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The Igbo Jews who came to Providence

An American Jewish community connects, through the shared experience of Hebrew prayer, with visitors from Nigeria

One evening in June, I phoned Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, spokesman of Abuja’s Gihon Synagogue in Nigeria. It was evening in Rhode Island, but Nigeria is six hours ahead, and so even though Pinchas is an early riser, I could tell from his voice that I’d woken him.

When I’d met Pinchas in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, some four months earlier, he’d emphasized that one of the biggest difficulties facing the country’s roughly 2,000-3,000 Igbo Jews is their isolation from other Jewish communities around the world.

I’d been considering that difficulty ever since returning to Rhode Island.

The Igbo, whose traditional homeland is in southeastern Nigeria, are the country’s third-largest ethnic group. Most are Christian, but many Igbo, even while practicing Christianity, consider themselves ethnically Jewish and members of the lost tribes of Israel. In the past few decades, several thousand Igbo have gone a step further and embraced Jewish practice, which they view as their lost heritage, though so far only a small number have undergone a formal conversion.

(Left to right) Ariel Ngene, Shai Afsai and Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa outside Gihon Synagogue in Abuja, Nigeria (Photo credit: Shai Afsai)
(Left to right) Ariel Ngene, Shai Afsai and Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa outside Gihon Synagogue in Abuja, Nigeria (Photo credit: Shai Afsai)

Now, waking Pinchas, I suggested that as a step toward breaking their isolation, Abuja’s Igbo Jews choose a representative to come to Rhode Island. He asked to sleep on the matter and then get back to me.

I’d already discussed the idea with Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Congregation Beth Sholom and Rabbi Wayne Franklin of Temple Emanu-El — two Providence rabbis interested in fostering a relationship between their synagogues and Abuja’s Igbo Jews — as well as with Northeastern University professor William Miles, author of “Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey.”

Rabbi Franklin and Professor Miles had encouraged my February visit to Abuja to celebrate the holiday of Purim (the Festival of Lots) and spend time with the city’s Igbo Jews. I’d stayed at the home of Elder Habakkuk Nwafor — head of Abuja’s Tikvat Israel Synagogue — and his family. Pinchas and I had spent hours talking about Nigerian Jewry in Habakkuk’s courtyard and while driving to sites around Abuja.

A few days after phoning Pinchas, I received an email.

“Shai, my brother, it will be a great honor and immense blessing to have one of us visit and bring our story to Jews in Rhode Island,” Pinchas wrote. “It is a beautiful, brilliant and wonderful idea. The Nigerian Jewish community will be enriched immensely through this awareness in your state.”

Pinchas informed me that Elder Ovadia Agbai, the nearly 70-year-old leader of Gihon, the largest of Abuja’s three Igbo synagogues, would be the one to take the trip to Rhode Island — and that Pinchas would make every effort to join him as well.

Rabbi Dolinger and Rabbi Franklin proposed that the elders come to the United States in September, during the holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, so that they might experience their celebration in Rhode Island.

The rabbis’ proposal appealed to Pinchas and Ovadia, and in September the two elders flew abroad for the first time, leaving Africa’s most populous country with more than 175 million inhabitants for a 12-day visit to the smallest state in the US. Prior to this trip, neither man had ever applied for a visa. Pinchas, who is in his 50s, had never held a passport.

There was a great deal of anticipation in Rhode Island about the elders’ holiday visit, and as word had spread it became difficult as I tried to accommodate all of the invitations from synagogues that wanted them to participate in services and from families who wanted to host them for meals.

(Left to right) David Micley  interviews Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, Gabe Fine, and Elder Ovadia Agbai in Boston, Massachusetts (Photo credit - Shai Afsai)
(Left to right) David Micley interviews Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, Gabe Fine, and Elder Ovadia Agbai in Boston, Massachusetts (Photo credit – Shai Afsai)

When they arrived, Ovadia and Pinchas saw much that was novel and unfamiliar to them. They marveled at the number of rabbis, including young men in their 20s, who lived in Rhode Island. There are no rabbis among the Igbo Jews and it’s been five years since a rabbi from abroad has visited their community in Abuja.

In addition to wondering how they might have some of their own young men come to the United States for rabbinic training, they also wondered how they might provide a Jewish education for children in Abuja similar to that offered at the Providence Hebrew Day School and at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island.

