Madagascar’s New Jews – A Triumph for Jewish Diversity

Kulanu, that remarkable organization that for more than twenty years has supported isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world, has just given us Jews yet another opportunity for major kvelling. Kulanu is a Hebrew word that means “all of us,” and the “all” has just expanded to Madagascar where a group of families who have been studying Judaism for more than five years are about to become Kulanu’s and the world’s newest Jews.

Madagascar, an island whose land area is nearly twice the size of the US state of Arizona, is located in the western Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique, an area not considered traditionally Jewish. Yet, in just a few months (May 2016) 42 members of five Malagasy families will make formal Jewish conversion and gain recognition as part of the worldwide Jewish community. Three rabbis will travel from the United States and Canada to officiate at the conversion process which includes examination by a Bet Din (rabbinic court) followed by the traditional ritual mikveh immersion. Then formality turns to joyful simcha as these same rabbis welcome Malagasy couples under the chuppah (wedding canopy) for a spate of joyful Jewish weddings.

The story of the Malagasy Jews did not begin with conversion or even with the five years of study and preparation that led to their formal acceptance into the Jewish world. Yakov Zamir, a Kulanu Board member who visited the community several years ago recalls, “Most Malagasies I talked with sincerely believe that they were descended from Israelites — they are Jews from the time of Solomon.”

Zamir recounts how he celebrated of Rosh HaShanah with this hospitable community. “I attended at the invitation of Madame Elysabelle, a charming woman who regularly attends Shabbat and festival services. When I arrived I noticed a table set with machsorim and siddurim (holiday and daily prayer books), along with bread and grape juice for the Kiddush.  The shofar blowing was the best and the most raucous I’ve ever heard with probably ten or more men trying to outdo one another.  But it was Tubi, the self-taught  hazzan (cantor) who outstripped them all!  It was a joyous occasion, with everyone dressed in white!”

Thanks to some heavy schlepping by Mr. Zamir, the community received its first Torah, a gift from the Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue in New York City. Zamir recalls how he hand- carried the scroll in a duffle bag which was then presented to four men from the Communaute Juive de Madagascar, all of whom consider themselves descendants of pure-blood Jews.  As Zamir writes, “These four men had fewer Gentile ancestors than most Ashkenazim and most Israelis.  But for the short interval of our first meeting, there was no mention of this. There were few words exchanged. Instead there was joy, pure and unadulterated joy that they were receiving this precious Sefer Torah from true friends in America.”

For the most part the Malagasy Jews believe, as do many b’nei anusim the world over, that they are already Jewish and from their perspective making formal conversion is a gesture of generosity on their part, as much as it is for those who travel to make it happen.  So as the Bet Din convenes, as the Sheva Brachot wedding blessings are sung and as preparations for the May conference and concert reach their conclusion, Mr. Zamir’s words ring true: “As resilient as Jews have proven themselves to be for millennia, we “regular” Jews have met our match in the Malagasies who have preserved the legends of their Israelite origins for hundreds of years – perhaps even longer. Whether they were lost in the past, now they are found.  And all of us are the richer for that.”

For information on the Madagascar community and conference contact

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots