Cameroon’s Beth Yeshourun Community Welcomes First Jewish Visitors

image: Cameroon context map

On March 28, 2010, Kulanu president Harriet Bograd received an email from a small community in Cameroon asking for Kulanu’s help in normalizing its Jewish practice and helping its members convert to Judaism. The message detailed some of the group’s religious observances, including Purim, Passover and Shabbat, and expressed hope that Kulanu would respond to its overture. A spate of surprising and exciting correspondence followed in which Serge Etele, the leader of the community, completed Kulanu’s Community Information Form detailing the history of his community, its introduction to and interest in Judaism, a description of current Jewish religious practice, the Jewish learning activities/resources being used and his interaction with several rabbis in the worldwide Jewish community. The community called itself Beth Yeshourun (House of the Righteous).

According to Serge, the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon evolved from a 1,000 strong Evangelical Christian group some 12 years ago. After studying the life of Jesus, a small number of adherents (today numbering about 60) decided that they no longer wanted to practice Christianity and turned instead to Judaism, embracing Old Testament practices. As in the case of Uganda’s Abuyadaya Jewish community in 1919, those embracing Judaism had never met any Jews and had no in-person guidance or mentoring in developing their Jewish identity.

image: Little girl at Passover seder (photo by Serge Etele)

Little girl at Passover seder
Photo by Serge Etele

All the more astonishing is the story of how community leaders educated themselves about Jewish religious laws and customs with the help of the Internet, downloading prayers, music, theological and historical information, anything that would inform their religious knowledge and practice. Eventually, again through the Internet, Serge managed to contact rabbis in England, France and one in the United States to pursue the community’s desire to become Jews and to explore conversion.

Serge discovered Kulanu while researching Judaism on the Internet. “I chose to write to Kulanu,” he said, “because I read in the goals that Kulanu helps isolated Jewish communities. And we were an isolated community practicing Judaism.” He was particularly excited about Kulanu’s relationship with the Abayudaya in Uganda and was convinced that Kulanu would be able to help his community end its isolation and join the mainstream. In his Community Information Form, Serge asked for a rabbi/teacher to visit Cameroon and help his community develop its Jewish practice. Rabbis Bonita and Gerald Sussman of Staten Island, devoted Kulanu volunteers and fluent in both French and Hebrew, answered the call. This summer, on July 21, the Sussmans arrived in Cameroon for two weeks of teaching. Below are some of the impressions and experiences that Bonita, Gerald and Serge shared with Kulanu after the visit. JM

SUSSMANS: Before leaving for Cameroon, we decided to take with us cans of tuna and sardines just in case kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) was a problem during our visit. To our surprise, there was no problem. Community members reassured us that they used their pots only for vegetables and fish, and where that was not the case, new pots were purchased to make sure kashrut would be adequate for our needs. The community’s deep knowledge and practice of Jewish dietary laws was but the first of many extraordinary observations we made during our two weeks in Cameroon. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

We were met at the airport at 5 AM on July 21st by our soon to be new family, the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon, and taken to our hotel where we crashed for about six hours.

SERGE: We were more than 10 people at the Yaounde1 airport when the Sussmans arrived. All the people in the community were really happy to welcome them and they, in turn, were happy to find so many people waiting for them. We took them to their hotel to get some rest and in the afternoon they were invited for a meal prepared for them by the community. We were so eager to hear from them that we spent many hours after the meal just asking them questions.

SUSSMANS: Serge, the head of the community, picked us up for dinner and delivered us to the home of a community member. We had a great feast. Our meal consisted of fried fish, lettuce, tomato, avocado salad, spinach salad, plantain and some funny-sounding staple, now known to us as bâton de manioc (cassava). Our hosts served wine. Although kosher by conservative movement standards, we chose to drink beer instead. We noted that our community hosts all washed their hands before eating and did mayim achronim (final washing) afterward using a large pitcher and bin both times. From that first night, the community was eager to ask us questions on Judaism, ritual, theology, and customs. We were amazed at their level of knowledge and the thoughtfulness and depth of their questions. They were so into theology and the reasons for things and expressed a deep desire to know how to perfect their practice.

SERGE: The next day, the Sussmans visited both the American and Israeli Embassies to announce their presence, and afterwards, we traveled to our community of SAA. Currently, the spiritual center of the community is located in the village of SAA with additional members residing in Cameroon’s capital city of Yaounde and in Douala, the economic center of the country. Members gather in SAA for Shabbat and holidays. It is about one and a half hours traveling.

