Representatives of Jewish communities in Sub-Saharan Africa gathered last weekend in Ivory Coast to create an umbrella religious organisation for the region.
During a week of activities in Abidjan, the attendees learnt about Jewish practices, such as “kosher” slaughter and burial practices.
“The purpose of this meeting is to bring together all of the emerging Jewish communities that are developing and growing throughout Africa. For example, Nigeria has over 80 orthodox synagogues and it’s growing. And we find this in many countries across Africa. They’ve never met each other. (…) We spent a week together learning and studying the Bible, the Torah, the Jewish traditions and the Jewish law”, explained Arieh Greenspan, co-organizer of the conference.
The event was organized by a Jewish non-profit organization, Kulanu, with the aim of reuniting emerging Jewish communities in Africa.
“They understand that Judaism in Sub-Saharan Africa is sometimes a new phenomenon. Though some believe they are descendants of lost tribes or Israelite tribes in the Bible. Some have found Judaism new. And this group of combined people are practising Judaism, living Jewish lives, and for the first time ever got together to create an alliance”, added Bonita Sussman, known as Rabbanit, president of Kulanu.
On the final day, ahead of the Hannukah celebrations, the group planned to consecrate a new synagogue with the laying of a cornerstone.
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.
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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.
(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.
“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.”
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.
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.