“Where are you going next?” is the question my husband, Rabbi Jerry Sussman, and I are asked most frequently these days by both family and friends. Oftentimes, we can’t answer the question, as our travel plans depend on the urgency of the requests we receive from isolated and/or emerging Jewish communities around the globe. In the last four years such requests have taken us to India, Cameroon, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea and, most recently, to the Ivory Coast and Gabon, the major subjects of this article.
The second question we hear is: Are you afraid?
The fact is that we’re not afraid. We’re just going to another place, another neighborhood, if you will, where wonderful experiences await us…people who embrace us, and show us the most magnificent forms of hospitality, people who give up their beds for us to sleep in and go out of their way to get kosher food for us to eat, who give us presents when we leave and embrace us as members of their families.
Our latest trip this summer to Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Gabon (with a side trip to visit our friends in Cameroon) was another extraordinary adventure with a warm and caring welcome by people we had never met. Our travel companion for the trip was Dr. Marla Brettschneider, a professor of political philosophy from the University of New Hampshire, who is researching black Jewish communities in Africa. We had met Marla at a conference in Florida on black Jews and knew we wanted to do something meaningful together. And indeed Marla turned out to be an excellent travel companion and a great addition to our expedition.
But let us start at the beginning. Our decision to travel to Cote d’Ivoire began with an email to Kulanu from Cornet Alexandre Zokou, a leader of one of two Jewish congregations that have formed in Abidjan, the commercial and banking capital of the Ivory Coast.* The email, dated March 27, 2014, read: “I am one of the leaders of an emerging Jewish community in Abidjan. We have been trying to set up a formal Jewish community in Abidjan for more than 10 years now, but we have been facing financial and educational obstacles. I have been to Israel once and my fellow leader also went to Israel for a longer period where he learned Hebrew for three months. We are familiar with all Jewish holidays. In Cote d’Ivoire people are yearning to familiarize themselves with and convert to Judaism. I am already looking forward to reading your reply as it will give me the opportunity to give you further information on our history.”
As vice president of Kulanu and the board member responsible for new communities, I have committed myself to responding to all such requests. When I received Alexandre’s email, I responded immediately. And thus began an exciting correspondence by email and Skype. Communication was easy as Alexandre is an English teacher and serves as a translator from French to English for the Israel Embassy in Abidjan.
In one of our conversations, Alexandre shared with me that he had found his way to Judaism from Christianity through the local Kabbalah Centre, founded some 15 years ago in Abidjan. The Centre was at that time part of a network of Kabbalah Centres worldwide established by the late Rabbi Philip Berg, an adherent of Rav Yehudah Ashlag*, to promote the study of Jewish mysticism and personal transformation through the study of Kabbalah. Although the Centre was devoted to Jewish subject matter, it attracted many local non-Jews, some of whom decided to embrace Judaism. Alexandre served as its director for 18 months.
The name of Alexandre’s congregation in Abidjan is Beith Israel (House of Israel). The congregation is composed of approximately 40 middle-aged men and women, who meet regularly at least once during the week and for Sabbath and holiday services. The women cover their hair in the orthodox manner, and sit separately, although there is no physical mechitza (partition).
While most of the women cannot read Hebrew, they participate in the service, singing the prayers in Hebrew by heart. The male congregants, for the most part, do know Hebrew and some are able to read it with ease.
Alexandre, who is fluent in Hebrew, serves as the congregation’s prayer leader. On Shabbat, he leads a traditional service and gives what I would call a kabbalistic-style divrei Torah (words of Torah) with an element of self-improvement attached, and a Hassidic twist. His style of leadership and approach to prayer make his congregation different from the other Jewish congregation in Abidjan, which is also kabbalistic in approach, but does not have such a personalized message.
Alexandre’s co-leader in the synagogue is Ishmael, also known as Semuel, a Muslim by birth, who studied Kabbalah in Israel at the Ramchal Center in Jerusalem. Semuel is very facile in Hebrew and the prayer service.
One of our goals in traveling to the Ivory Coast was to deliver a Torah, donated by Congregation Kehillat Jeshurun in New York City to Kulanu, to Alexandre’s congregation. In honor of this gift, the congregation, which had been meeting in people’s homes, built a small synagogue and ark on the rooftop of a home owned by Alexandre’s brother Ceylon. The group also hopes to build a mikvah (ritual bath) for conversions and the observance of niddah (ritual purity).
A major highlight of our visit was the actual presentation of the Torah. Such an occasion is always a joyous and celebratory event. Rabbi Jerry created a wonderful hachnasat Sefer Torah (ceremony for the placement of a Torah in its new home), complete with dancing and singing.
