There is a community of self-proclaimed Jews centered in the village of Rusape, about two hours from Harare, Zimbabwe. The Rusape Jews claim to be spiritually, though not genetically, descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel, exiled from the Jewish homeland by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.
According to the Jews of Africa website, the Rusape Jews trace their recent incarnation back to a 1903 meeting between a former American slave named William Saunders Crowdy who was also a former Baptist deacon, and Albert Christian who eventually brought Crowdy’s teachings to Southern Africa.
The Rusape community have built their own “tabernacle” about seven kilometers out of town, where they come together to pray. They follow the same holidays as Western Jews, are learning Hebrew, and are devoted to the Jewish laws and culture that stems from the Old Testament. The community numbers several thousand individuals.
Solomon Guwazah, of the Rusape community, wrote a letter to The African Sun newspaper. Here is an excerpt:
“We believe most African (Black) descendants are in fact the ancient Hebrews and in fact most Blacks are the descendants of the 12 children of Israel . . . . We believe the true faith of the African descendants is Judaism and not Islam, as Islam is a revelation for descendants of Ishmael.”
Wikipedia also has an entry on the Rusape Jews. It says:
Their observance of Judaism is generally in accordance with that of mainstream Judaism practiced in other countries with the exception of a few key aspects. The Rusape Jews, believe that although Jesus was not the messiah, he was a prophet. They believe that he did not rise to heaven as is taught in Christianity, but was rather buried in Israel as a regular man.
Regarding William S. Crowdy, Wikipedia says that he came to the community in the late 19th or early 20th century after he had experienced a revelation in which he was told that Africans and African Americans are the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and that he should initiate the return of black peoples to Judaism.
Within a short span of time after this revelation, Crowdy met Albert Christian, to whom Crowdy’s beliefs regarding the Judaic origins of African people were passed on. Christian eventually settled in southern Africa and instructed his followers in the laws and customs of Judaism.
A more ancient history of the community lies in the belief that they are descendants of Jewish tribes from Yemen, who crossed into Africa, eventually settling at their present location. This history is similar to that of the Lemba who live in South Africa and Zimbabwe – see our profile here. The Rusape Jews believe, further, that all Bantu peoples are descended from the 10 lost tribes of Israel. To support this theory, many customs observed by Bantu and Jews are cited: burial of the deceased in caves and the taking of an older brother’s wife if he is to die, among others.
A visit with the Jews of Rusape
Mindi Cohen and Paul Zeitz visited the Rusape Jews several years ago and reported on the community in the Kulanu newsletter. Here is their complete write-up.
We are currently living in Lusaka, Zambia. During the recent holiday season, our family traveled to Rusape and here is a brief description of our experiences.
We arranged to stay with Shlomo Guwazah and his family. He has three grown sons (David 18, Tesfah 17, and Daniel 13) from a British wife and one 2-year-old son (Kudzi) from his Zimbabwean wife, Monica. We were welcomed into their home like family. We stayed for two nights and by the time we left we felt like family. It was the first time we were welcomed to live in an African home.
Shlomo shared a lot about his past journeying into Rastafarianism, Christianity, and Judaism for the last 15-20 years. The Jewish congregation he attends practices “prophetic” Judaism, which originated in Virginia about 100 years ago; it is affiliated with African American Beth El Congregations. They define prophetic in the sense of their leaders and the fact that each one of us is truly a prophet of God. Shlomo described how he and the Rusape Jews feel a connection with Judaism that harmonizes with their historical Shona heritage of a belief in one God. They described the need to reconnect to their ancient past in order to find the strength and the framework to take control of their lives and fulfill the vision of the African Renaissance. Individuals are trying to buck centuries of oppression by traditional leaders, colonialists, and modern-day cultural imperialism to assume ownership and control of their own destinies. Shlomo believes that Judaism is the path.
On Sabbath morning, we went with Shlomo and his family for whole day (9 am-4 pm), an experience that we will never forget. The tabernacle (synagogue) sits on the side of a small mountain by a lake. It was spectacular. The tabernacle was filled to capacity with over 100 people. The rabbi welcomed us and described the origins of their belief and their delight in sharing their rituals and customs with us. This was a cultural mind blowout! You cannot imagine how enchanting it was to hear 50 Africans in a choir singing a new version of the Shema (the most sacred prayer in Judaism) in a combined English, Hebrew, and Shona. They sang Adon Olam, David Melech Yisrael, and many other songs in English and Shona. The music and chanting was revivalist in nature and Judaic in spirit! The Shona songs were our favorite, even though we don’t know what they meant. The kids played outside, drew water from the well, ate pomegranates, and chased turkeys. After the morning service the congregation had lunch together followed by singing and announcements. During the announcements the rabbi said something in Shona and then they sent a collection around and gave the money to Monica. Later we learned the money was to help feed us.
After we left the tabernacle we went with Shlomo and Daniel to the village that he grew up in and where his mother still lives. The village was about 20 minutes outside of Rusape. Her house was well developed for a village home, with several rooms in the main house. She had traditional rondovels (round huts) — one was the kitchen and another was where her maize is stored. As we approached the house, Shlomo’s uncle and grandmother welcomed us. His grandmother took an immediate liking to Paul, flirting with him. She had been drinking way too much of their homemade brew and she was stumbling through the maize fields. We were given a traditional welcome inside her living room where she and three other relatives bent their knees and clapped their hands. We then had drinks outside since she has no electricity and it was quite dark inside. Outside her house she had a large maize field and beautiful rock-formed hills. The children ran around chasing her goats.
Several days later we rejoined the Rusape tabernacle for the celebration of the Convocation of the Feast of Tevet. This gathering recalls the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the migration of Jews into Africa. This is one of their high holidays. The tabernacle was even more crowded than before, and the choir was complete, with about 70 people. The energy was overwhelming! The whole congregation stays together for eight days with prayers beginning at 4 am. Each day they pray in a different position, beginning with standing; on the last day they are lying flat on the floor.
Rabbi Ambros Makuwaza told the congregation how appreciative he is of all the different people he has met through Kulanu and the gifts that the tabernacle has received. We are now working with the Rusape tabernacle to help them develop a proposal and get a sponsor to produce a CD and a tape.