Early Jewish Life in Mozambique
The Jewish community of Mozambique is more than 120 years old. Throughout its existence, it has been small in number and diverse in origin. In the 19th century, the Ashkenazim and Sephardim who first migrated to the Indian Ocean port of Maputo (known before national independence in 1975 as Lourenço Marques), hailed from such places as Vilna, Marrakech, London, and Durban. For years, they met for services in homes and reportedly often feuded on liturgical matters. Community lore records a Rosh Hashanah early in the 20th century at which an innovative chazan managed to please the whole congregation by alternating between Ashkenazic and Sephardic style pronunciation and melodies for the length of the service.
In 1926 the two groups built a common synagogue. But the community was never large enough to support a rabbi, so services and other rituals were led by members.
Despite an influx of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War, the community seemed to be in a terminal demographic decline. By the early 1970’s the gabbai had to roust visiting South African Jews from the city’s tourist hotels to make a minyan on Friday nights. At Mozambican independence in 1975, most of the remaining Jews, who were out of sympathy with the collectivist economic policies of the new government, left the country. The synagogue, along with many churches and mosques, was confiscated; it was turned into a warehouse. The cemetery, once an urban oasis with its avenue of frangipani and a towering mango tree, fell into disrepair and was badly vandalized. Without the synagogue, and in a climate of official hostility to religion, organized Jewish life in Mozambique came to a halt.