat. Sure enough they did, Carol was in Rwanda to help train the four pathology students in the country and was trying to establish a telecommunication link so she could lecture weekly from the States.

Robert, officially not working with the HRH, was helping on the pediatrics ward and trying to help connect people with similar interests in fields such as ADHD, which is hardly recognized as an issue in Rwanda (a lot of other issues to deal with). We shared a wonderful meal, a few Torah thoughts, and some song. By the end of the evening we said our goodbyes and I still was unsure about who they were. Then Robert sent me a proof of the article he was writing for the Cleveland Jewish News, where he is a regular contributor, entitled Spending a Shabbat in Kigali, Rwanda.


Dena and Ariella sadly had to say goodbye and I had four more Shabbatot alone. I was glad that the HRH listserve was providing me with guests since I wasn’t the type to recruit at Heaven without Dena. I hosted quite a few doctors. Dr. George is an ob/gyn originally from Queens, and his wife Grace was from Guatemala. I worked with George for several weeks and did not realize he was Jewish until he responded to one of my Google group posts. He mentioned how he particularly missed prayer services and would love to come Friday night. George met his wife, a nurse, while working in Guatemala. He then worked in Alaska on an Indian Reservation and came to Rwanda over a year ago. George had a rar mitzvah and read Hebrew and we were able to find some old classic Lecha Dodi tunes we could share.

We also had Dr. Nancy, a maternal fetal medicine specialist and her husband David, who said “If all families would do this every Friday night, the world would be a better place.” This is Nancy’s second stint in Rwanda and I was happy to hear that she senses the difference in the residents we have been training. David, her husband, who manufactured furniture in Cleveland, spends his days connecting with the local residents and this year he has been the “general contractor,” helping someone he met on his last visit build a mud home.

Rounding out our guests were Catherine, an ob/gyn who has been in Rwanda for two years now. She is expecting her first child and her husband works for Partners in Health. He spends three months in Boston and then comes to Rwanda to practice and help setup the medical residency program. These people are amazing, giving up what could be a very comfortable existence with a two-doctor salary in the U.S. to help those who are in real need. Jennifer, an orthopedic surgeon, has been in Rwanda for two years and is a fellow trained in oncology. She spends most of her days dealing with the ward full of patients who come in from motorcycle injuries. Rules of the road are nonexistent and bus and Moto (motorcycle- the way many people get around here) accidents are a major cause of morbidity and mortality in there.

My housemate for a good chunk of time in Rwanda was Peter. He is a professor of neurology in Australia and has written a textbook that is highly regarded. He came to teach neurology for two months. He doubled the number of neurologists in the country and was, like myself, shocked to see the extent and severity of many of the diseases that present here in Rwanda as late-stage terminal problems. Many of these illnesses, if caught earlier are treatable. Whether it is because of poor access to care, or poor education, doctors who do not make the diagnosis, or one of a million other reasons, these people do not get early interventions and often pay a supreme price. By the end of our few weeks together and several Shabbatot I think Peter knew more than some of my Jewish friends about Shabbat and the way we think and do things.

Yael, a third grader was probably my youngest Shabbat guest. She and her dad, Yoann, are from France. When they arrived in Rwanda, Michael Kasdan was at the airport picking up a friend. Yoann saw Michael’s kippa and asked him about Jewish life in Rwanda. Michael got his number and texted it to me and Voila! Yoann works for a company that builds power lines to route energy between African countries. He was working on building lines connecting Rwanda, The Congo and Uganda. His wife will be meeting him in Rwanda and he came to get started on this one-year project. He enrolled Yael in the Belgian school. The wonderful thing about us Jews is that somehow no matter where we come from, or what language we speak, we somehow can find a song (zemer) to share.

I could not leave the country without inviting Stephen Messia, my Rwandan waiter from Heaven, to spend a Shabbat meal with me. He came over the last week I was there for Shabbat lunch. Together with David, an NYU medical resident working in King Faisel hospital, we spent a few hours schmoozing. Stephen shared how his family had fled Rwanda in 1959 to avoid persecution. They ran to Tanzania and the Congo. He was separated from his parents at a very young age. He had never really gotten to know his parents and was raised by his aunts and uncles. He only recently found out that his family was most likely murdered. He told me how he felt so connected to the Jews and how his grandfather had come from Ethiopia. He always wondered whether he had some Jewish blood in him as he feels so spiritually connected. He told me that often, in the afternoons, when they are setting up the dining room at Heaven, he would put Rabbi Shlomo on the loudspeakers.

He is young man who hustles, working a full time job as a waiter in Heaven while attending college full time, majoring in the hospitality industry. I sang some zemirot, shared a thought on the parsha, and then asked him what his favorite Shlomo tune was. Without skipping a beat he said “Days are Coming” I began to hum Shlomo’s Hinei Yamim Baim. Stephen whipped out his cell phone and within seconds Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Stephen, David and I were sharing a Shabbat table and singing zemirot in the middle of Africa. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. After Shabbat I left Stephen a brand new Shlomo CD that Dena brought him from America. He left me with some great memories.

These anecdotes are just a taste of my experiences in Rwanda. I cannot thank my hospital, chairman, Dr. Irwin Merkatz, my mother, Ruth Levie, my wife, Dena and my children Ariella, Shira, Talia and Yair for allowing to have this experience. Mostly, I want to thank God for all he has given me. I know that I have gained a new appreciation for all that I have, and I hope I can continue to share of myself and all that God has given to me. If I can make one suggestion to anyone reading this, it is to step out of your comfort zone, volunteer to help others.

What you get back is much more than you give.

Shana Tova.

By Dr. Mark Levie

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