Jewish Learning Takes a Village

Jewish Learning Takes a Village

Kulanu has worked with the Tiferet Israel Jewish community of Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana, for nearly 10 years now. Over the years the community has pursued Jewish learning through every means available, picking the brains of Jewish visitors from around the world, poring over the books received as gifts, and exploring the Internet. A few years ago they sent a delegation to the Israeli embassy in the neighboring Ivory Coast but were not granted a visa. For several years they have been asking Kulanu to send a teacher, and this summer I had the honor of serving them for two months.

I arrived in Sefwi Wiawso on a Thursday and after Shabbat services on Saturday morning, community president Joseph Armah encouraged me to start teaching that week. I had four groups of dedicated students: children, adolescents, adults who came in the morning, and different adults who came in the evening. Before our classes started I asked each group of adults what they wanted to learn and what I should teach the children, and I asked the adolescents what they wanted to learn. They requested classes on topics including Shabbat, conversion customs, Modern Hebrew, marriage and b’nai mitzvah rituals, kosher slaughter, and mourning rituals.

My partner, Ali Michael, came to Sefwi Wiawso two weeks after me and, after consulting with male and female community leaders, started teaching classes in typing and emailing. The students in these classes, Abigail Aidoo, Patrick Armah, and Joseph Charm Mintah, will help spiritual leader Alex Armah to respond to emails. Community elder Isaac Mintah told me that he and others believe that every member of the community, no matter how young, deserves a voice in community decisions. This is a great example of the community’s commitment to democracy.

At the request of the women, Ali helped them start a women’s group to celebrate Rosh Hodesh, the festival of the new moon, marking the start of a new month on the Jewish calendar. Gladys Armah, Mary Mintah, and Florence Aidoo presided over Rosh Hodesh celebrations, enjoyed by women and girls, with prayers, singing, dancing and juice and biscuits.

Ali also worked with master tailor Ben Baidoo and Alex to track expenses and profits for the community business, making beautiful African fabric challah covers and kente-cloth tallitot (available at www.kulanuboutique.com).

Throughout the summer, classes had great attendance, which is a powerful testament to the community’s desire to learn. Adults and children have enough work, much of it very strenuous farm work and household chores, to keep them busy from the first light until after dark, but they made time for an hour or more of class four to five days a week. The first topic that Alex, Abigail, and Akiva Kina asked to study was conversion. By studying ancient and contemporary Jewish conversion customs they started to determine a process they could use to help any of their neighbors who are interested in converting to Judaism. The Jews are a tiny minority in their community and would love to increase their numbers.

For years now the community has been slaughtering its animals according to its understanding of shechita, the laws of kosher slaughter. Joseph, Ben, and Isaac, the adults who attended the evening class, asked me to teach them about shechita as a refresher course. Now, I should admit to you as I admitted to them, I know almost nothing about kosher slaughter, but with my university education and a year of rabbinical school I could read Rabbi Isaac Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. I tried to translate this into comprehensible English. After a week of classes on this topic the community gathered on Friday afternoon to slaughter a sheep using their refreshed knowledge of shechita. As we had studied, they got a long knife and made sure it was as sharp as possible, then recited the blessing, and with one swift, smooth cut ended the sheep’s life, after which they salted and soaked the meat.

One thing A Guide doesn’t teach you, however, is how to remove the sciatic nerve, which is how the rabbis interpreted the commandment that we not eat a certain part of the animal in remembrance of Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel (Gen. 32:33). According to A Guide, this is a very delicate procedure which only a really expert shochet can perform and which a book can’t explain. In fact, due to the difficulty of this procedure, in many Ashkenazic communities the entire hind quarters of an animal are considered unkosher. When my mother would help me to understand which cuts were kosher, she told me to make sure they came from the front of the animal.

Based on the Ghanaian Jewish community’s understanding of shechita, however, there is no need to get rid of so much meat. Ben and Joseph, the men in charge of slaughtering the sheep, proudly showed me their way of fulfilling this mitzvah: they removed a piece of the sheep around the hip, which is what they understood to be required by Genesis 32:33, which says Jews should not eat 'the sinew of the thigh vein.” They then went on with their work of finding a use for almost every single part of the animal.