The welcome ceremony was very solemn with traditional music and dance and a child giving them a bouquet of flowers. They were really moved by the reception and joy that people had to see them. After this there was a speech of welcome made by the leader of the community, who I am. The Sussmans also presented the gifts they brought to the community: tefillin (phylacteries), a shofar (ram’s horn), a siddur (prayer book), three mezuzot (prayer for door posts), sets of Talmud, a book of Mishnah, a manual of Jewish religious rituals, ceremonials and customs called Hamadrikh (Hebrew for the counselor), the Megilla (scroll) of Purim, books and tools for learning the Aleph Beth (ABC), books on Jewish history, clothes to cover the matzah (unleavened bread), and challah (Sabbath bread) and chocolate sweets for the children, etc. After the gifts presentation, people could ask their questions and the Sussmans spent lots of time doing that.

image: Making challah (photo by the Sussmans)

Making challah
Photo by the Sussmans

SUSSMANS: Our welcome was truly special. Throughout our stay, the hospitality in the community was amazing. We told them it was like our father Abraham who was known for his hospitality. Just as Abraham opened his home to all travelers, they had welcomed us with graciousness and warmth. This elicited elation and applause. In his welcome speech, Serge quoted Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel (prior to statehood). We were duly impressed.

SERGE: In SAA the Sussmans were offerered home hospitality in my father’s house that also serves as the synagogue. My father is called Moreh (teacher) Nahman and he is the spiritual head of the community.

SUSSMANS: Our accommodations in SAA were very comfortable. They gave us our own key to the outhouse and a private room with a very comfortable bed and mosquito net. (Bonita: That was a relief. I had not been able to get a Yellow Fever vaccination before the trip due to a pre-existing condition, and I had been particularly concerned about the mosquitoes we might find there. Actually we did not encounter any mosquitoes at all, probably because we hit a cool spell.)

After spending some time in India with the Bene Ephraim Teluga Jewish community, we were eager to see what life was like in Cameroon. We found the homes very nice and spacious; however, there was no running water or indoor plumbing. And little electricity. Women spent the day caring for babies, cooking and doing laundry by hand. Community members appeared to be very educated and spoke several languages, so communication was easy. That was in SAA. In the capital city of Yaounde, indoor plumbing and electricity were available.

image: Hand-washing at Passover seder (photo by Serge Etele)

Hand-washing at Passover seder
Photo by Serge Etele

Life in SAA is full of togetherness and everyone helps raise the children and cooks, which was of particular interest. One peels the garlic and the other takes away the peel. (Bonita: I have a garlic ginger recipe for fish which I hope to make now that I am home.) Food is plentiful and everyone eats together.

There were definitely some differences with our experiences in India. In Cameroon, as in India, the streets are often unpaved with open sewers exposed. However, in India the stench was unavoidable. In Cameroon, there was no stench from the sewers. There the unpaved streets are made of dirt and things become grimy from the dirt that is kicked up from the moving vehicles.

SERGE: Besides the trips to the embassies and a little sightseeing, the stay was made up mostly of Shabbat preparation and observance and studies. We learned a lot.

SUSSMANS: From day one, members of the community were eager to ask us questions on many subjects and to take advantage of our presence. One night we had a discussion on Jews in Africa and the problems they face. One girl asked our advice about a problem she was facing. In Cameroon there are arranged marriages and her parents threatened to disown her if she married a Jewish man. Others talked of Christians trying to convert them all the time. We told them this is a problem for all Jews. Another question was how to keep kosher at a family event with non-Jewish relatives when food is not kosher. When you do not travel on the Sabbath, what do you do when a family member has died and is not Jewish and the funeral is held on the Sabbath?

image: Rabbi Gerald Sussman teaches a class (photo by Serge Etele)

Rabbi Gerald Sussman teaches a class
photo by Serge Etele

image: 'Rabbanit' Bonita Sussman receives cornbraids for Shabbat. (photo by the Sussmans)

Rabbanit Bonita Sussman receives cornbraids for Shabbat.
Photo by the Serge Etele

One of our gifts for the community was a shofar (ram’s horn) that is blown on Rosh Hashanah, at the end of Yom Kippur, and during the entire month of Elul at the end of the morning service. (Jerry talking: I taught them how to blow the shofar (Ashkenazi style) and within 20 minutes, members of the community began to blow it correctly. They were so excited that this year they could finally “do it right” and hear the shofar as Jews do around the world.)

