The Nairobi Hebrew Congregation, the oldest synagogue in Kenya, is located in the center of the city and includes a spacious sanctuary, a mikvah, a social hall, and impressive gardens. For 105 years, the synagogue has held Shabbat and holiday services, educational programs, and celebrations of lifecycle events.
This summer, however, the synagogue hosted an event that was the first in its history: a destination bar mitzvah.
The Arnow family of Austin, Texas, choice of venue for their son’s rite of passage is part of a growing trend of families choosing to celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs outside their synagogues and home communities. While Israel remains the most typical setting, others choose to have ceremonies in places as diverse as a Costa Rican rainforest or a ski slope in Aspen.
Debra and David Arnow gave each of their three children the choice of having a bar or bat mitzvah in their own synagogue or choosing another location anywhere in the world. The Arnows organized their own destination, events, but there are companies that specialize in destination bar and bat mitzvahs; these include Bar Mitzvah Vacations, a travel agency in Boston, and Adventure Rabbi, a program in Colorado.
“We love to travel and asked the kids if they would prefer a traditional service and party or to have the service someplace else and then travel,” said David. “There is no party at home, which is a bit disappointing for the remainder of the family who does not attend. Fortunately, we have large families so the chance for our families to get together comes on other occasions.”
Ansley, 18, chose to have her bat mitzvah in Israel. Beck, 16, had his bar mitzvah in Australia. Motivated by his love of animals and his desire to see a very different culture, Crawford, their youngest child, chose to have his bar mitzvah in Kenya. The family was surprised to discover that there are Jews in Kenya, and that the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation was willing to host the bar mitzvah.
The first Jews came to Kenya in 1903, when the sixth Zionist Congress sent Jewish farmers from Russia to the newly created Kenyan colony. Over the years, the Jewish population of Kenya has included, among others: refugees fleeing Europe before World War II (Kenya and the Dominican Republic were the only countries that allowed Jews to enter without visas); members of the Irgun and Lehi, Jewish paramilitary organizations in Mandatory Palestine, who were captured by the British and sent to detention centers in Kenya (including former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir); and, most recently, Israelis with business interests in Kenya.
At his bar mitzvah, Crawford read from the Torah, gave a speech, and led kiddush. After his aliyah, there was the customary throwing of candy and dancing around the bimah. Crawford, who has performed in school plays, was confident and poised throughout the service. As a gift from the synagogue, he was given a book on the history of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation. An outdoor brunch followed the service.
The Arnows were thrilled with the experience. “We felt so thankful for the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation,” said Debra. “We tried hard not to be an imposition to the congregation as we needed to coordinate the Torah reading with other parts of the service, as well as the brunch. We were so pleased with the experience especially knowing the favor we were asking.”
Crawford agreed. “The congregation was so nice and welcoming. They made me feel special. They all came up to me and wished me mazal tov,” he said.
In particular, the Arnows credit Dr. David Silverstein for making the bar mitzvah a success. Silverstein functioned as the rosh kehilla (head of the community) of the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation for many years. (The president of the synagogue is called the Rosh Kehillah, as, until recently, it was forbidden for anyone other than the actual President of Kenya to have that title.)
Silverstein communicated with the family and reviewed Crawford’s Torah reading with the bar mitzvah boy. He also conducted the service. He praised the Arnows for the courage to have such a unique experience. “I hope that other families will follow the example of the Arnows and similarly choose to have this non-conventional type of bar mitzvah at the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation,” he said.
The brother of Potomac, Maryland, resident and Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS) teacher Rochelle Sobel, Silverstein has lived in Kenya for 42 years. After graduating medical school at age 22 and serving in the air force during the Vietnam War, he moved to Nairobi and established the first cardiac catheterization laboratory in all of Africa. He served as the personal physician for President Moi and was involved with the diagnosis and treatment of patients with Marburg hemorrhagic fever, which is related to the Ebola virus. (His contribution in containing the spread of the virus is recorded in the book “The Hot Zone.”)
Silverstein is married to Channa Commanday, a nurse practitioner who originally came to Africa to assist during the humanitarian crisis in Somalia, and who is also active in the synagogue.
Crawford’s bar mitzvah celebration continued the next day as the family went on safari and saw the migration of the wildebeests. They slept in tents, rode in jeeps, met Maasai warriors, and came in close contact with cheetahs, lions, and hyenas.
It was very different than the bands and buffet tables found at the bar mitzvahs of Crawford’s friends in Austin, but the family has no regrets. The Arnow parents said they wanted their kids to understand that they could find a welcoming Jewish community wherever they might find themselves, “either in the USA or anywhere else in the world.”
As for Crawford, when asked whether he would make the same choice again, he did not hesitate to answer: “Absolutely!”
By Paul J. Blank
Paul J. Blank is a teacher at Charles E. Smith Hebrew Day School (CESJDS) in Rockville, Maryland.