The Ghanaian Village That Wants To Be Jewish

For the last several years there have been scattered reports that a group of about 150 people in the village of Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana, has embraced Judaism. As anyone with even a little knowledge of Jewish history knows, group conversions to Judaism are rare. For anyone proud to be Jewish, this Ghanaian event is therefore intriguing. For me, however, news of this group had singular importance. This is because I am a Jew who was born in Ghana.

I was born in 1950, to Jewish parents. My family’s oral history says that our ancestors are from Ethiopia, and that our family originally had come from Israel. As a child I had heard many times that we were part of one of the Ten “Lost” Tribes of Israel. Like many Ethiopians, we moved a lot. Hundreds of years ago, to flee conquerors of Ethiopia, my ancestors migrated west, eventually settling in Ghana. My extended family in Ghana (including cousins) is quite large—at least 75 people. Until recently, I thought we were the only ones in Ghana with a tie to Judaism. When I heard through Kulanu about the village of Sefwi Wiawso I was sure that my family must somehow be responsible for the village’s turn towards our faith.

I grew up always aware of my Jewish heritage. My father, Emmanuel, had learned much about modern Judaism from a friend, Rabbi Weiss, a Polish refugee who lived in Ghana in the late 1940s and early 1950s. My father learned some Hebrew from Rabbi Weiss and taught his children about Judaism as best as he could under the circumstances. We observed the Jewish holidays and, while we did not have weekly services, we did avoid cooking or other work on Shabbat. My family possesses various Jewish ritual objects that are quite old, including tallitot, Stars of David, and prayers written in Amharic, the Ethiopian language. Sadly, many members of my family who are still in Ghana no longer practice Judaism.

I moved to the United States in 1979. I joined congregation Oseh Shalom, in Laurel, Maryland, where Rabbi Gary Fink has served as my spiritual teacher, and my friend Harry Rosenbluh has patiently taught me Hebrew. I regularly attend Shabbat services, keep a kosher home and am active in Jewish causes.

When I heard that in the remote village of Sefwi Wiawso there was a group that practiced Judaism, I had to see for myself. I borrowed the plane fare from Harry Rosenbluh and was given a number of siddurim and other books by Rabbi Fink. In addition, Kulanu gave me a student Torah to present to them. (It looks like a real Torah and is complete in every way, but it is printed, not handwritten, and is made with ordinary paper.) Kulanu also provided me with additional prayer books, Israeli flags, etc., that the Jewish Book Store in Wheaton, Maryland, was kind enough to sell at a reduced price. I contacted my relatives to tell them that I was coming and then left for Ghana.

On May 8, 1996, I arrived at Accra, the capital of Ghana. I had a joyous reunion with my family in the nearby town of Cape Coast, and even more joy that Shabbat when I led services for them. I led a Shabbat morning service for many members of my extended family and a few onlookers as well—75 people in all. They especially liked the Shabbat songs that I taught them, “Ma Tovu” in particular.

I then started to plan the best way to reach Sefwi Wiawso—no easy task since it is in a remote portion of the country, far from Accra. I prayed for guidance as to which route to take, and decided on the coastal route. I wanted to time my arrival for Shabbat, so I set out at 3 a.m. on Friday morning, together with Samuel, my brother.

The journey, by “bush taxi” (actually a small crowded bus) took until 8 p.m. The driver left us off at a village called Takoradi with instructions to start climbing a small mountain if we wanted to reach the village. After an hour of climbing we arrived at a police station and asked for the village of Sefwi Wiawso. When pressed, we said that we wanted to meet the Jews who lived there. They first professed to have never heard of the place, and then said that the village contained “thieves and bad people.” When we protested that the village must exist if “thieves and bad people” lived there, they threatened to put us in jail. The impasse was broken when a small boy, who had overheard everything, offered to take us there for a fee.

By 10 p.m. the boy brought us to the house of Joseph K. Nippah, one of the group’s leaders. We were delighted to see that their Shabbat candles were still burning. We were warmly greeted even before we could announce who we were. When they discovered that we were Jewish, they were even more delighted to see us. Despite the late hour they took us to a second house, the home of Joseph Armah, the group’s chairman, where 25 people quickly gathered. Despite my fatigue I could not resist such a wonderful crowd, and led them in Friday night services. As my adrenaline pumped I taught them “Lecha Dodi” and other appropriate Shabbat songs and prayers.

My brother and I stayed overnight with the Armah family and awoke the next morning to find that we had stayed in the middle of a compound of approximately 14 Jewish households that contain, I was told, about 100 people. The Jewish community also contained perhaps an additional eight households that did not live in the compound. All told, approximately 150 people are members.

The community is affluent by Ghanaian standards. The houses are relatively large and well built, with electricity and running water. The Armah family had a television, but I could not watch because it was Shabbat. The villagers are mostly farmers (they grow cacao and palm trees, and I saw many cows, goats and other animals) and also earn money by baking bread, operating a grocery store and taxi service, photography studio, etc.

