Richard R. Marcus | Guest Contributor
My first time in a synagogue outside the U.S. was when I lived in Nairobi, Kenya. It is not exactly the first place one thinks about when seeking a vibrant Jewish life, but you may be surprised.
The Conservative service was conducted entirely in Hebrew, and, at that point in my life, I spoke none. The rabbi and I walked out together. A newly displaced New Yorker, as we exited he struggled to communicate his needs to the guard. I went to the guard to translate for him, turning back to see the rabbi’s shock. “You’re a California Jew who speaks Swahili but not Hebrew?” I quickly learned I was the rule not the exception.
It was an energetic and engaged community of Kenyan, Somali, Ethiopian, Yemeni, and expatriate western Jews in central Nairobi. Today the synagogue along with an active Chabad across town and a Kikuyu-speaking Kasuku Jewish community 200 miles away on Lake Victoria.
I have since experienced myriad forms of Judaism in Israel over many years. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to wrap my head (and heart) around what it means to be a Jew in other parts of the world where most people don’t realize they exist – then to return home. I am so proud not just to be a Jew but to be a Jew in Long Beach. We look at communities big and small, devout and secular, plural and insular, and traditional and hybridic. We realize there are Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Sephardim, Kochinim, and Haymanot. We acknowledge what seems like such a painfully endless array of branches. We debate shifting definitions of family. Yet, we see how global differences create local diversity and robust pluralism. What a debt we owe to the great Jewish families of Long Beach who had the vision to recognize a commonality of identity and purpose that transcends our differences! We sit together at the table making decisions, build programs together, pray in each other’s temples, celebrate together, and, far too frequently of late, mourn together.
We love the Hebrew language, but just as Swahili speakers outnumber Hebrew speakers in Kenya Spanish speakers in our community far outnumber the Hebrew speakers. No matter. Let’s say it in Spanish. In Swahili. In Amharic. In Malayalam. We are one people in Greater Long Beach, Israel, and the world and the stronger for it.