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