Category Archives: News

Rebuilding the Jewish People: A New Option

Rabbi Sussman teaching in Antananarivo, Madagascar
Rabbi Sussman teaching in Antananarivo, Madagascar

Imagine taking a trip on one of those huge luxurious cruise ships unbeknownst to you the course is altered by a few degrees. While you are traveling everything seems the same except that because of this seemingly small course alteration the ship will end up arriving at a destination completely different from the one you expected.

Right now an important and I believe decisive development is taking place which, while at this moment mostly unnoticed, will with time transform the Jewish faith and people from the tiny and often embattled minority that we are, to a truly international people with numerous adherents in every corner of the globe.

All the headlines about antisemitism have obscured the fact that all over the world people are turning toward Judaism. New Jewish communities are emerging in Africa which proclaim descent from the Lost Tribes or who have found that their search for religious truth has led them to Judaism.

In Latin America, numerous communities are springing up being founded by Crypto Jews who no longer want to keep their Jewish ancestry a secret but publicly embrace their Jewish roots and openly practice Judaism and are rejected by the Jewish establishment.

The same phenomenon is also found to some extent in India and to a limited extent in Europe. Even in the United States there are Christian backgrounds who are seriously exploring Judaism.

In the coming months, I hope to introduce you to specific emerging communities, their histories, practices and the issues they face. To name a few there are the 30 million plus Ibos in Nigeria and the two mllion Danites in the Ivory Coast, the B’nai Ephraim of South East India, or the Gogodalas of Papua New Guinea who claim that the Ark and the staff of Moses lie under the water of the Fly River lagoon. I also want to introduce you to some of the academic study who of these groups.

Will these new communities lead to a different definition of Judaism? Does racism play a role in their acceptance? Are Jews a race? Does the field of Jewish genetics play a role? What role does socio-economics play? What would be the consequences of the new communities coming to comprise the majority of the Jewish people?

I first became interested in the subject back in 2007, when my wife and I attended a conference at the Academy For Jewish Religion where my wife taught. We met a leader of the Abayudaya community of Uganda and offered to volunteer. We ended up volunteering for the Bnai Ephraim community in India, It was a life-changing experience. Since then I’ve been to Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and Nicaragua as a volunteer for Kulanu, an organization which supports emerging, returning and isolated communities around the globe and of which my wife Bonita now serves as president.

If these issues excite you please become a regular reader and share.

*****

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.

Kulanu Fall Magazine Now Available Online

We are excited to announce a wonderful new issue of Kulanu’s magazine. The Fall 2022 issue (volume 29, no 2) is available in full color online.

Simply follow this link or click on the cover below to explore stories on diverse topics including…

  • How “Mama Harriet” Changed the World
  • Jewish Weddings Around the World
  • “Harriet Believed in All of Us”
  • and more!

Thanks to Judi Kloper, our editor, and Lisa Yagoda, our photo and layout editor, and to all the authors and photographers for another fascinating issue!

New York Times: Harriet Bograd, Champion of Jews in Africa, Dies 79

Harriet Bograd in 2011 at a Jewish-themed primary school in Uganda that is open to Christians and Muslims. She was for many years the president of Kulanu, an organization that supports Jewish communities in places where even most American Jews don’t realize there are Jews. Credit…Barbara Vinick, via Kulanu
Harriet Bograd in 2011 at a Jewish-themed primary school in Uganda that is open to Christians and Muslims. She was for many years the president of Kulanu, an organization that supports Jewish communities in places where even most American Jews don’t realize there are Jews. (Credit – Barbara Vinick, via Kulanu)

By Joseph Berger
Published Nov. 23, 2022

In the summer of 2001, Harriet Bograd decided to visit her daughter Margie, who had taken a summer job in a remote village in Ghana.

When Ms. Bograd and her husband, Ken Klein, arrived in the village, Sefwi Wiawso, they learned about its community of two dozen families who considered themselves Jewish, even if the religious authorities in Israel and elsewhere did not.

