One of the most important events in recent Jewish history took place in December in the Ivory Coast. Though it gathered no headlines it has the potential of changing Jewish history and destiny by slowly transforming Judaism from the faith of small and often embattled people of 15 million to a truly worldwide religion.
The conference was organized by Kulanu, an organization dedicated to aiding and encouraging emerging, returning and isolated Jewish communities around the globe.
The Sub-Saharan African Jewish Conference, which I was honored to attend, was a first in history, where members of emerging Jewish communities from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Cameroon, Uganda and Ethiopia gathered to learn Torah, sing, celebrate Shabbat, pray together and get to know each other for the very first time. It was a time to break isolation and most importantly to organize.
With the help of Clive Lawton, Director of the Commonwealth Jewish Council, they formed a group called SAJA, the Sub-Saharan African Jewish Alliance, whose goals are to spread Judaism in Africa, to share successes, challenges and resources, to make friendships, and to be a unified voice of the Sub-Saharan Jewish community to the outside world as well as the world Jewish community.
The organization structure was set up and officers and delegates were elected. Modreck Maeresara of Zimbabwe was elected President. Various working groups were formed that were to tackle common issues of visas, conversion women’s issues, and forming Torah study groups. One of the working groups is on matchmaking as people from often small and widely scattered villages find it difficult to meet potential partners.
The communities come from varied backgrounds. Some believe they are of Jewish or Israelite ancestry, ranging from the Ibo in Nigeria who believe they are descendants of Eri the son of Gad mentioned in the Torah, to the Lemba who are believed to be descendants of Jews who migrated there many centuries ago from the Arabian Peninsula to Jews in Tanzania whose Yemenite ancestors settled there in living memory.
Others came to Judaism through religious searching and spiritual exploration. Some such as the Abayadaya of Uganda recently celebrated their hundredth anniversary as Jews and have been practicing for a long time; many are the children of parents who turned to Judaism and some are recent adherents.
The convention featured internationally known academic Professor Tudor Parfitt, FIU who addressed the group on Lost Tribes and Rudy Rockman an internationally known documentarian and advocate documenting Lost Tribes whose arrest and imprisonment in Nigeria caused an international uproar.It was also a time to learn about kashrut and about shechita (koshering slaughtering) under the tutelage of Rabbis Ari Greenspan, a founder of the Tekhelet Organization, Ari Zivotovsky, head of the Department of Brain Science at Bar Ilan University and Eliyahu Birnbaum, director of the Straus-Ariel and Ohr Torah-Nidchei Yisrael Institutes, of the Ohr Torah network.
What united this diverse group, including those such as myself from the United States, was Judaism. We all shared the observance of Shabbat and holidays, the daily cycle of prayers and the practice of Kashrut. This goes along with a knowledge of Hebrew and basic and not so basic Jewish texts.
The level of knowledge and observance among our African friends was in vivid contrast to what one finds in many Jewish communities closer to home. All of the attendees knew Hebrew and were able to understand the davening. All of the services at the conference were led by members of the African communities and not by the rabbis visiting from Israel or the United States.
The conference had the feeling of a joyous reunion of people scattered through many countries. Those from the United States and Israel felt a strong bond of peoplehood with our African friends. We felt that the ties of shared lifestyles and beliefs united us as one.
The conference ended with the lighting of the Chanukah candles for the first night of Chanukah and the joyful presentation of Torah scrolls to the communities of Ethiopia, Ghana and Zimbabwe. These events seemed to be saying that the light of the Torah will now flow freely to places where it was not felt before.
We at this point do not know what will develop. My hope is that the Jewish communities in Africa will grow and thrive and increasingly bring their light to all of us.
For more information on this conference and other emerging Jewish communities around the globe, go to Kulanu.org.