By: Shai Afsai
In August I met up in Abuja, capital of Nigeria, with Congregation Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Barry Dolinger and Naomi Baine, who journeyed to Africa, for the first time, in order to teach the city’s Igbo Jews. Our visit was part of the ongoing relationship between Rhode Island Jewry and Abuja’s Igbo Jews, which began in 2009. That year, Northeastern University professor and Temple Emanu-El member William (Bill) F.S. Miles traveled to Abuja to spend Hanukkah with its Igbo Jews. He returned in 2011, and his experiences during those two visits formed the basis of his Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey (2013). With the encouragement of Professor Miles and Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Wayne Franklin, I went to Abuja in February 2013 to celebrate Purim and learn about Igbo Jewry.
There is a widespread belief among the Igbo of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country of about 180 million inhabitants, that they are descendants of the tribes of Israel. This belief first found written expression in the popular 1789 autobiography of Equiano Olaudah, a former Igbo slave turned British abolitionist, who remarked on “the strong analogy” that “appears to prevail in the manners and customs of my countrymen, and those of the Jews.” Pointing to circumcision, sacrifices, and purifications as examples of this resemblance, he concluded it must be “that the one people had sprung from the other.”
Numbering over 30 million, the Igbo are Nigeria’s third largest ethnic group. Their traditional homeland, Igboland, is located in the southeastern part of the country, though they have spread throughout Nigeria, including its capital city, Abuja. Most Igbo, due to British colonialism and missionary activity, now practice Christianity, but at the same time, many consider themselves ethnically Jewish and strongly identify with the state of Israel.
Following the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), during which at least 1 million Igbo civilians died in the failed bid for Biafran independence, Igbo self-identification as Israelites intensified. Igbo saw themselves as sufferers of genocide, like the Jews of World War II Europe, and as inhabitants of a beleaguered plot of land surrounded by hostile forces, similar to the Jewish state of Israel. Some Igbo also began to question why, if they were in fact Jews, they were practicing Christianity rather than Judaism.
These seekers gradually began to find one another, acquire printed material on Judaism, scour the internet for information, photocopy what prayer books they could lay their hands on, teach themselves to read and pray in Hebrew, advance their practice of the Jewish faith, and connect with western Jews. Their community, not yet recognized by any Jewish denomination or by the state of Israel, numbers somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 people.
Last September, two representatives of Abuja’s Gihon Synagogue, Elder Ovadia Agbai (the synagogue’s leader) and Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, visited Rhode Island for twelve days at the invitation of Congregation Beth Sholom and Temple Emanu-El, celebrating Sukkot, Simchat Torah, and Shemini Atzeret with the Rhode Island Jewish community.
In addition to the support given by the organization Kulanu, our August visit to Abuja was sponsored by Providence’s Temple Beth-El, Congregation Beth Sholom, and Brown RISD Hillel, as well as Barrington’s Temple Habonim. In Abuja, Rabbi Dolinger, Naomi Baine, and I also got together with Lior Shragg, a musicologist from the University of Arizona who is studying Igbo Jewish music.
Check out more pictures from our trip below.