In the week she was there, Ms. Bograd, whose husband called her “one of life’s great enthusiasts,” turned her enchantment with the villagers into a practical project that has become a major source of income for the community. She guided artisans in fashioning the colorful kente cloth sold in the local market into covers for the braided challahs that observant Jews bless and eat during Sabbath and holiday meals. A trained lawyer, she set the community up as an incorporated business that sold the challah covers across the United States for $36 apiece. Thousands have been purchased.

In the years after that trip, Ms. Bograd worked with the nonprofit organization Kulanu, which supports “isolated, emerging or returning” Jewish communities in places where even most American Jews don’t realize there are Jews: Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon, Madagascar, Indonesia, Pakistan, Guatemala, the Philippines and more — 33 countries in total.

These are people who for generations have kept some fundamental Jewish laws, like resting on the Sabbath and abstaining from certain foods, but who may have had only opaque ideas of their community’s Jewish origins.

Ms. Bograd with her husband, Ken Klein, on a trip to Ghana in 2001. Her experience there motivated her to join Kulanu. (Credi – Joseph Kwame Nipah, via Kulanu)

They trace their Jewish roots to a variety of sources: the 10 lost tribes that were dispersed by the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E.; the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions, which, starting in the late 15th century, scattered thousands of Jews in far-off lands, where many practiced their religion in secret; and the century-old conversions by communal leaders more attracted to the Old Testament than the teachings of Christian missionaries.

“It gave her such joy that these Jewish people felt they were connected to the greater Jewish world and felt they belonged,” Mollie Levine, the deputy director of Kulanu, said in an interview.

Ms. Bograd died on Sept. 17 in a Manhattan hospital. She was 79. Her daughter Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin said the cause was complications of heart surgery.

So exhilarated was Ms. Bograd by her experience in Ghana that she promptly joined the board of Kulanu. By her death, she had served as its president for 14 years. The organization’s headquarters were in the study of her Upper West Side apartment.

Under her command, the organization, whose Hebrew name means “all of us,” raised funds to build synagogues in Uganda and Zimbabwe; a Jewish-themed primary school in Uganda that is open to Christians and Muslims; and a mikvah — a ritual bath — in Tanzania. With a budget of around $500,000, Kulanu has also provided rabbinical training and advanced classes in Judaism at American seminaries for community leaders and distributed prayer books, Torah scrolls, prayer shawls and other ritual items.

Kulanu’s work has not been without controversy. While Jews in Ethiopia have been recognized by the Orthodox authorities in Israel as authentically Jewish, those in other parts of Africa have not been. Efforts by Conservative rabbis to formally convert some Africans to Judaism have encountered challenges because the Orthodox establishment in Israel does not recognize the legitimacy of Conservative rabbis. Bonita Nathan Sussman, Kulanu’s new president, said that many Africans also reject conversion, arguing, “Who are you to tell me I’m not Jewish?”

On the other hand, Ms. Levine said, Ms. Bograd “met them at the level where they are.”

She was active in Jewish causes in New York as well. In the early 1980s, she and other parents partnered with educators to found the Heschel School, a Jewish day school in Manhattan that now enrolls about a thousand students. And at the West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation, she was known for the warm way she greeted newcomers, an act congregants affectionately called “Bograding.”

Harriet Mary Bograd was born on April 6, 1943, into a Conservative Jewish home in Paterson, N.J. Her father, Samuel Bograd, owned an upscale furniture emporium with an uncle. Her mother, Pauline (Klemes) Bograd, sometimes helped her husband with his business and was a leader in a local chapter of Planned Parenthood.

Harriet attended a special high school operated by Montclair State Teachers College (now Montclair State University) and graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1963 with a degree in political science. The summer she graduated, she arranged for a group of nine white Bryn Mawr students to teach at Livingstone College, a historically Black college in Salisbury, N.C., so that they could absorb the impact of the growing civil rights movement.

