Nigerian Jewish Leaders Visit Rhode Island


image: From left to right:  Elder Ovadiah Agbai, Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz, director of Meor at Brown University, and Elder Pinchas Azuka (Photo credit: Shai Afsai)

From left to right: Elder Ovadiah Agbai, Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz, director of Meor at Brown University, and Elder Pinchas Azuka
(Photo credit: Shai Afsai)

There are some 3,000 to 5,000 members of the Igbo ethnic group practicing Judaism in Nigeria, most of whom identify themselves as members of a lost tribe of Israel The Igbos who practice Judaism are highly observant and devote a great deal of time to increasing their Jewish knowledge and deepening their religious practice. They have not converted formally to Judaism.

In February of 2013, I traveled to Abuja, Nigeria to meet members of the community. When I realized how isolated the community is from world Jewry, I proposed a reciprocal visit to Rhode Island’s Jewish community. This fall, the Jewish community of Providence hosted Elder Ovadiah Agbai and Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, of Abuja’s Gihon Synagogue in Nigeria, who came for a twelve-day stay during Sukkot.

The elders’ visit was also spearheaded by Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Providence’s Congregation Beth Sholom, Rabbi Wayne Franklin of Providence’s Temple Emanu-El, and Professor Bill Miles of Northeastern University, who has visited the community twice and written a book about his experiences.

By all accounts the visit was a resounding success. Elder Pinchas noted, “We have seen schools where students are practicing and studying Hebrew and Judaism alongside their other academic studies. This early Jewish childhood education, which is available here, we must bring back to Abuja.”

For the Rhode Island Jewish community the visit was equally joyous and enlightening. “I was very happy to help the Elders break the isolation they experience in Nigeria, and I was very pleased to join with my rabbinic colleagues in Providence on this fascinating and unique project,” said Rabbi Marc Mandel of Newport’s Touro Synagogue. Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz, director of Meor at Brown University, stated that the Elders “reminded our community that there is not one picture of what a Jew looks like [and] also reminded us of how many resources we have here.”

One of the trip’s highlights for Elder Ovadiah and Elder Pinchas took place at the home of Marvin and Miriam Stark, during their sukkah party. “It was there we saw and experienced for the first time the presence of four rabbis sitting at one table and saw young boys and girls singing with great joy,” said Elder Pinchas. “To see one rabbi is difficult for us. So to see four rabbis at one time, along with people from different synagogues behaving like brothers and sisters – singing, swaying, clapping – we will not forget this.”

One of the recurring themes expressed by Elder Ovadiah and Elder Pinchas during their stay in Rhode Island is the acute need in Nigeria for rabbis to lead those practicing Judaism, as well as for schools where Judaism can be studied from a young age.

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Shai Afsai (ggbi @juno.com) is a writer who lives in Providence