From my 40-year experience in the pulpit, the predominant dynamic in much of the Jewish world has been assimilation, the desire to be like everyone else to “fit in.” We are used to seeing people running away from Judaism and so much energy and effort in the organized Jewish community goes into trying to catch Jews, especially young ones, before we lose them.
When the opposite happens and we find people running towards Jewish traditions and beliefs, like in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia, we find it curious and often unbelievable and we don’t as yet know how to deal with this new phenomenon of rebuilding the Jewish people.
Our first reaction is to attack their sincerity. Some argue that their real motivation is to get some kind of material benefit such as going to Israel to live the good life or to reap financial benefits from the world Jewish community.
It’s hard for many of us to believe that there are people who have simply fallen in love with Judaism, its rituals and ideas, and way of life. These groups whether in Africa, Latin America, Europe, or Asia, point the way for the rest of us.
My wife and I have spent the last few years visiting and encouraging these communities in the context of the Kulanu organization. The first community we visited in Africa was in Cameroon. After meeting members of this group online who had contacted Kulanu, my wife and I packed our bags.
We arrived at Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, and were greeted with open arms by Serge Etele and members of his community, and soon after boarded a passenger van to take us to the Jewish community in the small town of Sa’a around an hour outside the capital.
The van was filled with passengers and goods, with livestock tied to the roof. I must admit that I was a little nervous going to a place I’d never been before to meet people I only knew on the internet in a country I knew nothing about.
We got off the bus at Sa’a and were met by people on motorcycle taxis where you sit right in back of the driver and hold on for dear life. When we got closer to our destination we heard music in the distance. The whole community had gathered to welcome us with song and dance. There was something so joyous and genuine in the welcome that I will remember it for the rest of my life.
We spent Shabbat in Sa’a and watched the women prepare for Shabbat. In order to make challah, they first pounded palm nuts to get the oil. The challot (the Shabbat bread) were baked in dutch ovens, over a blazing open fire and were delicious. Who would have imagined home-baked challah in Cameroon?
I will never forget the look of total joy and pride and delight on the face of Blanche, Serge’s wife, who made the bracha over the mitzvah of separating the dough. The food of course was vegetarian as they had not learned the rules of kosher slaughtering.
They rose at 6 am for a full traditional service in Hebrew and French from Artscroll siddurim (prayer books). The melodies were a combination of melodies popular in our own synagogues and tunes composed by talented musicians from their community. It was one of the most beautiful Shabbatot I had ever experienced.
Serge Etele, their spiritual leader who subsequently became a rabbinical student at Yeshiva Ohr Torah Stone in Israel, explained their journey. “First we were Catholics and did whatever the priest told us to do. Then a revival came through the area and we became Evangelicals. The bishop told us that everything must be proven from Scripture. We studied and studied and saw the contradictions of the New and Old Testaments. We studied more and came to the conclusion that Judaism is the true religion. That first Passover, we killed a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts. Then I went on the internet and discovered Rabbinic Judaism and next year had a seder much as you do.”
Their journey to Judaism was made possible by the internet. In Sa’a, my wife and I were the first non-virtual Jews they had ever seen, yet their practice of Judaism was both deep and detailed.
Before the internet, where would someone interested in finding out about Judaism even get a book? They were only available in major communities. Now there are websites with every kind of information or text you could think of. The websites by Aish, Chabad and others made Judaism accessible while Sefaria puts all of the classics of our religious literature at your fingertips.
Rabbis the world over teach shiurim (classes) online that are available and sometimes designed for beginners around the world searching for knowledge. For the first time since the days of ancient Rome, Judaism became an accessible faith.
Around the world, there are emerging and returning Jewish communities that are coming into existence. Kulanu works with groups in thirty-three countries. Groups all over the world are studying and examining Judaism seriously.
Returning communities are made of people who claim Jewish ancestry. They may be B’nai Anusim, Crypto-Jews, who claim descent from the victims of the Inquisition or descent from the Lost Tribes of Israel or other Israelite ancestors.
Both of these groups have decided to embrace Judaism, celebrate Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, identify with the Jewish people and live Jewish lives.
Underlying the assumption of those who question their sincerity, belies a skepticism about the value of Judaism. These emerging and returning communities point the way for the rest of us by demonstrating the transformative power of Jewish belief.