A 1963 yearbook photo of Ms. Bograd. She graduated from Bryn Mawr that year and went on to Yale Law School. (Credit – Special Collections, Bryn Mawr College Libraries)

One of 11 women in her class at Yale Law School, she graduated in 1966. Rather then joining a law firm, she went to work for an organization in New Haven, Conn., that represented indigent clients in matters like access to medical care and that trained local residents to be advocates for themselves and their neighbors.

She helped start a day care center in New Haven, joined with other parents and teachers in a drive to improve local public schools, and campaigned for the government to approach drug addiction as a crisis of health and poverty rather than a crime.

She married Mr. Klein, a tax lawyer, in 1977. In addition to her daughter Rabbi Klein Ronkin, he survives her, as do another daughter, Sarah Klein; a sister, Naomi Robbins; and two grandchildren.

When Ms. Bograd received a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer in 1997 with a bleak prognosis, it made her only more determined to use her remaining time for the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam — “repairing the world” — and for her work with Kulanu.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said Ms. Bograd had also seen Kulanu as a vehicle to expand the mainstream Jewish sense of what Jews are supposed to look like.

“She felt it enhanced American Judaism to recognize that all Jews are not white and European,” he said.

Joseph Berger was a reporter and editor at The New York Times for 30 years. He is the author of a biography of Elie Wiesel, which is scheduled for publication in February.

Patagonia’s first new synagogue in over 40 years reveals a growing Argentine-Jewish community

BY JUAN MELAMED • NOVEMBER 15, 2022

Claudio Ploit seen holding a Torah scroll with members of the San Martin de los Andes Jewish community. (Gustavo Castaign/ Courtesy Comunidad Hebrea San Martin de los Andes)
Claudio Ploit seen holding a Torah scroll with members of the San Martin de los Andes Jewish community. (Gustavo Castaign/ Courtesy Comunidad Hebrea San Martin de los Andes)

(JTA) — Patagonia, Argentina’s famously beautiful southern region, has been a haven for Israeli backpackers, vacationers from Buenos Aires and, in the 20th century, Nazi war criminals.

What the scenic territory hasn’t had for nearly 40 years is a new synagogue.

That has changed in the last year, as a group of Jews living in San Martín de los Andes have inaugurated the first-ever synagogue in their city. The synagogue is just the second Jewish institution in the 400,000-square-mile Patagonia region, and the first new synagogue in all of Argentina in years that is not affiliated with the growing Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox movement.

Instead, the Hebrew Community of San Martín de los Andes is affiliated with the Conservative movement of Judaism, which is shrinking overall. Its founders have gotten support from Argentina’s Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, based in Buenos Aires, as well as from multiple synagogues in the Buenos Aires area.

The first event in the synagogue was a Passover seder in April, and over the last month, the community held services for the High Holidays for the first time ever in a permanent home.

The small venue, just 1,200 square feet, is located in the center of the city, just a few minutes’ walk from both the bus terminal and Lacar Lake. On Rosh Hashanah, 85 people gathered for a festive dinner, more than twice as many as had taken part in previous years. They included tourists from across Argentina and abroad, as well as people from the local community of about 150 Jews.

“It was very moving, the first Yom Kippur in our own synagogue in our city and we saw the children at the Neilah service with candles,” Eduardo Labaton, president of the city’s fledgling Jewish community, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It was a very important start of our synagogue services here.”

The synagogue was initially the vision of Labaton, who moved from Buenos Aires 20 years ago.

“We met in houses,” he recalled about past Jewish activities in San Martín de los Andes. “But we couldn’t invite a lot of people to houses.”

Three years ago Labaton, who works in real estate and retail, bought land near the lake and included a space to build a place for the community. But then Claudio Ploit, then the community’s vice president, proposed going even bigger and securing a Torah for the community. Suddenly, the group was talking about building a full-fledged synagogue.