SERGE: For Shabbat, we traveled about an hour and a half to SAA.

SUSSMANS: Shabbat was an uplifting and unique experience. Friday morning the women baked challah from scratch. (Bonita: I actually sifted the flour for the first time. It came out perfectly.) The Friday night service was emotionally laden for us and we will never forget it. We experienced a traditional service complete with L’cha Dodi (Sabbath prayer of welcome) and a version of Yigdal (closing hymn at the end of the Friday night service) that was sung according to the western tradition that they learned on line. The service was half Hebrew (pronounced perfectly) and half French. They prayed using a Nusach Sefarad (the traditional intonation and melody of Sephardic Jews, which differs slightly from the Ashkenazic Jewish tradition). Many community members can read Hebrew, and for those who cannot, everything was in transliteration. Moreh Nachman, Serge’s father, led the service and both men and women joined in and took turns leading the prayers. They sang Mizmor L’David (a psalm of David) that was also pretty sensational. The community spent most of Shabbat praying.

The questions they asked on Shabbat demonstrated the depth of thought and practice. If you are sick, do you have to stand for the Amidah (silent devotional prayer)? How do you pray Mincha (afternoon prayer), if you are traveling? Can couples live together before marriage? What do you wear when you are in mourning? How many wives are allowed? (This is part of the culture.) How do you resolve conflict if you have more than one wife? How do you slaughter a chicken or cow to ensure it is kosher? They expressed many concerns about magic and superstition and how it affects or doesn’t affect them since it is also part of the culture there. They want their worship and service to be exact. We told them that their Friday night service was so complete that it would fit in any shul (synagogue) in the world. Everyone knew the words of the Friday night service by heart, even the children.

We then had a Shabbat meal and sang zmirot (songs). The food we ate was whole fish, rice and plantains with lots of vegetables. The songs were a mixture. Many of them were original to the community. Others were from the Internet such as Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold). The services reminded us of Chassidim davening (praying) because they pray with such enthusiasm and kavanah (intent). (Bonita: The members of the community called me Rabbanit (rabbi’s wife) and for Shabbat they made me cornbraids; they looked great. They said I looked like the Queen of Sheba.)

image: Carved wooden object representing a lamed, with embedded watch. Made by Mama Nazer as a gift for the Sussmans. (photo by Serge Etele)

Carved wooden object representing a lamed,
with embedded watch.Made by Mama Nazer
as a gift for the Sussmans.
Photo by Serge Etele

Morning services begin every day at 6:15 AM, even on Shabbat. Everyone says Shabbat Shalom (a peaceful Sabbath). At the end of Shabbat, they make a grand Havdalah (service marking the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week) with songs and according to Havdalah ritual. Frankly, they were surprised to hear that in the United States there are Jews who do not practice anything, since they cherish the rituals and their lives are dedicated to perfecting their practice.

SERGE: We don’t eat forbidden foods and try to respect the kashering process (making kosher) when cooking meat. We respect the interdiction of eating meat with milk. We make three daily prayers. Most of us know these prayers by heart. We say Schema Israel (Hear O’Israel, a seminal prayer of the Jewish faith) in French, the Amidah in Hebrew… We don’t marry non-Jews.

One community member composes songs in Hebrew, with text he finds in Jewish books. We organize two weekly sessions of Talmud Torah (Hebrew study) using teachings from Jewish websites. We only marry those people who are willing to follow the Jewish faith.

SUSSMANS: We had read all that Serge had written in his Community Form for Kulanu, but we never expected to see the level and depth of Jewish practice that we found there. There was more practice, more knowledge than we could have imagined. Their practice is more developed and concerned with detail than most Jews we meet in America. They constantly wanted to know what the “standard practice for Jews” was. We had a strong sense that we were not “their rabbis” or there to “correct their practices” but were there to open doors for them and encourage religious development in any way they saw fit and desired. We tried to bring to them a wide range of Jewish practice without creating bias towards any one form of Judaism. We tried to explain to them that the practice of Judaism varies throughout the world from very liberal forms to very strict ones and it was their choice to develop their Judaism within their own context and needs.

