Just for a little background, we celebrate every year on Independence Day by going on a short hike with friends and then returning to our house where we BBQ the rest of the day away. Good friends, good food, (good beer my husband would say...) and good conversation - what else can possibly be better? Well, this year, my friend Karen found out that a fellow yoga-enthusiast and friend of hers was visiting our small neck of the woods, and told her to come on over and say hi. What none of us expected was to be completely mesmerized by her story.
This young woman, Nava, had just returned from a yoga retreat in Kenya a day earlier. But she was supposed to have returned to Israel three days prior to that, and her story is what she experienced in those three days. Before she left to Kenya, someone had told her to call Dr. Ari Greenspan, who was part of a group that had converted a Kenyan woman who still resides in Nairobi. Ari, excited that someone from Israel would be in Kenya, asked if she would take a box of matza and a bottle of wine for this woman. She agreed, took the necessary information and then flew to Kenya. After her yoga retreat was over, the participants had just one day to themselves before they had to board a plane home, and Nava decided to visit this woman. She described to us the conditions in which this woman lived - in a tiny, tiny apartment, smaller than one of my kid's bedrooms. And while she had no running water, she did have a bookcase filled with Sfarim in it: prayer books, the bible, books on Jewish law, etc. The Kenyan woman was so moved by Nava's visit that she begged her to stay longer and help her with a situation. The situation? That she knew of a group of Kenyans who lived hours away from Nairobi who had been living their lives for the last few decades (decades!) as religious Jews - and yet they were not Jewish. But they fervently wanted to convert and until that moment, hardly anyone was aware of their existence. Nava was torn - all she really wanted to do was go home. She hadn't eaten anything but fruit, vegetables and grains during her entire visit as a result of her being the only one in her group to keep kosher, and she had been alone for Shabbat, an experience she said had been quite difficult. But the Kenyan woman pressed upon her the importance of going to see them, so she called her travel agent and had her flight pushed off a few days. And along with a driver and another escort, she drove hours into the middle of nowhere to see this tribe of people.
Living in Kenya in primitive conditions, this small tribe had no running water and no electricity, but they did have some sort of generator/battery and a phone. And so they were aware that Nava was coming to visit. This was the first time that a foreigner had come to visit their little part of the world, let alone a white woman from Israel. When she arrived, they were overwhelmed and treated her like royalty, removing her shoes and washing her feet, mimicking the way Abraham welcomed the angels that visited him in his tent thousands of years ago. They reverently called her 'The Israelite' every time they addressed her. And what did she discover? That this small group of people were living their lives and governing themselves as Jews. The boys are circumcised at eight days old and they pray along with the men everyday. They knew everything about Judaism including the fact that the day Nava arrived, it was the new month, and they asked if she would pray 'hallel' with them. They have set aside a small synagogue for themselves using a bible instead of a scroll to read from every Shabbat, and hanging on the walk of the synagogue is a Jewish calendar so they can keep track of what day it is. Remember, they have no iPhones or laptops so this calendar is their only way to know when Shabbat of Jewish holidays fall out. Despite the lack of running water, they have a pond where the women practice family purity laws. Since they don't know how to slaughter meat according to Jewish law, they simply don't eat meat and instead, subsist on rice, beans and spinach from the crops they grow.
When Nava pulled out her extra box of matzah, they gazed at it as if it were manna from heaven. And she was the Israelite that had brought this miracle to them. It was the first time they had ever had matza in their lives. I can swear that I have never held a piece of matzah in my hand in my entire life with the kind of reverence and awe that they did just last week. So excited about their one box of matzah, they immediately made plans to celebrate 'Pesach Sheni'.
I suppose the most ironic - which we'll call fateful - fact about this whole unbelievable story is that Nava, a Toronto native who made Aliyah about three years ago on her own had decided upon moving to Israel to do army service. And where did she serve? In the conversion program of the IDF. Coincidence? I think not. So after spending the night in this remote village in the middle of the middle of nowhere, she began to test them, asking them questions she knew would be on the conversion test. She said they knew everything. From 'taking challah', to laws pertaining to Shabbat and kashrut, fast days, prayers and everything in between.
Nava has returned to Israel with a mission. She is attempting to document what she saw, along with some adorable footage of a small group of young kids singing 'Ayn k'Elokaynu' while standing against a wall painted with a large menorah and other symbols of Israel. She will be working as a Madricha in a girls' mechina and is planning in getting the girls to crochet kippot to send back to this African tribe. What will happen to them? Your guess is as good as mine, but at least we know they exist.
Having heard this story on Yom Ha'atzma'ut struck a chord inside me. It was the right story on the most perfect day. It made me realize how truly lucky we - who live here - are. That we had both the means and the opportunity to make those plans and arrangements so that we could live here and raise our families here. And that we recognized the importance of living here so that we can continue to claim and protect our borders. But not everyone has those choices available to them. Somewhere deep in the middle of Africa is a group of people that are living in abject poverty, far, far away from civilization, dreaming about living in our country. The only Israel that this tribe knows is the Israel of the bible. Not our modern, technologically and medically advanced democratic country, but the dusty desert of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And yet despite never having visited our fair country, they have spent their entire lives dreaming about coming 'home'.
For those of us already 'home', Yom Ha'atzma'ut Sameach!