The community in Zimbabwe is still in dire need of financial help because of the erosion of the value of their currency, says the South African rabbi in charge of aid efforts.
Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft will be awarded the 2009 Commonwealth Jewish Council and Trust Anniversary Award by London Mayor Boris Johnson on Tuesday.
One of three recipients, he was selected for his “dedication and service to the Jewish people of sub-Saharan Africa and in particular for his brave support and crucial visits with supplies for the remaining Jewish community in Zimbabwe.”
Dubbed “the travelling rabbi”, Rabbi Silberhaft is the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ country communities’ rabbi and also executive director of the African Jewish Congress (AJC).
He ministers to the needs of the far-flung Jewish communities of sub-Saharan Africa, attending to life-cycle events and supplying kosher provisions.
The AJC Zimbabwe Fund, of which he is president, was set up two years ago when the country “started to go into a total economic decline” and basic supplies such as rice, oil, toilet paper and medication were no longer available.
“We were sending up absolutely everything and because there was no electricity for months on end in certain neighbourhoods, we were sending stuff that didn’t require refrigeration,” he recalled.
“At one stage, during the cholera epidemic, we sent 100,000 water purification tablets.”
The fund fed not only the Jewish community, but its domestic employees as well.
“We never ever turned anybody away. If somebody said, ‘I’ve got a [non-Jewish] neighbour who’s starving’, we said, ‘take, of course’.”
For about 18 months the rabbi was shuttling back and forth twice a month, visiting both the capital Harare and Bulawayo, the main centres of the Jewish community.
“My safety was always on the line because I was carrying money and medication,” he said.
The nature of the aid has now changed, with goods being available in the shops but at five times the South African price.
“People had money then, but they couldn’t buy stuff. Now they can, but there are a lot more needy people, so we are sending cash.
“Fifty-one people receive medication that is either unavailable or unaffordable from us every month and we assist 24 people with their monthly living expenses. Some are very, very badly off and due to hyperinflation, their savings have been eroded.”
At its peak in the 1970s, there were 7,500 Zimbabwe Jews. Today, there are 250, mostly elderly Jews. The country’s only spiritual leader left in June.
“Certain neighbourhoods in Harare haven’t had running water in three months — the country is in a continuous state of decline,” says the rabbi.
Despite all this, he stresses that there is “a lot of positive” in Africa.
He hopes that the award will create awareness that there is “vibrant” Jewish life in the communities he serves, for which financial assistance is sorely needed.
The other recipients of the 2009 Commonwealth Jewish Council and Trust Anniversary Award are Mark Sofer, Israel’s ambassador to India, and Lalit Suri, an Indian parliamentary who will receive the prize posthumously.