ZIMBABWE – On a hot spring morning in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, Modreck Maeresera is packing up for a trip at his quiet suburban home.
Maeresera is a leader of Zimbabwe’s Lemba community, which claims Jewish roots. He is preparing for a mission to the United States that he hopes will deepen the community’s Jewish practice by ensuring that all males are circumcised.
The Lembas’ Project Brit Milah is expected to involve the circumcision of anyone who is older than 3 and hasn’t been circumcised, and the training of Lemba mohels. Maeresera is hoping to eventually have the ritual out in the open and to get every Lemba infant circumcised.
To get funding for this project and others, Maeresera will fly to the United States for a month-long speaking tour, including stops New York, Chicago and Salt Lake City.
The visit is maintained by Kulanu, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world.
Other projects of the Lemba community include an education program that will operate in Harare and in the six districts in Zimbabwe’s hinterland, where Lembas reside, and the completion of a synagogue in a village named Mapakomhere, situated in the heart of Lemba territory in the southern Masvingo province.
Maeresera’s home doubles as the Lembas’ gathering and praying spot in Zimbabwe’s capital. It came into being only two years ago.
“Before, we had no place to meet, so what was left was kind of like cultural Judaism, a culture with no services, no places to meet,” 40 year-old Maeresera said.
According to the Lembas’ oral history, their ancestors were Jews who fled the Holy Land about 2,000 years ago. They migrated first to Yemen and then to Africa. Today, an estimated population of tens of thousands are scattered across Zimbabwe and South Africa.
The community has maintained many traditions, such as the Jewish dietary laws, ritual slaughter and the Jewish Sabbath. But some others had to be neglected or modified.
“On the way, they lost some of their traditions because they were being persecuted by Christian missionaries,” Maeresera explained.
One of thecustoms that was modified dramatically was the brit milah, or the circumcision of an infant at 8 days old.
For decades, the community circumcised boys when they turned 8 years old. The choice of this age was symbolic, but it was also done for safety purposes so as to keep the practice away from the broader population, which may have been biased against a religious minority.
Another practice that took root is to have the circumcision ritual in remote forests and mountains so that it won’t be seen.
Lembas are not distinguishable from other Zimbabweans. They speak English and vernacular languages, mostly Shona.
“Eight-year-olds can be taught to keep the circumcision a secret,” Maeresera said. “So they [were] told not to tell any person.”
In recent years, Maeresera says, such prejudice is no longer a serious issue. Even though Zimbabwe has other serious problems (notably, an economy that is on its knees, and the authoritarian rule of President Robert Mugabe), religious tolerance is now quite deeply rooted.
So Maeresera and other leaders have decided to push to reform the way the community practices circumcision so that it will be done “properly, according to the Halacha.”
Urbanization was one of the factors that put those of the Lemba community at high risk of losing their traditions, according to Maeresera. Seeking jobs and opportunity, Lemba people started moving to Harare and often married non-Lembas and assimilated. In 1994, the elders of the community, also formed as the Lemba Cultural Association, came to the conclusion that they have to confront this issue by reaching out to the world Jewry, who knew little about Lemba back then.
The process led to the contact with Kulanu and to the formation of the first Lemba center in Harare, where some 40 Lemba families in the town share services, Sabbath dinners and other activities.
Maeresera, who lives there with his family and works as an admission officer for a Malaysian university, has met a woman who was not a Lemba, but converted in a ceremony that includes a promise to neglect the old tribe’s traditions and to adopt those of Lemba. As part of this ritual, the converted goes into a round hut and upon exiting, he or she is a Lemba.
Maeresera’s wife converted before they got married, but either way, he explains, his children would be members of the tribe.
“Lembas are pre-rabbinical society, so we respect patrilineal descent, not the other way around,” he said. “So my kids would have been Lemba.”