This week of learning on shechita exemplifies the synergy of knowledge that ran throughout all of the Jewish learning that happened in Sefwi Wiawso this summer. While I could read A Guide, I wouldn’t have had the first idea how long to sharpen a knife on a stone before it is fine enough to make one clean cut across the throat of a sheep. Nor would I know what to do after that point with the blood, the head and the hair. How could I know whether internal organs looked healthy or sick? I was able to access knowledge that enriched the community’s understanding of shechita, but ultimately, it was their practice and knowledge that made anything that I had to teach complete. And in that relationship, in all our learning, they taught us more about Jewish practice than we taught them.

The community’s dedication to learning paid immediate dividends. After just a few weeks of studying various service arrangements, their services included Torah blessings in Hebrew said from the bimah and singing Adon Olam to end their Saturday morning service. Our study of the parts of a service led the adults to decide to assign roles like opening and closing the ark, parading the Torah, and reading the Torah and haftarah. By the end of the summer most of the adolescents could read Hebrew from their siddur and three adults had begun learning to translate Biblical Hebrew. I hope and suspect that one day they will have the resources to create their own translations of Bible passages into the local languages Sefwi or Twi, so they won’t have to rely exclusively on Christian missionaries’ Bible translations. Alex had read about Simhat Torah and after he rehearsed it with Akiva, Charm, Abigail, and me, they celebrated it for the first time this year (after our departure). I expect their celebration of Simhat Torah (which means “Rejoicing in the Torah”) to be wonderful: they love the Torah and love to sing, the perfect recipe for a truly uplifting Simhat Torah.

I was most impressed by the community during the hardest part of my stay. In the winter before I went to Ghana, my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She chose to enter a hospice and during the spring semester I visited her several times. Each time we visited we feared it might be the last time, especially the visit I made just before leaving for Ghana.

Unfortunately, we were right—in late July I got an email letting me know that my grandmother had died. Since the community’s founding in 1977, only one member has died, the founder, but the members of the community supported Ali and me in our time of need better than I could have ever expected. They surrounded us with warmth and support and a combination of local funeral customs and Jewish customs. Several elders and youth visited me as soon as they heard the news and brought me food and drink. They waited for me to call my family and then escorted me back to Joseph Armah’s home, where he had already arranged for a “machine,” a large sound system, to blare “old timers” music, the local custom for announcing a death. Mercifully, this incredibly considerate but jarring tribute didn’t last long and I could sit in silence and receive condolence visits from members of the community. Word went out that I would like to hold a shiva minyan that evening and when the time came the room had filled with adults, adolescents, and children. Together we said the evening service and Ali and I said Kaddish, joined by some other adults who previously didn’t know about Kaddish. For the next three days I sat shiva and each evening and morning a minyan gathered for a short service. When our shiva ended we felt like the transition from mourning to healing had begun, thanks to our tradition and our Sefwi Wiawso community.

The community’s mourning practices were one of many times I got to admire and learn from their positive relationship with Judaism. The Jews in Sefwi Wiawso know how much they don’t know, and they know they don’t do things like most other Jews. While a lack of traditional Jewish knowledge and a preference for the non-traditional has at times made me and many other American Jews feel ashamed and inadequate, the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso simply resolve to do their best and learn more over time. This mix of confidence and humility is one of the community’s many qualities I would like to foster in myself and share with other American Jews.

Ali and I were incredibly fortunate to spend this summer working with the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso. They greatly enriched our sense of Judaism’s richness and diversity. We are grateful to Kulanu for making this possible and hope Kulanu will continue to support exchanges between the Tiferet Israel community and its fellow Jews from around the world.

(Editor’s Note: We are pleased to announce that Michael Ramberg and Ali Michael have become Kulanu’s new Coordinators for Ghana.)