In August I met up in Abuja, capital of Nigeria, with Congregation Beth Sholom of Providence’s Rabbi Barry Dolinger and Naomi Baine, who journeyed to Africa, for the first time, in order to teach the city’s Igbo Jews. Our visit was part of the ongoing relationship between Rhode Island Jewry and Abuja’s Igbo Jews, which began in 2009. That year, Northeastern University professor and Temple Emanu-El of Providence member William (Bill) F.S. Miles traveled to Abuja to spend Hanukkah with its Igbo Jews. Returning there in 2011, his experiences during those two visits later formed the basis of his book Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey (2013).
Encouraged by Professor Miles and Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Wayne Franklin, I went to Abuja in February 2013 in order to celebrate Purim and learn about its Igbo Jews. I returned to Nigeria a year later, in February 2014, to complete a photo-text exhibit on Abuja’s Igbo Jews, which is currently being shown at Providence’s Brown RISD Hillel.
There is a belief among the Igbo of Nigeria — shared by many, though certainly not all members of the ethnic group — that they are descendants of the tribes of Israel. This belief found early expression in the popular 1789 autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, a former Igbo slave turned British abolitionist, who remarked on what seemed to him “the strong analogy” that “appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen, and those of the Jews.” Pointing to circumcision, sacrifices, and purifications as examples of this resemblance, he concluded it must be “that the one people had sprung from the other.”
Numbering over 30 million, the Igbo are Nigeria’s third largest ethnic group. Their traditional homeland is located in the southeastern part of the country, though they have spread throughout Nigeria, including its capital city, Abuja. Most Igbo, due to British colonialism and missionary activity, now practice Christianity, but at the same time, many (though, again, certainly not all) consider themselves genealogically Jewish and also strongly identify with the state of Israel. Daniel Lis of the University of Basel’s Centre for Jewish Studies, who wrote his doctoral thesis on “Imagined Kinship? Nigerian Igbo in Israel and the Question of Belonging,” will soon have a book out exploring Igbo Jewish identity in and outside of Nigeria.
Following the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), during which at least one million Igbo civilians died in the failed bid for Biafran independence, Igbo self-identification as Israelites intensified. Igbo saw themselves as sufferers of genocide, like the Jews of World War II Europe, and as inhabitants of a beleaguered plot of land surrounded by hostile forces, similar to the Jewish state of Israel. A few Igbo also began to question why, if they were in fact Jews, they were practicing Christianity rather than Judaism.
These seekers gradually began to find one another, acquire printed material on Judaism, scour the internet for information, photocopy what prayer books they could lay their hands on, teach themselves to read and pray in Hebrew, advance their practice of the Jewish faith, and connect with western Jews.
Their community, not yet recognized by any Jewish denomination or by the state of Israel, now numbers somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 people. They have been visited by a few rabbis from the US and Israel in the past decade, but such visits have been rare and often separated by years. Abuja’s synagogues self-identify as Orthodox and have been appealing for further on the ground Orthodox rabbinic instruction and for ways to decrease their isolation from world Jewry.
Last September, two representatives of Abuja’s Gihon Synagogue, Elder Obadia Agbai (the synagogue’s leader) and Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, visited Rhode Island for twelve days, celebrating Sukkot, Simchat Torah, and Shemini Atzeret with the Rhode Island Jewish community. After meeting the two elders, Rabbi Barry Dolinger and Naomi Baine, who already felt a pull to go to Nigeria to teach after a screening of Jeff Lieberman’s film Re-emerging: the Jews of Nigeria (2012) at Congregation Beth Sholom, became truly determined to go there.
Rabbi Dolinger has been questioned by some people in the US about the advisability of allocating time and resources to a community in Nigeria, especially one that isn’t yet recognized as Jewish, when there are many other Jewish matters in need of funding and rabbinic attention. However, he remains convinced about the importance of his recent visit and of working with Igbo Jewry in the future. “Whether or not the Igbo are a lost tribe, we have a responsibility to assist those who are sincerely seeking our God and to help them learn,” Rabbi Dolinger explained during his first Shabbat morning sermon at Congregation Beth Sholom after getting back to the US.
“Beyond that, we also have much to learn from the Igbo Jews,” according to Rabbi Dolinger. “We can learn from the joy with which they worship, from their use of song and dance, from the time and care they take with prayer, and from the priority they place on meeting with and learning from Jewish scholars.”
An earlier version of this article, accompanied by photographs, appeared at (401)j.