Ploit, a well connected senior leader in the Buenos Aires community who has a tourist business in Patagonia and divides his time between the capital city and San Martín de los Andes, was instrumental in securing resources for the Patagonian project. In addition to the funding from the Seminario, he also secured a Torah from the Weitzman Jewish community and visiting rabbis from the Lamroth Hakol community, both in Buenos Aires.

Tourists walk down a shopping street in San Martín de los Andes, Argentina.
Tourists walk down a shopping street in San Martín de los Andes, Argentina.

“I read texts about the deep importance of inaugurating a synagogue but experiencing that firsthand is a very moving experience,” Rabbi Deborah Rosenberg, the director of education at Lamroth Hakol from Buenos Aires who is working with the San Martín de los Andes community, told JTA. “The first Shabbat in a new temple was very emotional for me.”

Before the San Martín de los Andes dedication, the only Jewish institution operating in all of Patagonia was a Chabad house in Bariloche, another vacation spot three hours’ drive south, that routinely hosts hundreds of Israeli backpackers at Passover. (The Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke directed the German school of Bariloche for many years before being arrested in 1994 and becoming a symbol of how easily Argentina accommodated former Nazis.)

Argentina has the world’s sixth-largest Jewish population, estimated at 180,000 according to a 2019 report. But most of those Jews live in the Buenos Aires area, and there are no reliable estimates of the number of Jews living in Patagonia.

What’s clear is that there are more than Labaton and Ploit knew about — and that more are always passing through. Patagonia has always been a desirable region for travel, especially for nature-lovers and athletes eager to enjoy summer skiing. The recent collapse of the Argentinian peso is a crisis in many ways, but it has benefited Patagonia: Argentina has become more affordable for foreign visitors and the only place that many Argentines can afford to travel to.

Last year, the average hotel occupancy rate in Patagonia was 97%. Some of those visitors have made appearances at the new synagogue.

“I talked with a lady from the United States, a tourist that was very moved by the possibility of having a religious service during his trip to Patagonia and also some sportsmen that were in the city for trekking and running that happily joined the ceremonies,” Rosenberg recalled about the dedication ceremony.

Around 70 people were at the ceremony, mostly from major Jewish institutions in Buenos Aires. But local community leaders also welcomed around 15 Jews from the region that they didn’t know before, including a resident of another southern city called Zapala located 150 miles north and a man that came to donate a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, to the synagogue.

Mario Jakszyn, a community member who helped organize the event, said the turnout had not been anticipated.

“At first we set a few chairs to avoid the image of an empty synagogue in case few people came, but quickly we had to add more and more chairs,” Jakzyn said.

Jews living in San Martín de los Andes have inaugurated the first-ever synagogue in their city. (Gustavo Castaign/ Courtesy Comunidad Hebrea San Martín de los Andes)
Jews living in San Martín de los Andes have inaugurated the first-ever synagogue in their city. (Gustavo Castaign/ Courtesy Comunidad Hebrea San Martín de los Andes)

He and another community member, Tamar Schnaider, have been volunteering to lead Shabbat services every Friday. Tourists are always present, he said, and because the group eats Shabbat dinner together, the festivities often do not end until midnight.

The group is hoping to hire a rabbi of their own in the future, but in the meantime, they are collaborating with Lamroth Hakol to organize regular services.

Ploit, a triathlete who was in Argentina’s record squad in this summer’s Maccabiah Games in Israel, wants to make the new synagogue a destination for Jewish athletes who come to Patagonia. He’s planning a Shabbat dinner focused on local athletes, and he is talking with the Argentine Maccabiah sports federation about launching a ski camp — and, potentially, Maccabiah’s first winter sports event in Argentina.

This week, Argentina is hosting the Gran Fondo Siete Lagos, an international cycling competition throughout Patagonia’s mountains, forests and lakes. This year’s route begins in San Martín de los Andes, and Ploit has organized a Shabbat meal at the synagogue the night before the race begins. He already has 80 people registered.

“We keep moving,” he said about his community.