The Sub-Saharan African Jewish Alliance is born

Despite being from southern, eastern, or western Africa, the participants were united by a great love for Hashem, Judaism, the State of Israel, and the Jewish people.

 The gathering at Kol Yehudah Synagogue in Abidjan. (photo credit: JEWISH NIGERIA MEDIA)
The gathering at Kol Yehudah Synagogue in Abidjan.
(photo credit: JEWISH NIGERIA MEDIA)

What, in your opinion, distinguishes a Shabbat service and makes it such a memorable occasion? Every Shabbat is, of course, unique and wonderful on its own. However, when a large group of people from various backgrounds and traveling from across 10 African countries come together for the first time to observe Shabbat, it not only becomes historic but also a day of immeasurable joy, with a clear message to take home about a united Black African Jewry.

The timing was perfect. There was no better moment to revel in unbridled joy than on the Shabbat preceding Hanukkah. As the Shacharit (morning prayer) began, worshipers represented their respective countries by moving from one cantor to the next in the prescribed order of prayers. Inside the hall were roughly 70 persons, including members of the Kol Yehudah Synagogue, the host venue in Abidjan, capital of the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), overseen by Prof. Yehudah Firman.

It was difficult to pinpoint the climax of the service, which eventually devolved into a musical prayer davening, as enthusiasm and Shabbat fervor swept over the congregation. On innumerable occasions, the men and women would leave their seats and form two big dance circles. 

When it was time for the dvar Torah, rabbis from Israel, the United States, and Kenya honored the congregation with their wise words. Other speakers were Shoshana Nambi, a rabbinical student from New York, and a woman from Nigeria. Va’yetze, the Torah portion of the week, begins with Jacob’s dream, which is somewhat analogous to the shared expectation of everyone who converged in Cote d’lvoire with the dream of recreating the Jewish legacy of Jews residing in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Earlier in the week, a couple of days before the high-spirited Shabbat, the visiting participants from several African nations would gather to interact with and learn from renowned Jewish educators. The day starts at Kol Yehudah Synagogue with a Shacharit prayer; then there are classes, a lunch break, more teaching sessions, Maariv (the evening prayer), and dinner before everyone goes to bed at the end of a long day. Despite being from southern, eastern, or western Africa, the participants were united by a great love for Hashem, Judaism, the State of Israel, and the Jewish people rather than by this obvious diversity.

 Torah service during weekday ‘Shacharit’ service at Kol Yehudah Synagogue. (credit: JEWISH NIGERIA MEDIA) Torah service during weekday ‘Shacharit’ service at Kol Yehudah Synagogue. (credit: JEWISH NIGERIA MEDIA)

Prior to their arrival at the guest house on the campus of Université de l’Alliance Chrétienne in Abidjan, the majority of them had never met. The delegation from Nigeria arrived first, followed by two other participants, Elysha and Petuela, who traveled from the island of Madagascar with two stops at Addis Ababa and the Togo airport, where they met with another team of Nigerian Jews en route to the conference. 

“I am overjoyed right now. I assumed Petuela and I were the only Jews at the airport. I had no idea we weren’t alone.”

Elysha

“I am overjoyed right now,” said Elysha. “I assumed Petuela and I were the only Jews at the airport. I had no idea we weren’t alone.” She couldn’t hide her excitement at meeting six Nigerian Jews for the first time. Also in attendance from Nigeria was the indomitable Ima (Mother) Liz Ben, who with her husband, Paniel, founded a synagogue in Ogidi. 

A lot of work into organizing the event

The New York-based Jewish nonprofit organization Kulanu put a lot of work into organizing and putting resources together to gather Jewish leaders from 10 African countries to be a part of this historic encounter. Kulanu has been preparing for this event since 2019. At the beginning of 2020, everything appeared to be in place, but the COVID-19 epidemic put the entire plan on pause.

“Just as Hashem had the 10 plagues pass over the Jewish people, we hope that He will work His miracles again this Pesach.” In a joint statement released before Pesach, that is how Rabbi Bonita Sussman and her counterpart Rabbi Dr. Ari Greenspan expressed regret for the conference’s postponement, expressing hope that the pandemic would end before the conference’s scheduled start in May 2020.

During the following two years, Harriet Bograd, president of Kulanu at the time, did not let go of this ambition. However, she died before the rescheduled date of the Pan-African meeting. Her remarkable leadership as president enabled Kulanu to expand its charitable work for returning, isolated and emerging Jewish communities in 33 countries. In honor of her memory and Kulanu’s commitment to offer the African Jewish community a voice in the global Jewish community, the conference finally took place as planned on December 13, 2022.

“One of my favorite parts of the conference was Rabbi Ari Greenspan’s talk about his travels to Jewish communities in small, isolated areas of Asia and the Middle East,” enthusiastically commented Shmuel Okeke. A hazan (cantor) from the Tikvat Yisrael community synagogue in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, Okeke went on to say that he was excited to meet people from so many different places and communities in Africa.

During one of the interactive sessions, Ima Hadassah Anyanwu, who runs a Jewish elementary and high school in Eastern Nigeria, spoke with joy. “I had never before been on an airplane, but Kulanu paid for me to come here, and my son and my brother, Avraham, put my name on the list of people who were coming.”

