I spent this past semester studying abroad in Gaborone, Botswana, one country above South Africa. I was there for a total of five months taking classes at the university, living with a host family and observing at various clinics. I chose this program because I wanted to travel to a still-developing area and wanted the program to have some kind of medical aspect.
My time in Botswana proved to be some of the most challenging months of my life. I was constantly harassed by men, dealt with traveler’s sickness and homesickness and was even robbed at knifepoint. I struggled with a large language barrier, a poor and unfair education system, a diet I hated and learned to live without amenities such as air conditioning and heat or water.
Despite these challenges, I don’t regret my decision to study abroad in Botswana one bit. I grew personally, gained some amazing friends and was able to travel all around the region. Through the challenging times, I knew I could turn to my parents and friends for encouragement. But one thing I never would have guessed was that I would able to turn to my religion for support.
Before I departed in July, I found out that Gaborone had a very tiny Jewish population of less than 100. I left with hope that I may be able to track them down, but didn’t get my hopes up. Shortly upon arrival, I came to realize that Botswana is a very Christian-dominated area. Attempted conversions became commonplace.
Frustrated, I decided to try to find the Jewish population of Gaborone. I emailed “The Traveling Rabbi” of the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies and he directed to me to a kind lady named Nurit Tsabari. I was surprised to receive a quick response inviting me to services at her home and even to spend the night if I wished. There was another Jewish girl in my program from New Jersey and together we decided to attend Rosh Hashanah services.
Services were held on a Wednesday night at the Tsabaris’ house. This welcoming family also held Shabbat services every Friday in their living room. Around 30 Jews, young and old, gathered in couches and chairs to bring in the New Year.
Almost all the congregants were Israelis who had moved to Botswana for work opportunities. I also met a few Peace Corps volunteers from around the area.
I’ve grown up attending services at Temple Shalom, so one huge difference was the more Orthodox traditions. The men and women were separated and we weren’t allowed to use our phones or cameras.
I recognized the prayers, but had trouble following along. I’m used to everyone singing along at my temple, and here the rabbi was the only one to speak, with the congregants muttering to themselves in breaks of silence. The entire service was in Hebrew, but Nurit’s sons kindly translated some of it for us.
Another huge surprise came with the meal. I had never before heard of the Rosh Hashanah plate and for a minute, I thought they had gotten it confused with Passover. The plate included items such as beets, dates, beans, butternut squash, fish, leeks, pomegranate seeds and apples of course.
I learned the meanings of several of the words. The Hebrew word for leek, karat, means to cut as in “cutting away the enemies.” Date, tamar, means end as in “may evil end.” Pomegranate seeds represent the sweetness of the new year. I found this tradition extremely fascinating.
I also enjoyed a lovely home-cooked kosher meal. The family has to get their food all the way from Johannesburg to keep kosher. Now that’s dedication!
My Rosh Hashanah experience was extremely different from normal, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I met some incredible people and felt more welcome than I had in weeks. It was comforting knowing my family was celebrating back home at the same time.
A month or two later, I traveled to Cape Town on a mid-semester break trip. After a week of wonderful food and fun, I happened to walk by the South African Jewish Museum. I couldn’t believe it!
At first I just stopped to take a picture (not allowed, by the way), but I soon realized I wanted to go inside. Nelson Mandela opened the museum in 2000. There were a variety of exhibits, mostly about the Jewish population in South Africa.
I learned that most of the Jews came from England or Germany seeking refuge. There was also a variety of Judaic art and artifacts, as well as video footage. There was a small Holocaust exhibit, which broke my heart as always.
We were also able to see the synagogue inside, which was the first built in South Africa in 1863. The stained glass was absolutely beautiful. The temple actually still holds services for Cape Town Orthodox Jews. I enjoyed spending time at the museum, learning and once again feeling that connection with my religion, even from a few continents away.
I certainly did not expect for Judaism to play any role in my time abroad. It provided a source of comfort for me when it was hard to stay strong and I’m incredibly thankful I was able to experience something so unique.
Now that I’m home, I can’t say I’m not happy to be texting on my iPhone, living in a clean house, driving down familiar roads and showering as long as I want. Yet I know that my months in Botswana have changed my perspective for the better. The people I met and the places I visited will always hold a special place in my heart.