Abuja’s Igbo Jews pay a visit to Rhode Island

There is a popular tradition among the Igbo, whose traditional homeland is in southeastern Nigeria, that they are descendants of the tribes of Israel.

By SHAI AFSAI
October 23, 2013 21:12
RABBI WAYNE Franklin with Elder Ovadia Agbai and Pinchas Ogbukaa speaking to students.

RABBI WAYNE Franklin 370. (photo credit: Shai Afsai)

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island – The number of Igbo among the estimated 175 million people in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is uncertain, but exceeds 30 million, making them the country’s third-largest ethnic group. There is a popular tradition among the Igbo, whose traditional homeland is in southeastern Nigeria, that they are descendants of the tribes of Israel.

Though most are Christian, many Igbo, even while practicing Christianity, nonetheless consider themselves ethnically Jewish. In the past few decades, several thousand Igbo have taken this self-identification a step further and embraced Jewish practice, viewing rabbinic Judaism as their lost heritage.

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Following an invitation from Elder Habakkuk Nwafor, leader of Abuja’s Tikvat Israel Synagogue, I traveled to Nigeria this past February to celebrate Purim and learn more about its Igbo Jews.

It is not clear how many they number. When I asked Remy Ilona – a Nigerian attorney who has authored several books on Igbo Jewry and helped Western researchers understand Igbo culture and history – about the number of Igbo Jews in Nigeria, he expressed doubt concerning some of the population figures he has seen cited.

“I am skeptical when I hear people say there are 30,000 Igbo Jews or more,” he told me in Abuja. “I would say that there may be as many as 3,000 to 5,000 Igbo who are practicing Judaism.”

No matter their precise number, the Igbo Jews are a tiny minority in Nigeria. Their small numbers do not concern them, however, since they view themselves as part of the wider Jewish world. What troubles them more is their isolation.

“We are adherents of the Jewish faith in Nigeria. We are neither Christian nor Muslim,” Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, spokesman of Abuja’s Gihon Synagogue said to me.

“Belonging to neither of those faiths is not even the problem. The greatest of all the challenges we are facing is that of isolation. Bridges of Jewish education and worship have to be built, connecting us with other communities in the United States and Israel.”

When I returned to Rhode Island, I began consulting with rabbis about how that isolation might be broken.

Soon after, Elder Ovadiah Agbai, the leader of Abuja’s Gihon Synagogue, and Elder Pinchas, received and accepted an invitation to travel to the United States from two Providence synagogues – the Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Sholom and the Conservative Temple Emanu-El – in order to celebrate Succot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah with Rhode Island’s Jewish community.

When they arrived, they were also welcomed at other synagogues in the state, including Newport’s Touro Synagogue.

“The idea [of coming to the United States] was to be able to interact with Jews in Rhode Island, get firsthand information of how the community runs, and lay a foundation to break the isolation we are experiencing in Nigeria,” explained Elder Pinchas.

The two men were surprised by much of what they encountered. “[During a succah party], we saw and experienced for the first time the presence of four rabbis sitting at one table,” said Pinchas. “To see one rabbi is difficult for us. It can take four or five years. So to see four rabbis at one time... we will not forget this. Also seeing the oldest synagogue [Newport’s Touro Synagogue] in America.”

During their stay in Rhode Island, including while visiting Touro Synagogue, Elder Ovadiah and Elder Pinchas stressed the acute need in Nigeria for rabbis to lead those practicing Judaism, as well as for schools where Judaism can be studied from a young age. Jewish education in Abuja currently centers around the city’s three primarily Igbo synagogues, the largest of which is Gihon Synagogue.

Despite these challenges, over the course of the past few decades, the Igbo Jews have managed to distinguish themselves from groups in Nigeria and other countries that self-identify with the Israelites or claim Jewish ancestry, but nonetheless practice various forms of Christianity.

In contrast, the Igbo Jews are practicing a joyous, forward- looking rabbinic Judaism, composing their own prayer melodies, continuing to learn Hebrew, and attempting to foster relationships with Jewish communities outside of Nigeria.

Though they lack centralized leadership and are not concentrated in a small geographic area, the Igbo Jews have in some ways come to resemble the Abayudaya of eastern Uganda or the San Nicandro Jews of southeast Italy.

The San Nicandro community converted to Judaism and mostly immigrated to Israel en masse in the 1940s. In recent years, the Abayudaya have converted to Judaism through special Conservative rabbinic courts that have been set up in Uganda.

There are also significant differences, though. In part due to the Igbo Jews’ lack of centralized leadership and lack of geographic cohesion, neither of those scenarios – mass immigration or mass conversion – is likely to occur in the near future.

Moreover, the Igbo Jews consider themselves to be members of a lost tribe of Israelites and therefore some chafe at the idea of conversion.

Still, there is every reason to believe that Nigeria’s Igbo Jews will continue to solidify their identity, while more Jews abroad become aware of, and take an interest in, the development of Igbo Judaism.

What responsibilities do Jews in established communities like Rhode Island have to emerging communities striving to practice Judaism in places like Abuja? And what are the responsibilities of those practicing Judaism in Abuja toward Jewish communities in places like Rhode Island? At the very least, there is a mutual obligation to welcome one another and to listen to each others’ stories.

During my stay in Abuja I was taken to the city’s three synagogues and visited families in their homes. People traveled eight hours by bus to welcome me. My host never left my side. I was asked to speak in the synagogues and was thanked for my efforts to travel to Nigeria.

Over Succot, I saw my experience in Abuja mirrored by the experiences of Elder Pinchas and Elder Ovadiah in Rhode Island, where they were welcomed in ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and Conservative synagogues and homes, were asked to speak, and were listened to.

They danced and sang and celebrated. They learned and they taught.

People joked that they brought the unusually warm weather with them from Abuja, and we certainly had a different holiday experience in Rhode Island because they were here. In introducing the Elders at a Shabbat dinner at the Brown RISD Hillel, Rabbi Michelle Dardashti noted that the men “could have gone to many other places for their first trip out of Nigeria and it really is a tremendous zechut `[merit] for us that they chose to come to Rhode Island.”

The Elders traveled to our community, despite the time and expense involved, so that Rhode Island’s Jews might hear their stories, and so that they might hear those of Rhode Island’s Jews. Their 12-day visit has helped solidify a budding relationship between the Rhode Island and Abuja communities. Now that we know each other a little better, we may consider what further joys and responsibilities this relationship entails.


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