We tried to explain that the practice of Judaism in New York differs from the practice of Judaism in India, Europe and Israel and often has to do with cultural contexts and history. And their prayer book— it was a self-made Siddur (prayer book) with 150 pages in an Orthodox form, which they had compiled from the internet. Their service was Artscroll-like2 in format, meaning it went through pages and pages of texts systematically in French and Hebrew using a traditional liturgy.

SERGE: We have been praying to Hashem (God) for years so that other Jews would notice us and voilà (French for “there it is”). It is proof that God answered our prayers. Thanks to God, that you (Sussmans) are here to help us and our isolation is being broken.

SUSSMANS: (Shabbat Study) Gerry talking: On the first Shabbat, I gave a class on Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (the abridged version of the Shulchan Aruch, a seminal work of Judaism) because we thought it was relevant. The passage dealt with waking up early to serve the will of the creator, things which they were doing already and we thought relevant. On the second Shabbat, I taught in French about Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (Holiday of Atonement) and Elul (the Hebrew month before the High Holidays during which the focus is spiritual preparation). It was somewhat of a review for them, but I felt the holidays were coming and it was important. Again we answered many questions. This time they asked about Nida (laws of ritual purity) and building a mikvah (ritual bath). They asked about what would be proper when there is a Christian funeral and it takes place on Shabbat. They asked about a Seudah Havraah (the last meal before a fast) by name and asked if was “standard practice” to put ashes on the egg at the Seudah Havraah on Yom Kippur like you would do on Erev Tisha B’av (night before holiday of Ninth of Av commemorating the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem).

At the end of the second Shabbat, we put up a mezuzah and they recited Shecheyanu (the blessing over a special deed done for the first time) and spoke about how grateful they were to finally have been noticed by other Jews.

SERGE: The Sussmans wanted to introduce us to the representatives of Israel at the Embassy and made an appointment and took several leaders of the community with them, including me. It was the first time we were there. It turned out to be meaningful for everyone.

SUSSMANS: On our first trip to the Embassy the day after we arrived in Cameroon, we met with the person in charge of security for the Embassy. His name was Ron Raz. Ron was surprised to meet New York Jews who spoke Hebrew. It was Ron Raz who arranged for our second meeting with Alon Melchior, deputy chief at the Embassy. The ambassador himself was not in the country at the time. Ron gave us a pin that had the Israel and Cameroon flags on it intertwined in friendship.

We were able to introduce Alon to members of the Beth Yeshouroun community. He was cordial and welcoming and asked them all sorts of questions regarding what it was like to be a Jew in Cameroon, what brought them to Judaism from Christianity, their theology and how their families and others in their town regard them.

image: Woman and children in front of synagogue. Boy in background is playing the shofar.

Woman and children in front of synagogue. Boy in background is playing the shofar.
Photo by the Sussmans.

We asked the embassy for books, a lulav (palms) and etrog (citron), both used for the holiday of Succot, and matzot (unleavened bread eaten during Passover). He said it was not the role of the Embassy to provide these items, but he might be able to connect the community with those who do. He did give Serge, his wife, father and David (the community’s cantor) some books on Israel in French.

During the meeting, we learned that Israel provides agricultural assistance on irrigation to Cameroon and recently sent doctors to perform cataract surgery. There are also cultural programs such as a film festival, a modern dance program and an upcoming jazz festival. Alon gave David the name of the organizer of this festival.

While we were meeting with Alon, someone named Shmuel called from Israel and Alon told us it was a Jewish convert from Ghana who had made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) and now works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

SERGE: It was difficult to part from the Sussmans. The last Thursday before leaving, they were offered a concert by the community. It was our way of telling them goodbye. And we gave them gifts. We were happy to have them among us.

After Shabbat we left SAA for Yaounde so that they would have some time to rest before their flight. We were eight people accompaning them to the airport and the separation was moving. They seemed very happy by their stay in our community. We thanked God who permitted us to live during these great moments. We are considering our future now with more hope. We want to raise money to build a synagogue and to send me for rabbinic studies. I also want to thank Kulanu again for this and may Hashem (God) bless your work and your persons.

SUSSMANS: Yes, the parting was very moving. And our trip to this small Jewish community in the Cameroon was an amazing experience. Our sense of responsibility for this unique community has been strong since our return from such an adventure. There are pictures and films to share, music to get out, money to raise, teachings to be had and, of course, discussions about conversion. There are many doors that need to be opened for them to enter the worldwide Jewish community as active participants. We hope that with the help of Kulanu and many others the doors will open.