Bethesda rabbi officiates at rare Jewish wedding in Zimbabwe

Bride Kate Trethowan circles bridegroom Paul Pilossof during the couple’s wedding this month in Zimbabwe. Photo courtesy of Tony Abroms
Bride Kate Trethowan circles bridegroom Paul Pilossof during the couple’s wedding this month in Zimbabwe.
Photo courtesy of Tony Abroms

While officiating at weddings, Rabbi Bill Rudolph often explains that the ketubah is a legal marriage contract and then jokingly asks if there are any lawyers in the congregation.

Rudolph said that he always seems to find himself in a roomful of lawyers. After all, there are 800 attorneys at Congregation Beth El, said the Bethesda synagogue’s rabbi emeritus.

But at an Oct. 22 wedding, only one of the more than 200 attendees rose a hand in response to the rabbi’s question. That was one of the many differences Rudolph experienced while officiating at the first Jewish wedding in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 19 years.

Rudolph had been asked by a congregant if he would help her African cousin’s fiancée convert to Judaism. This began a series of lessons about Judaism by Skype to a woman whose family members are farmers in Zimbabwe.

The woman came to the Washington area this summer, completing her conversion at a mikvah, a ritual bath.

By this time, Rudolph had gotten to know Kate Trethowan and soon found himself agreeing to officiate at her wedding in Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe. She married Paul Pilossof, a bull breeder and Bulawayo native.

“Ultimately, the wedding was not all that different” from other weddings he has officiated at, said Rudolph, although the ceremony did include a 25-minute hora performed by a South African band.

Bulawayo’s Jewish population is a mere 56 or 57, the rabbi said. It wasn’t always that way. There once were more than 2,000 Jews supporting an Orthodox and Conservative synagogue, a cemetery and an old-age home, Rudolph said.

Now, a minyan gathers on Friday nights, but rarely Saturday mornings. The youngest Jewish child is 18, and one of the former synagogues is a church.

Tony Abroms, a 72-year-old North Bethesda resident and uncle of the bridegroom, grew up in the 1950s in what was then Rhodesia. He left to attend college in Cape Town, South Africa.

“That was the best of all times there. We had a vibrant Jewish life” that was Zionistic, he said. “I grew up in colonial Africa. It was paradise.” Most Jews in Rhodesia at that time came from the Baltic States, he said.

With a 14-year civil war raging, followed by a transition to a black-led government that redistributed white farmers’ land, “it’s not just the Jews who left,” Abroms said. White people in general left.

“People weren’t forced out. It was an economic migration,” Abroms said, adding that his sister and her family still live there. “They live a very good life there as long as they stay away from politics.”

Rudolph and his wife, Gail, spent a few days experiencing life in Zimbabwe, where people “are used to having no electricity for hours at a time” and where carbon copies are made of important documents, because no one can count on the electrical power working.

Nevertheless, he said, “there are computers. There are TVs.”

Rudolph went on a safari in Hwange National Park. By his count, he saw more than 150 elephants, seven lions, one cheetah, a few giraffes and buffaloes, and dozens of baboons, antelope, zebras, jackals, warthogs and vultures, as well as a beautiful sunset.

“It was amazing,” he said. “We had a great experience in the country, my wife and I. We got to know people, their life, their challenges, their treasures. That was the best part.”

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