Peace dawns after Shabbat in war-torn Zaire capital

What a difference a week can make.

The Shabbat promise of peace and tranquility proved elusive for the Jews of Kinshasa two weeks ago, as their country was transforming itself overnight from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This past Shabbat emerged much more peacefully as the community breathed a sigh of relief that the strife, which for years had torn apart the African nation, appeared over.

Though the coup of the rebels led by Laurent Kabila ended without widespread bloodshed, for two long days the future of the capital city had felt precarious to the tiny Jewish community within.

As about a dozen Jews ate their Friday night meal at the home of Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila on May 16th, the sound of heavy artillery boomed overhead and sporadic shooting was heard echoing throughout the city.

Zairian rebels, who for most of the last year had been challenging the country's dictator, President Motubu Sese Seko, were at the edge of the city.

No one knew whether they would succeed or fail. No one knew how devastating the fighting might be, or how much blood might be shed.

After dinner, when everyone had already returned to their homes, foreign embassies issued a warning to their nationals not to move from their houses and that anyone seen outside after curfew could be shot.

The cellular phone that the rabbi keeps by his side remained on throughout Shabbat.

Though Jewish law requires that all use of electronic appliances cease on the day of rest, the commandment of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life, takes precedence when lives are in danger.

Throughout Friday night, "we heard what sounded like bombs and constant shooting," wrote Bentolila in a letter he e-mailed to the Brooklyn headquarters of the Lubavitch emissary network, to which he belongs.

"Needless to say, none of us slept very much," he wrote. By Saturday afternoon, it was clear that the worst was over.

"It was a miracle the way Kinshasa was taken," the rabbi said in a telephone interview last week as he, his congregation and entire adopted country tried to return to normality as a new nation.

For the dozens of Jewish families that had stayed through the chaos, that meant being able to return to the synagogue canteen to enjoy local kosher specialties, to swim at the community's recreational pool and to resume Judaic studies for the 15 to 25 children in the community.

"Thank God we were saved. Even a heretic can appreciate the miracle," said the young Moroccan-born rabbi, who has lived in Kinshasa since 1991.

Motubu had ruled Zaire since 1965. When the rebels entered Kinshasa, they were welcomed by the populace with song and dance.

On Shabbat afternoon, the men and boys now locally known as "the liberators" passed Bentolila's synagogue; the rabbi and congregants went outside to greet them.

Many of Kinshasa's 135 Jewish families left temporarily during the last few months, said the rabbi, who lives there with his wife and two young children. He said he believes most will come back.

Many more had left permanently after riots racked the city of 4.5 million in late 1991 and early 1993.

Bentolila, though based in Kinshasa, serves as spiritual leader of the small Jewish communities in several central African countries.

A handful of Jews from Europe, the United States and Israel live in these nations, working in the diamond and precious-stone industries, and as traders of more prosaic goods, such as clothing and electronics.

As the only Jewish spiritual leader in the area, Bentolila's experiences are unlike those of ordinary rabbis.

Friday of last week, for instance, a week after the revolution, when some of the world's major news media were trying to leave the country, Bentolila said he got a call from a Jewish CNN producer.

The producer was frustrated that he and his news crew had been waiting on the docks of the Congo River for more than a day for permission to leave the country.

The local Catholic priest had been by and offered a blessing, so the producer figured he might as well get one from the area's rabbi as well.

The Lubavitcher Chassid was happy, if not amused, to oblige, he recounted by phone.

Though the nation's future under the new leadership is unclear, the Jews of Kinshasa are optimistic, said Bentolila.

However, he expressed fear about saying anything overtly political about the deposed Mobutu or the country's new leader.

He would only say that "for eight months we were very stressed. We never knew exactly what to expect. Now we know it's over and we wish luck to this new government. We wish better for the whole humanity."

Though peace seems to have come to Congo for now, the region is still facing the results of years of civil and intertribal wars.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been serving the sick and the orphaned victims of the wars in Zaire and neighboring Rwanda since 1994, when a coalition of 39 American and international Jewish organizations began raising close to $1 million for such relief.

Now that the Zairian revolution has ended with the creation of the Democratic Republic of Congo, JDC officials said they expect many of the people who had poured into eastern Zaire to try and return to their native Rwanda.

Some observers have expressed fear that the new government of Congo would drive them out or even kill those refugees.

In any case, the return of the refugees "will put additional strain on the social services there," said Gideon Taylor, JDC's assistant executive vice president.