They led me to their synagogue, which is an old, cramped building with three rooms. One of the rooms was used for prayer. In addition, many members of the community stayed at the synagogue all day to make it easier for them to avoid such Sabbath prohibitions as watching television. The other two rooms were for resting during Shabbat, one for the men and one for the women.

I delighted them by putting on my tallit and taking out the student Torah that Kulanu had given to the community. They had never seen a Torah before, so it was an object of great interest to them. The children especially wanted to touch it. I assumed the role of rabbi, leading the enthusiastic congregation of 55 in a service. I thought of the prayers and melodies that Rabbi Fink, at Oseh Shalom, had taught me as I did my best to teach this eager group a small bit of modern Judaism. I conducted most of the service in English since they did not know Hebrew. But I also attempted to teach them a few Hebrew prayers, including the Shema, Kaddish and Yigdal. I conducted the Torah service in Hebrew, explaining that every synagogue in the world was reading the same Torah portion that same day. I read it in Hebrew because I wanted them to experience an authentic Torah service emotionally, even if they could not understand it.

The service I led for them was totally unlike their normal service, where they mostly read the Old Testament together. They did this because they lacked modern Jewish prayer books. My gifts of prayer books were received with the utmost gratitude.

After the service we had a late, leisurely lunch. The meal was cold because they do not cook on Shabbat. We talked for hours about a wide variety of matters.

During this conversation I solved the mystery of the origin of their Jewishness. The solution was one that I had in part suspected. In 1976 a man named Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafi had a vision that he and the other members of the village were descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes. He convinced some of his neighbors that they should return to the customs of their ancestors and follow only the Old Testament. Although he has since died, this community is his legacy.

There is more to the story, though. My older brother, Isaac, had attended and taught at a nearby teacher training college in the late 1950s. Clearly, Isaac (who is no longer living) was an excellent teacher. As they told me about my brother, the memories came back to me. I remembered that, as a small child only about six years old, I had once accompanied him to this very village! How amazing that the seeds that Isaac had planted in the 1950s had grown a generation later. How incredible that they had maintained their Jewishness for another generation with almost no contact with the outside Jewish world. How appropriate that I, more than a generation later, would be the one to continue my brother’s holy work. I believe that it is my destiny to lead them to a higher level of Jewish belief, knowledge, and observance.

We talked about many other subjects. They told me that they have named their community the House of Israel. Several members told me they embraced Judaism because, to them, the Old Testament contained more truth than the New Testament. They reject Jesus Christ in all forms and consider themselves to be Jewish, although they would like to convert formally. They also told me that although Ghana does not have an ambassador from Israel, in February 1996 the community’s leader, David G. Ahenkorah, had journeyed to a nearby country, the Ivory Coast, to meet that nation’s Israeli ambassador. Unfortunately he offered no assistance to the community. They expressed to me a great interest in visiting Israel but asked almost no questions about the United States.

Late that afternoon we concluded our conversation and went back to the synagogue, where I gave the House of Israel a havdalah candle I had brought with me, and led the congregation in making havdalah. They insisted on calling me “rabbi”; this embarrassed me, of course, but it was perhaps understandable since I was the closest thing to a rabbi they had ever encountered. In fact, I was the first outside Jew to enter that village since my brother’s visits many years before!

It is my prayer that my visit will be the start of world Jewry’s contact with this village. They sincerely want to join the Jewish people and have a great thirst for Jewish knowledge. They practice no other religion. Although none knows Hebrew, many of the men and the children can read and write English. This makes the task of giving them Jewish knowledge very difficult, but not impossible.

One can only speculate how much longer they can maintain their desire to become Jewish, and their feeling that they are Jewish, without help from the outside world. We must immediately start taking steps to dramatically increase their level of Jewish knowledge, to help them become the Jews they want to be. We must send them Jewish educational material, including books for children, prayer books, beginning Hebrew books, and audio tapes with songs and prayers in Hebrew. We must also correspond with them—perhaps a penpal program for the children would be appropriate. They also need a much larger synagogue; they have a half-built one that they would be delighted to dedicate to anyone generous enough to send them the funds necessary to complete it. In addition, my family, in Cape Coast, would like to build a synagogue and dedicate it to Rabbi Fink in appreciation for all that he has done to teach me and enable me to bring Judaism to Ghana.

We should also organize a visit by a fact-finding and teaching delegation. I hereby offer to be the expedition’s guide, and beseech every rabbi reading this to consider becoming our expedition’s spiritual leader. We must let them know that if they sincerely want to be Jewish, we will provide them with a warm and friendly welcome to the Jewish community.

(Editor’s note: Kulanu has started a program to assist the House of Israel. Tax-deductible donations of appropriate Jewish books, tapes, or ritual objects and donations of money so Kulanu can purchase and ship this material, should be sent to Kulanu, earmarked for this purpose. Anyone interested in volunteering to organize a penpal program or otherwise to work with this community or participate in an educational expedition to Ghana should contact Kulanu.)