Gerald Sussman

The Next Project of the Jewish People

Weddings in Nigeria. (Bonita Sussman)

The Jewish national project for the last 120 years has been the establishment of the State of Israel. For all that time establishing a Jewish state has been our national hope and dream and towards which our energy, hope and creativity has been directed. We have succeeded. Israel, though still embattled, is a recognized and important actor on today’s world scene.

The question is now what?  Is there a project towards which we, the Jewish people, can direct our hopes, dreams and aspirations?

I believe there is!  If we go back to the Roman empire of the first century, Jews are estimated to be as much as 10% of the population and numbering as many as 7 million.  Judaism was on the intellectual horizons; there were numerous converts and “God Fearers” who adapted many Jewish practices without actually converting to Judaism.

Today we are an often-embattled people of approximately 15 million making up at most .2% of the world’s population.  If you take the population figures from ancient Rome and figure in the increase of the world’s population since that time, we Jews should number in the hundreds of millions.

Just as we rebuilt the land, today’s task is to rebuild the Jewish people. There are two places where we may be witnessing the birth of important and large Jewish communities.

The first is Africa. Many Africans feel drawn towards Judaism with its nature centered holiday cycles, emphasis on family groups and a strong concept of being part of a tribe. Many, such as the over 30 million Ibos of Nigeria believe they have Jewish forbearers and observe practices that are characteristic of Jewish tradition such as circumcision, menstrual seclusion and Sabbath rest. The Ibos I met were confident, well-educated and enthusiastic about their Jewish observance.

Rabbi Sussman teaching about the mitzva of tefillin to Alexander Cornet Zouko, Ivory Coast

A little more than a month ago, I attended a conference organized by Kulanu in Abidjan, Ivory Coast where leaders of communities in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Madagascar founded the Sub Saharan African Jewish Alliance to coordinate their activities and deal with the challenges they face in an organized way.  I believe these communities will grow and thrive in the coming years and produce Jewish scholars, visionaries, and leaders for the Jewish people.

The second place is Latin America. Many Crypto-Jews are known to have fled to the New World to escape the Inquisition in their native Spain and Portugal.  Genetic studies have shown that up to a quarter of the population in the Latin Americans have some Jewish ancestry.

Children learning Torah, El Salvador. Photo: Asher Cornejo

Some have preserved vague memories of certain Jewish customs.  I recall a young man in Brazil telling me that as a child he would be playing ball in the street on a Friday afternoon when his mother would call him home.  She would tell him to take a bath and put on his good clothing. The family would gather and his mother would light the candles.  She did not know why but only that it was an important family custom.

He at first thought it was a Catholic custom but realized that none of his Catholic friends’ families did the same.  After a long and complicated process, he returned to Judaism becoming active in a synagogue of people with similar backgrounds.

Today all across Latin America people are returning to Judaism.  They are for the most part not being welcomed into the existing Jewish communities.  They are forming their own young and dynamic congregations and, in some places, outnumber the established communities.

Genie Milgrom, international advocate, author and former president of the Crypto-Jewish Society works with over ninety such groups in Latin America and there are many more springing up.  Genie, and in cooperation with the American Sephardi Federation, helps people do genealogical research and issues certificates of Sephardic ancestry.  The fear of being Jewish has ebbed and many after 500 years many are returning.

Community in El Salvador. Photo: Asher Cornejo

All over the world people are discovering Judaism as a viable religious alternative.  Because of the internet information about Judaism and Jewish texts are readily available.  Rabbis and scholars in established communities in the US, Israel and Europe give on line classes to those that are seeking greater knowledge.

There are spiritual seekers all over the world, including in our own country, who are attracted to Judaism.  It is the task of the worldwide Jewish community to nurture and encourage this trend.  It is true that Judaism discourages proselytization.  Sending missionaries around the world to persuade people to become Jewish has not been our way, yet what should be our response when they come to us as knowledgeable and practicing believers in our faith knocking on the doors for admission? Shouldn’t we open those doors?

Just as large parts of the Jewish community rejected Herzl and Zionism there are those who want to shut the doors to those who wish to become part of the Jewish faith and people. Within less than 100 years Zionism succeeded in fulfilling the dream of establishing a Jewish state, so within in the next 100, my vision is that we will see Judaism rooted in new and growing Jewish communities all over the world and that we will be transformed from a tiny and oft despised group into one respected and admired.

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.
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