Jews of Nigeria: The Igbo Jewish Community of Abuja Joins Kulanu’s Network of Communities
In Providence. Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa and Elder Ovadia Agbai
meet Rabbi Barry Dolinger and his wife Naomi
(Photo by Shai Afsai)
Kulanu is excited to report that we have added the Igbo Jewish community of Abuja, Nigeria to Kulanu’s network of communities, our seventh in Africa. In addition to Nigeria, Kulanu works with Jewish communities in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Cameroon and Zimbabwe.
The growth of Jewish belief and practice in many parts of the world, in spite of continued Jewish vulnerability, is a testament to the eternal message of our ancestors whose words and prophecies speak to the ages. Shai Afsai, inspired by the stories he heard first from Professor William Miles and then from Jeff Lieberman,* traveled to Nigeria in February 2013 (for Purim) and again in Febuary 2014 to experience for himself the commitment and radiance of this special community. JM
As I reported in the Fall 2013 issue of KulanuNews (“Nigerian Jewish Leaders Visit Rhode Island”), two members of the Igbo Jewish community of Abuja, Elder Ovadia Agbai and Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa, enjoyed an historic twelve-day visit to Rhode Island in September 2013. I initiated the visit after my trip to the community in February 2013. My American partners in that intiative were Professor William Miles** of Northeastern University, who had visited the community in 2009 and 2011, and two Rhode Island rabbis, Wayne Franklin and Barry Dolinger. It was our hope that the visit by Igbo Jewish leaders to an American Jewish community would help reduce their community’s isolation from world Jewry.
At the Bimah. Sar Habakkuk Nwafor, Moshe Natan Onyckwe of blessed memory,
and Harim Obidike at the Igbo Israel Heritage Synagogue
(Photo by Shai Afsai)
During their visit, the Elders celebrated Sukkot and met with Rhode Island synagogue members and religious leaders from across the Jewish religious spectrum. They were also able to see Rabbi Howard Gorin, a man much admired and respected by Nigerian Jewry, who flew to Rhode Island from Maryland in honor of their visit. It had been nearly five years since the Elders and the rabbi had last seen each other, and it was an emotional and joyous reunion.
At the same time, an important connection was made by the introduction of the Elders to Kulanu Vice President Judy Manelis, whose interest in the Igbo Jewish community was the result of her interactions over the years with Rabbi Gorin and Professor Miles. (For Professor Miles’ article on his first visit to the Abuja community, see “Among the Igbos of Nigeria during the Festival of Lights” in the Fall 2011 issue of KulanuNews.)
After the Elders returned home, Judy and I discussed the possibility of Kulanu including Abuja’s Igbo Jewry in its network of communities. For a number of years, Kulanu had enjoyed a relationship with Igbo Jewish lawyer and author Remy Ilona, and most recently it published his latest book on Igbo Jews.*** Kulanu had no relationships with other Igbo Jewish leaders.
Community Meeting. Harim Obidike (right) breaks a kola nut at the start of a community meeting
presided over by Elder Ovadia Agbai (center) and Sar Habakkuk Nwafor (left)
(Photo by Shai Afsai)
As it is the policy of Kulanu to work only with communities that request its help, I wanted to know what Remy Ilona thought about expanding the relationship. He was very much in favor of doing so. When I asked the leaders of the other congregations for their input on this question, they also responded favorably. With the positive responses from Abuja’s Igbo synagogues, Kulanu’s board decided to move forward and to bring the Abuja Jewish community into Kulanu’s family of isolated and emerging Jewish communities. The decision was greeted with much optimism in Abuja.
There are currently four Igbo Jewish synagogues in Abuja: Gihon Synagogue, headed by Elder Ovadia Agbai; Tikvat Israel Synagogue, headed by Sar Habakkuk Nwafor; Plant for the Growth of Israel Synagogue, headed by Remy Ilona; and Igbo Israel Heritage Synagogue, headed by Dr. Michael Caliben. All four congregations have been studying and practicing Judaism for some years, and it was hoped that the Kulanu connection would lead to more opportunities for Jewish educational enrichment.
This past February, I visited Abuja a second time, again staying at the home of Sar Habakkuk Nwafor and his family. (For a description of my first visit, exactly one year before, see “Providence writer visits small group of Nigerian Jews, struggling to keep their faith alive” in The Providence Journal, July 28, 2013, pages G1 and G4.)
The day after my arrival, members from all four synagogues gathered in the courtyard adjoining Tikvat Israel Synagogue for a communal meeting. Sadly, Dr. Michael Caliben was unable to attend, as he was mourning the recent and unexpected passing of his elder brother. The meeting, presided over by Elder Ovadia Agbai, began with the traditional Igbo blessing over and sharing of a kola nut. A lively discussion then ensued about the community’s recent accomplishments, current challenges, and future plans. Opinions were expressed in an open manner and decisions were arrived at by consensus.
I spoke about the impact that Elder Ovadia Agbai and Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa’s visit had on the Jewish community of Rhode Island, and Remy Ilona formally announced my appointment as Kulanu’s regional coordinator for Abuja. At the meeting, I also discussed two Kulanu initiatives (described on previous page).
The news that a rabbi’s wife will soon be visiting has been particularly welcome in Abuja. “A rabbi coming with his wife — this will be the first time that has ever happened,” Sar Habakkuk Nwafor noted. “I strongly believe that it will yield very good fruits for our women and am very much pleased with their coming.” While in Abuja, I also had the pleasure of meeting Canadian Professor Jeffrey Davidson, a widely beloved and respected former visitor to the community. (For Professor Davidson’s account of one of his visits to Abuja, see “Shabbat with a Committed Group in Nigeria” in the Spring 2004 issue of KulanuNews.) Community members visited Professor Davidson at his hotel several times, sharing with him information about their congregations’ recent history and growth.
During my time in Abuja, I visited all four synagogues, including Plant for the Growth of Israel Synagogue, which did not have a house of worship when I was in Abuja one year ago. As had been the case the previous year, my host Sar Habakkuk Nwafor never left my side. Throughout my visit, I observed a community working with unity and purpose. At the meeting held the day after my arrival, Elder Pinchas Ogbukaa stood and said, “Let us remember what our focus is: Judaism, Judaism, Judaism. Torah, Torah, Torah. That is what we are working for.” It is my hope that Kulanu’s grants enabling the journey of a rabbi and his wife to teach there, and the two month study-visit of two young men from Abuja to Uganda, will indeed strengthen Judaism and Torah in Abuja.
NOTE: In the next issue of KulanuNews, Shai Afsai will write a more extensive article on his experiences in Abuja, including a report on the August visit of Rabbi Dolinger and his wife Naomi to Nigeria.
* Jeff Lieberman is the director of the film Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria (2012)
**Professor Miles is the author of Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey (Markus Wiener, 2013)
*** The Igbos and Israel: An Inter-cultural Study of the Oldest and Largest Jewish Diaspora by Remy Ilona, (Kulanu, 2012)