At the same time, there was much that was very familiar. During a tour of Newport’s Touro Synagogue, they learned of the struggles of Newport’s first Jewish residents to establish themselves in 17th and 18th-century Rhode Island, and of the small congregation’s early efforts to obtain a rabbi and house of worship, all of which Ovadia and Pinchas identified with as Igbo Jews.

Rabbi Wayne Franklin, in Nigerian garb, listens to the elders talk to students at Temple Emanu-El's Relgious School in Providence ( Photo credit - Shai Afsai)
Rabbi Wayne Franklin, in Nigerian garb, listens to the elders talk to students at Temple Emanu-El’s Relgious School in Providence ( Photo credit – Shai Afsai)

A particularly moving moment of the elders’ visit took place a couple of days after their arrival, during morning services at Congregation Beth Sholom.

On our way to the synagogue, I asked Pinchas if he would speak during services, and he said he’d be happy to. However, when he stood before the congregation to speak, he fought back tears, and I wondered if he’d be able to regain his composure. Afterward, I told him that I had a similar experience when I was asked to speak in front of the members of Tikvat Israel Synagogue in Abuja.

There is something about being half way across the world, among people who look very different and speak a different native tongue — but are praying in the same Hebrew and following the same service — that makes words difficult and tears easy.

Eventually, Pinchas collected himself and told Beth Sholom’s members a little about Igbo Jewry and about how he and Ovadia came to find themselves in Rhode Island. Before concluding his talk, he asked to share one of the Igbo Jewish prayer melodies that are sung during services at Gihon Synagogue. He chose the Hebrew song “Romemu,” whose words translate as “exalt the Lord our God, and let us bow at His holy mountain.”

Pinchas possesses a deep and sonorous voice, and was known as a bit of a crooner in his younger days. The highs and lows of the song took me by surprise. When I escorted him back to his seat, it was evident that many of the people in the synagogue, including Rabbi Dolinger, had been moved to tears by his words and by the melody.

After shaking Pinchas’ hand, one of the congregants, Barry Bessler, said to me, “I’ve never felt prouder to be a member of Beth Sholom than right now.” He was happy his teenage daughter had been there to hear the talk.

“When Pinchas sang in our synagogue, it brought tears to my eyes,” Rabbi Dolinger later told me. “The sincerity and raw power of his emotion, faith, and struggle was embodied by his voice.”

The rabbi considers the elders’ participation in the synagogue service to be a transformative event. “The words of the song themselves, about elevating the one God, and the reality of the moment, with Igbo Jews actually in our synagogue in Providence, in the flesh, was awe-inspiring beyond anything I’ve ever experienced,” he explained. “The idea that another human being, with such a different life, looking so different, and living a world apart was professing the same basic belief in one loving God bound us all together.”

As we left the synagogue that afternoon for lunch with Rabbi Dolinger and his wife Naomi, Pinchas turned to me and said, “Beth Sholom is our home.”

(Left to right) Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, Elder Ovadia Agbai, Rabbi Barry Dolinger, and Naomi Dolinger at the Dolinger's sukkah in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (Photo credit - Shai Afsai)
(Left to right) Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, Elder Ovadia Agbai, Rabbi Barry Dolinger, and Naomi Dolinger at the Dolinger’s sukkah in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (Photo credit – Shai Afsai)

Pinchas and Ovadia returned to Abuja at the end of September, leaving a profound impression on Providence’s Jewish community, including the members of Congregation Beth Sholom and Temple Emanu-El. One indication of this is that now, having met the elders, Rabbi Dolinger and his wife are planning to travel to Abuja in August in order to teach at its Igbo synagogues.

He will be the first rabbi to visit the Igbo Jews in five years. A visit from a rabbi’s wife is even rarer, and Naomi is particularly looking forward to studying with the women in Abuja.

A version of this article appeared in the Providence Journal on December 15.

About the Author
Shai Afsai's writing has been published in The Forward, Haaretz, Arutz Sheva/Israel National News, The Jerusalem Post, The Providence Journal, Anthropology Today, Underground Voices, Jewish Quarterly, Journal of the American Revolution, Midstream, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, New English Review, CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Rhode Island History, The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Times of Israel, CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Heredom, and Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes.
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