JEWS IN SMALL PLACES
Periodically, one hears or reads about a small Jewish community in a location not typically associated with Jews—in Uganda, Turkey, Morocco, Ukraine. I have visited several of these barely surviving enclaves. Often, a tiny worship space exists with an older man or woman as caretaker. Young people have flown the coop for good reason. Educational and economic opportunities are nil. Frequently, the former residents emigrate to Israel which accepts Jewish immigrants. BJC has been assisting a village of Jewish subsistence farmers in Uganda. The leader of the Ugandan Jewish congregation sends photos of children and adults celebrating festivals and holidays much as we do, albeit in simple structures with makeshift materials. The smiles on the faces of the children and the pride in the posture of the adults communicates a sense of worth and purpose. I have seen small spaces for Jewish worship in Morocco and in Lviv, Ukraine. In Casablanca and Marrakesh, I visited viable synagogues, but in other cities I was led into musty, decrepit rooms with faded remnants of Jewish worship. Most probably, all the Jews had disappeared from those towns. In Lviv (before the present war), the former synagogue was a wreck—rooms with broken down walls and peeling paint. Memories of my trip to Cuba recalls Jews in small towns barely hanging on, their population dwindling continuously. Sadly, there are no solutions, and most of these places will become abandoned. The village in Uganda thrives with extreme challenges—lack of land, water, viable housing, healthcare, education. But it is not dead yet. The Jewish inhabitants yearn to connect with other Jews. In the past, the Jews in Cuba appreciated any communication with congregants of synagogues in the United States. I believe these small enclaves may hold the key to the future of Judaism. That is why they need our support. These people follow traditional Jewish practices without the encumbrance of the conflicts modern Jews confront, for example does the Bible make sense in our world, what practices do we follow, will my child have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, should I join a synagogue. Israel should not have this role, due to their myriad political, social, and cultural difficulties. Judaism serves as a core and organizing principal in the lives of the people remaining in small regional groups. The Jews who live in these towns—who may not be like secular Jews of the developed world-- observe practices which we might describe as Orthodox. However, these villagers and farmers do not live separate from their surroundings, as the ultra-religious sects do in the “first world.” History has proved that we Jews have yet to find a safe permanent home. Recent news reveals that antisemitism lurks barely beneath the surface of our everyday lives in the developed world. Antisemitic tropes and actions leap or slither out from havens in the Right and the Left. Those of us alive today exist in a short blip in time--no telling what might happen in the far future. Jews could become wanderers yet again. The weekly Jewish bulletin of the San Francisco Bay Area reported on a small town at the Syrian-Turkish border, once an important city; now a vestige of the past, a fading Jewish community of elderly residents who do not want to leave. One resident said, “I was born in Antakya and I will die in Antakya.” In Antakya, Jews practice the faith, lead a productive life, and are less affected than those parents who do not want their children negatively affected by the retelling of history or crazed gun toting individuals who enter houses of worship. I am not suggesting that modern Jews pack up and relocate to small villages, go off the grid, revert to life in the 19th century, or become hermits. Education and economic opportunity continue as the keys to progress and improvement in the lives of all people. I exist in the comfort and advantages of the 21st century. However, I emphasize the importance of saving and helping those who maintain rituals and practices which keep Judaism a vibrant religion. They may save us yet.
©2022 Karen Levi