Did you know there are Hebrews in Kenya: Here is how they celebrate Easter in style


As the world’s Christian communities celebrate the Easter season, a small group of Kenyan Hebrew converts in Laikipia District marked the season like the ancient Passover festival of the Jewish exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, writes JOSEPH KABIA.

This is the message of the Passover Haggadah, a prayer inscribed in the hearts of the Jews. It is the miraculous story of the going out of Egypt, that I gathered in a recent visit to Laikipia, as told by a group of African converts to the Jewish religion.

“Slaves we were to Pharaoh in Egypt but the Lord our God brought us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy one, blessed is He, had not brought our fathers out from Egypt, then we and our children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.

It is the duty of the Jewish believers, they say, to tell the story of Exodus since, “the more one dwells on the story of the going out of Egypt, the more praise one deserves.”

They tell a tale of Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Elazar son of Azarya, and Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, who were reclining at the seder service in Bene Brak, in Israel and had spent the whole night long telling the story of the going out of Egypt, until their pupils came and said to them: “Our masters, it is time to recite the morning Shema!- prayer.”

They invoke the name of the Jewish high priest Rabban Gamliel, who used to remind his students to always pronounce the three important words of Pesah, Mazza, Maror, during the feast of the Passover.

Pesah is a Hebrew word meaning that God passed over the houses of their forefathers in Egypt as it is said in the scriptures: “And you shall say it is in Pesah sacrifice for the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when he smote Egypt, and saved our houses. And the people bowed down and worshipped.”

Mazza is the dough prepared in Egypt and that never managed to ferment before “the supreme King of Kings revealed Himself to them, the Holy One, blessed is He, and redeemed, as it is said in the scriptures, “and they baked the dough which they brought out from Egypt, into unleavened cakes, because it was not fermented: because they were driven out of Egypt, and they could not delay, nor had they prepared for themselves any provision.”

The Maror are bitter herbs eaten during the Passover to remind the Jews of how the Egyptians embittered the lives of their forefathers: “And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of bondage in the field: All their bondage wherein they made them serve with rigor,” the black Jewish community recites.

The small group of about five thousand black Hebrew believers in Kenya, takes to the hymns of Israel-that echoes across the plains of Laikipia, to the cradle of their faith in Jerusalem.

Since early 1960’s, a small group of Kenyan men, women and children has been travelling a spiritual journey, first travelled physically by the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land.

Tucked in the bleak corners of the timeless plains of Laikipia, a Hebrew culture has been growing like the biblical mustard seed.

According to the community elder, Rabbi Stephen Mbatia, the current population of the black Hebrew believers stands at 5,000 people.

“My father tried to establish a closer relationship between his mission here in Jerusalem and the Kenyan community but the roots of their faith in the Hebrew culture was never documented,” says Mrs Naomi Fauth, an elderly woman living in Jerusalem.

I meet the elderly lady nursing a wounded raven that had been trapped between the thorny bushes of a Mexican tree that stands in their yard in Bakar, off Bethlehem Road in Jerusalem.

The winter season had just set in and the temperatures were drifting towards zero. The snow flakes were falling like a million white kites. The elderly lady broke the silence and cut in: “ It does not always snow like this in Jerusalem. This year is quite an exemption.”

As the elderly lady casts her glance across the old city of Jerusalem and the shimmering Doom of the Rock, she narrates about the “gift of faith” bestowed to the nations through the love of God.

“It was during the creation of the earth that God rested on the seventh day that gave the Sabbath and it’s importance to everyone that professes the Jewish faith,” she narrates as she quotes the Bible.

“And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it because that in it He had rested from all his work.”

It is from these biblical inspirations that the Laikipia based Hebrew community observes the Sabbath day in their respective prayer houses within their locality, praising God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with songs and scriptures.

Their houses of prayer are adorned with the biblical evidence that characterize the Hebrew culture and traditions.

On the walls are the symbols of the Hannuka- a unique Jewish tradition that dates back as far as 164 BCE and Magen David-the star of David.

The elders explain the roots of the Hannuka tradition.

“It was then, 164 BCE, that Judah Maccabee, one of the five sons of Priest Mattathias, led the Judean revolt against the Hellenists selucid ruler of Antiochus, who defiled the holy temple in Jerusalem and turned it into a pagan temple.”

To the Jewish fraternity including the Kenyan community, the Hannuka commemorates both the physical victory of the small Jewish nation against mighty Greece and the spiritual victory of the Jewish faith against the Hellenism of the Greeks.

“Its sanctity derives from this spiritual aspect of the victory, and the miracle of the flask of oil, when a portion of sacramental olive oil meant to keep the temple candelabrum lit for one day lasted for eight days, the time it took the temple to be rededicated,” says community elder Rabbi Stephen Mbatia.

He quotes Prophet Isaiah in the Bible on: “The sons of strangers who will ever live among the house of Israel, to justify their Hebrew inclinations.”

“Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the Lord unto the Eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant: even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off,” He says.

Like the black Jews of Dimona in Israel who migrated from America and West Africa to live in Israel, the hope of the Kenyan Hebrew community is to migrate and live in Israel too. “Our hope is not yet lost,” reads a banner in their house of prayer.

The community members speak of their gratitude to the Israeli Embassy in Nairobi for it’s constant remembrance to the community. “Once in a while the Embassy officials visits the community and shares the joy of Israel with us,” members say enthusiastically.

And for the last five years the Kenyan Hebrews express their warm gratitude’s to the Jewish families working in Kenya for “their kindness in sharing the story of the Passover through packets of Israeli Mazzot-unleavened bread that they offer to the community.”

And as the community shares the unleavened bread in happiness, the elders prays for peace in Jerusalem while the children recites a song from the books of Psalms: “May there be abundance of grain in the land; on top of the mountains may it wave,” they sing.

And for better part of this week starting last Tuesday April 11, 2006, the community will converge in Laikipia to commemorate the historical journey that marked the physical liberation of the children of Israel and the spiritual redemption of the children of God.

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