Our visit to the community would not have been complete without a discussion of the needs of the community, how they view their relationship to the Jewish world and how Kulanu can help them on their Jewish journey. Marla led a wonderful session with the women of the congregation to discuss the specific concerns they face as women on their journey to become Jewish.
The second congregation we visited in Abidjan was Ets Chaim (Tree of Life), also formed by former adherents of the original Kabbalah Centre. This group is located in a wealthier area of the city than Beith Israel and its leader is Yago Abraham, a professor of linguistics at The University of Abidjan. The congregation numbers approximately 70 mostly middle-aged men and women. It is interesting to note that we did not see or meet any children in either synagogue.
The Ets Chaim synagogue has a beautiful space for their services and a Torah, which they purchased on their own from Israel. Once again, the male members of the congregation appeared more learned than the women, who sit behind a high white and gold curtain/mechitza.
When asked about their specific needs, congregation leaders asked if Kulanu could provide them with a second Torah so prayer leaders can celebrate Rosh Chodesh (new month) with the traditional two Torahs.
In addition to the Torah, congregational leaders requested that Kulanu arrange for a Beit Din (rabbinic court) to visit Abidjan to convert their members to Judaism. I explained to the leaders that conversion is a lengthy process that they could pursue over time with study and preparation. After our return home, we received a message from Alexandre that the two synagogues had agreed to set up joint classes for their congregants to prepare for conversion.
Rabbi Jerry and I visited the then director of the Kabbalah Centre. He was grateful to Alexandre for the introduction. We were impressed with the size and museum-like quality of the facility.
The last group we met in Abidjan were the Danites, an ethnic group of around two million native to Cote d’Ivoire, some of whom claim descent from the Tribe of Dan. Their traditional clothing seems to suggest tallitot (prayer shawls), which some take as a sign of Jewish origin. Though belief in their Israelite origin is widespread, most Danites are Christian or Muslim. A relatively small group is interested in exploring the practices of Judaism. A French documentary film was made about the group in 2008. The Danites we met were happy to talk about their Jewish connections and participate in the services at Beith Israel.
Cameroon, Beit Yeshourun Sa’a*
From Cote d’Ivoire, Rabbi Jerry, Marla and I traveled to Cameroon, which Rabbi Jerry and I had visited for the first time in the summer of 2010. We had an emotional reunion with our Cameroon friends.
At the time of our visit this July, Serge Etele, the leader of the community, was in Jerusalem studying at Yeshiva Ohr Torah Stone founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat. His three-month stay was facilitated by Kulanu.
Among the highlights of our visit to Congregation Beit Yeshourun in Sa’a was our introduction to Eliezer Sussman, Serge’s three-year-old son, who was named in our honor. A thrilling experience! We also were serenaded with original music by two of the community’s musicians, Nama Naser and David Baliaba, who handed us a CD with 12 of his songs, many of which were biblical psalms set to music.
Beit Yeshourun, Douala
An unexpected treat was meeting a second group of individuals in Douala, Cameroon, who have embraced Judaism through contact with Serge. The leaders of this group discovered Serge while researching Cameroon and Jews on the Internet. A beautiful 80-year-old woman is the inspirational head of the community and the widow of a prominent pastor who lost his large community when he gave up Christianity to embrace Judaism. The group joined Beit Yeshourun sometime after the passing of its founder and is now known as Beit Yeshourun, Douala.
Although Serge was in Israel, he arranged for us to meet the leader of a newly emerging Jewish group in Gabon, whose research on the Internet had led them to him. Moreh Nachman, Serge’s father, and a group of Beit Yeshourunites escorted us to meet Pascal Meka Ngomo, the leader of the group, at the border. All we knew was that Pascal had been an evangelical preacher who was directed in a dream to leave the “faux dieu” (false god) and find the God of Israel. When he changed his Sabbath from Sunday to Saturday worship, he lost his friends, influence, and pharmacy business. And he was ostracized by his community. The group are Sabbath observers the way they understand it, and no longer eat pork, but their knowledge of what it means to be Jewish is still rudimentary. Serge has visited the community four times to teach. The latest visit was in September.
What was new for us was Pascal’s desire to adopt an evangelical approach to his new faith. He wants to go out and spread news of the true God of Israel and the commandments. The two communities involved are Oyem and Bitam, small cities near the Cameroon border. In Oyem, women lead the prayer service in Pascal’s absence. Rabbi Jerry taught congregants the shema and hung what is probably the first mezuzah in Gabon.
As on our other trips to Africa, we were moved by the sincerity, dedication and graciousness of those reaching toward Judaism. This is a fast growing phenomenon, which is destined to have a great impact on the Jewish world. Kulanu is proud to be part of this development.