The voices of Jewish-African leaders have never been lost

“If you are in Israel or Ghana, you have one God, one Torah. If the people in Israel are keeping Shabbat, us Hebrews in Ghana will also keep Shabbat and pray to Hashem.”

Serge Etele, leader of the Beit Yeshourun Community from Cameroon, holds a Torah Scroll. (photo credit: SERGE ETELE)
Serge Etele, leader of the Beit Yeshourun Community from Cameroon, holds a Torah Scroll.
(photo credit: SERGE ETELE)

When Professor Lufuno Rudo Mathivha, a keynote speaker at the ISGAP Conference: Contemporary Jewry in Sub-Saharan Africa Symposium, The Voices of Jewish-African Leaders, was a child living in Apartheid South Africa as one of seven siblings. She recalls along with not being able to attend a government school and own land in South Africa, everyone had to show proof of baptism and attend church on Sundays. So, she and all her siblings were baptized, but her parents told them: “On Sundays, dress up nicely, go to church, you can just sit and close up your mind. Nothing must penetrate. On Shabbat is when our prayers matter, guided by readings from the Torah.”

Mathivha is a member of the Lemba Tribe, who hold a tradition that they were originally part of the Jewish people and migrated from Judea, settling in Southern Africa in 50 A.D. Today, this tribe homes 70,000 members across Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. “We have been discovered as the lost people of Southern Africa, but we have never been lost,” she said.

Mathivha and several other leaders of Jewish communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, each from a different country, told the story of their unique connection to Judaism at the conference on April 11. The conference began with opening remarks from chairman Natan Sharansky, and founder and executive director of ISGAP, Dr. Charles Asher Small.

The expansion of communication and globalization has enabled a special connection with ancient Jewish communities, Israel and the rest of the diaspora, and the rediscovery of ancient African Jewish communities. With an increasing population and a surge of new Jewish communities whose members self-identify as part of the Jewish Diaspora and the Jewish People, represents an extraordinary contemporary development in Jewish history.

Alex Armah, a leader of the community the House of Israel, also spoke of his personal experience and that of his local community in Ghana. The local Jewish community refer to themselves as Hebrews and practice Jewish traditions, such as keeping kosher, circumcision after eight days of birth and observation of the high holidays following Israel.

THE TEACH-IN panelists, from left: Charles Small, executive director of ISGAP; journalist Ben Cohen; Omri Ceren, senior adviser, the Israel Project; Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor, ‘Commentary’ magazine; artist Dahn Hiuni; Simon Deng, South Sudanese human rights activist; and Betty Ehrenberg, (credit: MAYA SHWAYDER)THE TEACH-IN panelists, from left: Charles Small, executive director of ISGAP; journalist Ben Cohen; Omri Ceren, senior adviser, the Israel Project; Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor, ‘Commentary’ magazine; artist Dahn Hiuni; Simon Deng, South Sudanese human rights activist; and Betty Ehrenberg, (credit: MAYA SHWAYDER)

“If you are in Israel or Ghana, you have one God, one Torah. If the people in Israel are keeping Shabbat, us Hebrews in Ghana will also keep Shabbat and pray to Hashem,” Armah said.

Today, Armah is working to establish a small community in the capital, Acra, excitedly offering an invitation: “The door is always open to each and everyone who wants to learn from us.”

Sharansky recalled, as the head of the Jewish Agency, he encountered many communities of self-identifying Jews across the world. “My feeling is that these people find that there is a connection between respect for the tradition and freedom, and desire to live free in peace, and the desire to live with this deep meaning of the tradition which connects you to the experiences of the past,” he said.

Dr. Charles Asher Small has spent decades traveling to Africa and meeting with Jewish leaders throughout Ghana, South Africa and Nigeria. Small helped to convene and facilitate this conference with Dr. Edith Bruder, who is an ISGAP research fellow and an ethnologist from the Department of Near and Middle East Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France, and the President of the International Society for the Study of African Jewry. The conference aims, through the lens of the interdisciplinary study of Judaism and Jewish studies, to better understand the multiple implications of what it means to be Jewish and Jewish-African in the 21st century.

Sharansky notes the recent phenomenon of emerging communities in Africa: “There are so many who are trying to encourage distrust and hatred towards Jews and the Jewish state, but we have more allies, our brothers. And we welcome all of them who want to be a part of the Jewish people.”

Closing the conference, Serge Estele, leader of the Beit Yeshourun Community from Cameroon, sat with a kippah and a bronze hanukkiah behind him. He belongs to a community of 100 Jews following traditional Rabbinical Judaism. Estele tells the story of when he first embraced Judaism two decades prior: “Families would grow resentment against their members who had adopted a Jewish style of life.”

He explained the strategy he has employed to combat anti-Jewish hatred in his country. Culturally, the most important events such as funerals, and parties occurred on Fridays and Saturdays, meaning that the observant Jews could not attend, and the families of converts began to think of Judaism as a threat to family traditions.

However, Estele did not want this hostility to increase and he has created bridges between peoples through education and inter-faith dialogue, while debunking myths and antisemitic libels. For example, during previous Passovers, he made videos teaching how to make matzot in order to debunk the libel that Jews use blood to make matza, an antisemitic trope imported to West Africa by French colonialists and missionaries. “The more we educate people about what we are doing the less antisemitism there is,” he said.

The writer is a Research and Programming Coordinator at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP).