Finding Judaism in surprising places

Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe REBECCA SHAPIRO PHOTOS
Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe REBECCA SHAPIRO PHOTO

“This guy came to stay, and asked to see the Jewish parts of town,” recounts Peter Jones, owner of the luxury Zambian hotel, The River Club. “I asked him to wait until the next day, then spent all evening swotting up on the area’s Jewish history.”

Thus began his first Jewish tour of Livingstone, a historic town close to the mighty Victoria Falls. Peter led the guest around the country’s first synagogue (now a church), a small museum and the Jewish cemetery.

“He really took his time walking round,” Jones remembers. “I later found out he was a Holocaust survivor.”

That was 13 years ago, and Peter reckons he’s led about 100 Jewish tours since.

On a recent trip to the region, I was lucky enough to experience a tour for myself. Knowledgeable about all manner of local signs and monuments, he points out evidence of the town’s rich Jewish heritage you’d never notice yourself – the faint outline of a Magen David beneath the old synagogue’s paintwork, the marks on a doorway where a mezuzah used to hang.

Livingstone’s Jewish cemetery
Livingstone’s Jewish cemetery

It seems appropriate, therefore, that his stunning riverside lodge is home to the first custom-built kosher kitchen in Livingstone’s tourism industry. The newly built facilities offer separate dishes for meat and milk, kosher food and customized meals for Orthodox guests. Jones points to an upsurge of Jewish tourists, particularly from North America, to explain why he sought mashgiach-approved status.

He’s not alone in noting the increased Jewish interest in the region: companies such as Sikeleli Africa Safaris have responded to it by creating luxury and bespoke “Jewish-friendly” itineraries.

This move made sense for the family-run safari company, since they already had long-standing Jewish ties to the region. I had the pleasure of spending time with the daughter, Danni, a Zimbabwean local whose grandfather was the first Jewish mayor of Harare, the capital. She now works with many properties that cater to the kosher, including Zambia’s River Club; and South African beachside hotel, Prana Lodge, and safari camp, Makweti.

So, why the increased Jewish interest? It is, of course, easier to be a Jewish traveller in South Africa than in the surrounding countries – the major Chabad presence and heritage sights in Cape Town certainly help. But venturing off the beaten track to Zambia and Zimbabwe is infinitely more satisfying. For me, anyway, this is, in part, thanks to the Jewish scene’s intimate feel.

Jews originally settled in the two countries starting in the late 1800s, as a result of pogroms in Russia, and later to flee persecution in Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism in South Africa. Numbers peaked in the late ’50s in Zambia and Zimbabwe (at 1,000 and 7,000, respectively). And since then, despite mass immigration to Israel and the West, Jewish life continues. In Zimbabwe, for instance, Harare contains both a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi synagogue, but because the city now has fewer than 100 congregants, the prayers alternate between the two.

Livingstone's first synagogue is now a church
Livingstone’s first synagogue is now a church

But travelling in countries such as these are also more feel-good because of tourism’s boost to the economy. Many Zimbabwean camps have fantastic initiatives: staying at a Wilderness Safari camp, for example, helps support nutrition programs for primary school children. And at Miombo, a personal favourite, you can visit the Iganyana Arts Centre where local artisans create gorgeous crafts out of recycled materials.

Likewise, a trip to The River Club provides opportunities to contribute to social development projects in the village, including renovating water supplies and building libraries, as well as to take stunning river cruises, with hippo or crocodile sightings likely.

I should stress, however, that visiting Zambia or Zimbabwe doesn’t just benefit others – it provides you with the most exclusive, unparalleled safari experience. The game is abundant (Cecil the Lion’s pride strolled past my tent in Davison’s Camp), the scenery is phenomenal and the drivers are incredibly knowledgeable. Oh, and according to Sikeleli, a safari in Zimbabwe costs just one-sixth of the price of one in neighbouring Botswana.

Elephants at Hwange National Park
Elephants at Hwange National Park

On top of that, the countries offer such sincere hospitality that you can’t fail to be impressed – luxurious Linkwasha Camp provides kosher food on request in the middle of the bush, whilst Vintage, a back-to-basics camp with no running water, still manages to cater for everything from vegan to gluten-free.

And did I mention that Victoria Falls, the waterfall that separates the two countries, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and natural wonder of the world? You have to see its beauty and hear its roar to really understand just how magical it is. But, until then, just trust me that from any perspective, but particularly a Jewish one, venturing to Zimbabwe or Zambia on safari is unforgettable.

Sikeleli Safaris runs Jewish safaris for families, couples and congregations alike. Accommodation is in luxury lodges and hotels in Zambia, Botswana and South Africa. Prices start from £3,279  (about $6,000), excluding commercial flights and dependent on season and group size.

The itinerary can be amended and can start in either Lusaka, Zambia, or Cape Town, South Africa. Guests are advised to fly from London with Emirates, British Airways or South African Airways.

Danni at Sikeleli Safaris can be contacted at [email protected] or by phone at +263782799697.

Rebecca Shapiro is a freelance journalist and travel blogger. Check out her blog here