Gerald Sussman

A Boca Raton D’Var Torah

My wife, Bonita Nathan Sussman was given the honor of giving a sort of D’var Torah at the Friday night dinner of Torah Ohr, Boca Raton. I thought you might like to hear it too. Most of the photos are courtesy of the Kulanu Photo Archive.

Bar Mitzva in Africa  2023                                            Kulanu photo archive

Nigeria, Indonesia, Uganda, Brazil, Gabon, Italy, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania and Cameroon, what do they have in common? Believe it or not, they are far-flung places with communities large and small where people live full Jewish lives, celebrate Shabbat and holidays, study Torah, and yearn to contribute and belong to the Jewish world. This year we are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Kulanu (“All of Us” in Hebrew), a group whose mission is to support returning, emerging, and isolated Jewish communities, including these, around the globe. We are now in 33 countries.

Lighting Shabbat candles with home baked challah   Kulanu photo archive

In this week’s parasha Terumah, we talk about the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) representing God’s presence on earth. All the tribes encamped around the Mishkan and each one had their own banner and their own leaders, but they were united around the Mishkan, love of God and the mitzvot (commandments). Today all over the world we find people who wish to join or rejoin the Jewish people and contribute to the Jewish future and Torah way of life. Some believe that this is kibbutz galuyot (part of the ingathering of the exiles).

The communities fall roughly into three categories — returning, emerging, and isolated. Those who believe that they are returning to Judaism say proudly, “Did you know that we are descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of the Torah?” Or sometimes, “Did you know that we are descendants of ancient Israelites?” 

Holocaust Memorial Cameroon, Africa 2023               Kulanu photo archive

Not all Ibos, one of the three main ethnic groups in Nigeria, about 32 million of them, consider themselves Jews. We know of at least 82 shuls, most of whom doven from an Artscroll siddur, but they all consider themselves descendants of the Tribe of Gad through his children Eri and Arodi. They point to words in their language similar to Hebrew, their common practice of circumcision on the 8th day, similar rituals of family purity, and endogamous marriages as similarities. The Jewish community in Nigeria is growing, filled with young folks with large families and are very Zionistic. After October 7, many of them, wanted to volunteer for the Israeli Defense Forces or help with agriculture.

Succot 2023 Cote D’Ivoire                                          Kulanu Photo Archive

The Lemba of Zimbabwe have been tested genetically and are found in their priestly cast to have the Cohen gene. The community in Arusha, Tanzania are direct descendants of a Yemenite Jews who migrated to Tanzania several generations ago.  At some point, they had 5000 people. The community in Manoa, Indonesia are descendants of the Spanish Portuguese who live there and preserve the old cemeteries. They are the first community in Indonesia to set up a small Holocaust Museum that was protested by its Muslim neighbors. 

Chanuka in Kenya                                                       Kulanu photo archive

In India, in the province of Andhra Pradesh, the Bene Efraim community takes its name from the tribe of Efraim. As they are lower-caste and poor, they have struggled to observe Jewish mitzvot, including those associated with Shabbat which affects them economically. My husband and I visited them and were welcomed enthusiastically by the community, who were eager to learn more about Judaism, and I taught them how to bake matzot through googling how to bake matzot on YouTube.

Succot in Pakistan 2023 Kulanu photo archive

Another “returning” category of Jews are the anousim (“forced ones” in Hebrew), also called Crypto-Jews, conversos in Spanish, and more commonly known as Marranos. Forced to adopt Christianity in the face of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, they spread around the world in fear of being discovered. With family stories of their forebears lighting candles in a closet on Friday nights and not eating wheat tortillas the week around Easter, they have often told me things like “I knew I was Jewish, I felt it in my heart. I was different from the others around me. I am learning to be who I really am.” These groups of young people, in Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico – who have not been accepted by mainstream established Jewish communities are deeply saddened by it.

Cote d’Ivoire Hachnasat Sefer Torah with Rabbi Gerald Sussman in Danite robes

Who are the “emerging” Jewish communities? These are communities who have left other faiths to join the Jewish people. They do not claim Jewish origin; Judaism speaks to their hearts. One example is the Jewish community of Cameroon, who live in a rural village an hour and a half away from the capital of Yaounde.

They lack steady electricity, chop wood to cook, and for “running” water rely on women who run with heavy water jugs on their heads. The Cameroonians moved from evangelical Christianity to Judaism after reading Hebrew Scriptures. Their leaders are self-taught from the internet. They practice rabbinic Judaism, praying and singing their 3 hour Shabbat services in Hebrew and French from Artscroll siddurim. When we visited, we were stunned to see the leader’s wife mafrish challah (set aside a portion of the dough ritualistically) when baking challah for the community for Shabbat.

Succot in Uganda 2023 Kulanu Photo Archive

The most famous group is the Abayudaya (“People of Judah” in the Luganda language) of Uganda. They were founded 100 years ago when a local chief read the Old Testament and inspired his community to practice a form of biblical Judaism. The community went underground to weather dictator Idi Amin’s persecution of Jews. Many tourists visit them and they now number over 2000 in about 10 villages. Their rabbi, was the first Jew ever to be elected to the Parliament.

Praying in Zimbabwe

“Isolated” communities are older established Jewish communities that are dwindling and need resources to maintain themselves. One example is Suriname, a former colony of the Netherlands in South America. In existence for close to 400 years, the Jewish community of  Suriname is the oldest in the Americas and helped fund the original Spanish Portuguese synagogue in NYC.

Members of many of these communities have overcome many obstacles in their journey towards Judaism, sometimes shunned by their families, suffering economic losses for not working on Shabbat, and enduring circumcision later in life.

They are strong supporters of Israel, seeing their journey as a rejection of colonialism as parallel to the Jewish journey from the ashes of the Holocaust to the establishment of the State of Israel. Their mesirat nefesh (dedication and self-sacrifice) is inspirational. While we hear a lot about antisemitism we rarely hear anythin g about philosemitism, groups who love us. Even Mishpacha Magazine has included articles on these groups by Ari Greenspan and Ari Zivotofsky and the Israeli government is beginning to recognize the importance of these philosemitic groups. 

Weddings in Nicaragua                                             Photo Bonita Sussman

While Judaism in the West has its struggles to survive, these groups are one promise for the future. After the Holocaust and the decimation of Jewish communities in Arab lands, it is time for us to rebuild and regather the Jewish people.  Just as Herzl had a hard time convincing people of the need for a Jewish State, so these communities have a struggle to be included. And as time proved Herzl right, hopefully with Hashem’s help, time will also prove them right. 

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald Sussman serves as the coordinator of the Rabbinic Ambassador program of Kulanu and has traveled extensively to meet emerging Jewish communities around the globe. He lives on Staten Island and serves as rabbi of Congregation Temple Emanuel-El, Staten Island. He is also a founding member of the Union for Traditional Judaism and on the Board of Governors of the New York Board of Rabbis.