Jews of Africa: Communities you likely know nothing about

“Jews of color” is currently a hot topic in conversation regarding American Jewry, but what about those who stand outside of that framework?

Congregants of an Igbo synagogue gather to pray (photo credit: ELIAHU BIRNBAUM)
Congregants of an Igbo synagogue gather to pray
(photo credit: ELIAHU BIRNBAUM)
Black Lives Matter. We in Israel may not like some of the things the BLM movement stands for, but I would like to think that there are none among us who would deny the essence of its supposition. I would also like to think we are similarly inclined towards Jewish Black lives, but of that I am less confident. In fact, I wonder just how much white Jews everywhere care about black Jews anywhere.
The Jerusalem Post recently carried a story titled “Six Igbo synagogues razed by soldiers in Nigeria’s Biafra region.” The item, based on information provided by 9Africa News, also claimed that more than 50 community members were killed in this tragic episode involving the Igbo Jews, caught up in the maelstrom of violent political turmoil involving the Biafra secessionist movement, one of whose leaders self-identifies as Jewish. Looking for more detail, I was able to find only one other Jewish newspaper, The Forward, that carried the story. Truth be told, a bit more research of my own revealed that, in all likelihood, the report was largely “fake news.”
While the facts are still emerging, it appears that far fewer synagogues were destroyed and far less human life taken than what was reported. Furthermore, it seems that almost all of the horror that was perpetrated took place not within the mainstream Jewish community of Nigeria, but among “messianists” whose claims of being Jewish are spurious at best. So, might the Jewish media’s disregard of the events simply be a matter of responsible journalism? Personally, I think it has more to do with what my wife said when I told her how I intended to respond.
“Why write about the Igbo?” she asked. “Nobody cares.”
Which is exactly the point.
Two years ago, when 11 worshipers were massacred in the Tree of Life synagogue, Jewish leaders flocked to Pittsburgh to express their shock, outrage, solidarity and condolences. Six months later, when a congregant of the Poway, California congregation was gunned down in cold blood, there was again an outpouring of support. As there was when antisemitism erupted in Toulouse, Paris and Halle. But the Igbo in Africa? Whatever the facts, to the best of my knowledge, there has been zero effort on the part of organized Jewry to determine what actually happened there and not a word from any Jewish leader expressing concern for the community.
My hope is that this response, or the absence of one, is less a matter of not caring and more a matter of not knowing. While “Jews of color” is currently a hot topic in conversation regarding American Jewry, it is a term far too infrequently understood as applying as well to hundreds of communities around the world where Jews not of color simply do not exist. I offer, then, this succinct guide to the phenomenon of Jewish communities you likely know nothing about. To begin with, a few examples.  
Igbo Jewish community members
The Igbo Jews of Nigeria
There are some 30 communities in Nigeria encompassing an estimated 1,500 – 3,000 ethnic Igbos who fully identify as Jews, trace their ancestry back to the biblical tribe of Gad, and adhere to Orthodox Jewish practice to the extent that they are familiar with it. That includes the observance of Shabbat, daily use of tefillin, the ritual of brit milah and maintaining kashrut. Each has its own synagogue and a chazzan able to lead the kehila in prayer. Many of the congregants are conversant in halachic matters and eagerly engage their more knowledgeable visitors from abroad in intriguing discussion of issues particular to their circumstances. Confusing matters, however, are an additional 30,000 Igbo who also claim Hebrew ancestry and ascribe to some sort of Jewish practice, but who adhere to Christian beliefs as well – hence the lack of clarity regarding the recent Nigerian military action and the motives for the atrocities committed.
The Lemba Jews of Zimbabwe
It’s impossible to know just how many of the 70,000 ethnic Lemba living primarily in Zimbabwe identify themselves as being fully Jewish. That’s due in part to their efforts to hide their Jewishness due to fear of persecution at the hands of their Christian neighbors. But trusted visitors to the community report thousands who are not only devout in their practice of Jewish customs, but also resolute in their assertion of being of Jewish origin, a claim substantiated by genetic sampling that revealed the presence of a “Jewish” gene in more than 50% of the males tested. Though the Lemba explain that they lost their “book” (the Torah) long ago, they have persisted in passing down their traditions since ancient times, and now – having reconnected with mainstream Judaism – are experiencing an exhilarating revival, building synagogues and engaging in Hebrew and Biblical studies.
The Hidden Jews of Ethiopia
Another African group claiming Jewish ancestry and now coming out of hiding are the Beta Israel of Kachene and Semien Showa. Not to be confused with the remnants of the recognized Ethiopian Jewish community who have been waiting for years to be reunited with their family members in Israel, these “hidden Jews” reportedly number in the hundreds of thousands. But ever fearful of their Christian neighbors who have persecuted them relentlessly, they have been praying in underground synagogues and practicing their version of pre-Talmudic Judaism secretly. Traditions they have managed to preserve include Shabbat observance, laws of family purity, burial customs, and – uniquely – the sacrifice of the red heifer. Some 20 years ago, a younger and more educated generation emboldened by their contact with the outside world determined to lead the community out of hiding and reconnect with the rest of the Jewish world.
Congregants of the Abayudaya community of Namanyoni (David Breakstone)
The Abayudaya of Uganda
Another African Jewish community connecting with mainstream Jewry is that of the Ugandan Abayudaya. Unlike the others, however, they claim no Jewish ancestry. The community came into being a century ago when its founder, a tribal leader who was converted to Christianity, came to the realization – following his study of Bible – that it was the truth of Judaism that spoke to him. His followers and their descendants have been living an authentic Jewish life ever since. Recognizing, though, that they were not halachically Jewish, they began converting 20 years ago through the Conservative movement. Today they have an ordained rabbi and synagogues in nine communities encompassing some 2,000 members. They then sought official recognition by The Jewish Agency and the State of Israel. The former granted it and has recommended that the government do the same, but for the time being, to no avail.
THIS MATTER of recognition is actually a major issue for all of these communities and the hundreds of others scattered across the globe. For the majority, it is simply a matter of being embraced, a validation of their sense of belonging, of feeling welcome within the family you believe you are a part of. There are, however, also huge practical implications that can’t be ignored. They include the right to live in Israel or even to visit, to be eligible to join Jewish organizations, or to expect assistance from them in times of need.
The stakes are enormous. A 2017 report commissioned by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs on “Communities with Affinity to the Jewish People,” estimates that there are some 35 million individuals around the world who belong to them, including, in addition to those who have only recently found their way to Judaism, those who claim to be descendants of the Lost Tribes or offspring of Conversos. The Jewish Agency and the State of Israel are now faced with the complex issue of establishing criteria for determining who among them are to be recognized as being Jewish and on what conditions. Jewish communal bodies around the world need do the same.
Whatever policies emerge, there is one standard incumbent upon all to apply at the outset: no consideration whatsoever must be given to the color of the skin of those who would join us. While there may be legitimate reasons for rejecting the inclusion of those who want in, race must be eschewed as being one of them. All black lives matter. Jewish ones, too. We are all Igbo.■
The writer was involved extensively in the matter of emerging Jewish communities over the past several years in his previous position as deputy chair of The Jewish Agency executive. He is indebted to Eliahu Birnbaum, Ari Greenspan, Dany Limor, Malka Shabtay, Ari Zivotofsky and Kulanu for the information they provided for this column and for their tireless efforts, along with those of others too numerous to mention, on behalf of Judaizing communities everywhere. For inquiries: [email protected]