Rabbi Greenspan, Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky, and Rabbi Eliyahu Binbaum shared their experiences with Jewish communities around the world in an evening presentation class, using films and slide shows. Greenspan, who served as conference chairman, collaborated with Kulanu executive director Molly Levine for months to organize the event. 

The conference featured a variety of activities, one of the most prominent of which was shechita training, with an emphasis on the kosher slaughter of chickens. Shechita knife preparation, demonstration, and practice, as well as koshering of slaughtered animals, were addressed in the course. Rabbis Zivotofsky and Netanel Kasovitz joined Greenspan in training the Africans on how to sharpen and prepare their shechita knives, as well as guiding them as they slaughtered the birds in turn. They had been introduced to the laws of shechita in an online session two months prior, and then completed the practical “class” in Abidjan.

One of the most significant outcomes of the conference was the establishment of a coalition to provide African Jews with a voice in the Jewish communities of Israel, the US, and the rest of the world. 

The goal of the Sub-Saharan African Jewish Alliance (SAJA) is to unite Jewish leaders from across the continent to discuss issues that affect all Jews in Africa, find solutions to those issues together, build lasting relationships with one another, and advocate for the rights of Jews in the media and in government.

“Now we have a platform we can call our own, an independent African Jewish organization, which I believe can be used to find solutions to some of the problems we face as African Jews, ” said Benjamin Mongi, a lawyer from Arusha in Tanzania.

A governing board consisting of a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer was chosen to manage the alliance until elections are held six months later. Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe each submitted one representative to the board of directors. In addition, working groups were established to serve as the core of the alliance and drive the full operational effectiveness of SAJA.

A trend of returning and re-emerging Jewish communities observing Shabbat and Jewish holidays and adhering to kashrut has been on the rise for several decades. The majority of these people have been victims of colonialization and Christianization that was imposed upon them, which altered the Jewish trajectory of their forebears. However, as a result of a current awakening and deeper attention being paid to history and the Bible, thousands of people are returning and embracing rabbinical Judaism as the correct path to reclaiming their lost ancestral heritage. 

In Nigeria, the Igbo people consider themselves to be descendants of the tribes of Gad and Ephraim. Formerly isolated Lemba Jews in Zimbabwe are believed to be descended from Jews who settled in Africa after migrating from the Arabian Peninsula.

“About a hundred years ago, the whole land of Sefwi was ruled by a Jewish king, and nobody worked or went to the river on Shabbat,” said Michael Owusu Ansah, secretary of Tifereth Yisrael Synagogue in Sefwi Wiawso, northwest Ghana. 

He points to a Christian church that was built by European colonists. “It’s easy to see that the missionaries built a church quarter near the old palace of Sefwi Wiawso and were able to have an effect on the royal kingship. This was how Sefwi land lost its Jewishness.”

A small percentage of Africans have adopted Judaism as a method to connect with God and relate with their fellow human beings, despite the fact that the bulk of the continent still adheres to Christianity, the religion that colonialists brought with them when they ruled and controlled it for decades. 

When compared to some places of the Western world, where Judaism is on the decline, they are tenacious in their Jewish practice and dedication, despite living in an inhospitable environment and having minimal resources. However, even as others in the mainstream Jewish population continue to dispute and refuse to recognize Africans’ Jewishness, there are many Western Jews who have embraced them in their returning status and are willing to support them on the journey to rebuilding their Jewish communities,.

Kulanu has provided unparalleled assistance to African Jews over the years, helping them with everything from education and communication to the construction of synagogues and mikvaot (ritual baths), the development of agricultural projects, and the facilitation of Jewish marriages. 

At the summit in Abidjan, Kulanu presented Ghana, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe each with a Torah scroll. Other donations included the distribution of siddurim, Hagaddot, tefilin, talitot, kippot, and Israeli flags to all countries in attendance. Participants were given the opportunity to hear from renowned Jewish intellectuals such as Clive Lawton, a director at the Commonwealth Jewish Council, who delivered lectures on the topic of building Jewish communities. In addition to that, Prof. Tudor Parfitt presented lectures on the growing interest in Judaism worldwide.

Rudy Rochman, another guest speaker, spoke after Rabbi Netanel’s musical Havdalah at the close of Shabbat. Rochman gained international attention after being detained by Nigerian authorities together with his crew David Benyaym and Noam Leibman when a secessionist media organization altered the story of the We Were Never Lost filmmaker’s journey to Igboland in July of 2021. 

According to Rochman, the documentary’s goal is to awaken today’s Israelis to the fact that they are the last generation to be born without understanding who the tribes of Israel truly were all along. The enthusiastic young activist and social media influencer vowed to give the African Jewish community a voice it never had before by telling their story to the rest of the world.

On the last day of the convention, a procession was organized at the Golf Hotel to dedicate the three Torahs scrolls provided by Kulanu. After the first Hanukkah candle was lit on the first night of the Festival of Lights, a farewell feast was hosted. 

As everyone took to the skies the next day, it was time to ponder what this historic gathering meant for African Jewry. Whatever happens next will be determined by their ability to organize and rebuild Jewish communities across Sub-Saharan Africa. SAJA is a pilot program at the moment, but if successful, it will play a pivotal role in helping the African Jewish community reposition itself and move closer to its ideal future. ■