“God is close to all who call upon him; to all those who call upon him with integrity…” -Ashrei, Psalm 145
A Bit of History
Imagine… a beautiful, sparkling summer day working on your farm. The cassava and yam still have to be harvested, the cows milked, and the water gathered from the well. But wait sundown is approaching. Returning home from the farm, you notice that utter chaos surrounds the village. Everyone in sight is busy cooking, cleaning, and bathing. Everyone in sight, including you, is preparing for Shabbat.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, the Sefwi people of West Africa have diligently practiced the same religion for countless centuries. Characteristics of the religion include belief in one God, circumcision of males eight days after birth, separation between husband and wife during the woman’s menstrual period, strict observance of the Jewish dietary laws, and observance of a Sabbath every seventh day. Amazingly, the scene depicted above is the one that existed in every Sefwi village and town as far back as 2,000 years ago. Their name for the religion is “Sefwi,” but you undoubtedly recognize it as Judaism.
For close to two millennia, the Sefwis have resided in Africa, living a life of subsistence and demonstrating tremendous dedication to their religion. Although there was occasional persecution during their long history, it was not until the 20th century that adverse conditions caused big changes within the group. In an attempt to eschew diversity, a high government official declared that no Sefwi (or any other member of a minor ethnic group within Ghana) could practice his/her native religion; rather, all people in Ghana must be either Christian or Muslim.
For understandable reasons, many of the Sefwis refrained from practicing their religion at least in public. After all, they could ill afford to alienate the government, lest they starve. Yet, in 1977 a Sefwi man named Aaron experienced what he called a vision that directed him to return to the true religion of his ancestors. Like most prophets, Aaron was at first taken as mad; later, his message was heeded. With biblical zeal, this man picked up the fragmented Sefwi religion and rebuilt it. When Aaron passed away in 1991, the leaderless community collapsed. Many of the Sefwis even attended church during this period, since they were afraid of being further persecuted. In 1993, a man named David Ahenkorah experienced his own life-changing vision and re-founded the community. David has been leading the community and fostering its growth. Currently, the center of Sefwi/Jewish religious life is Sefwi Wiawso, a village of 4,000, where there is a new synagogue and a core group of around 800 people practicing Judaism.
Along with my friend Nate Asher from Kansas City, I traveled across the world to Ghana on June 6. I am grateful to Des Moines Tifereth Israel Synagogue, the Tifereth Israel Chapter of United Synagogue Youth, and Kulanu for financial support for this trip. Though I understand the deep historical significance of my finds relating to the Sefwi peoples Jewish practices (and sheer size), my trip was far from a mere observational study. Rather, it was an extremely rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful endeavor.
The people who greeted us were warm and friendly, and throughout the five-week visit, they continued to be that way. Indeed, despite the harsh economic conditions that force them deep into poverty, the people of Ghana as a whole are the most cheerful, respectful, and hard-working people I have ever met. The people of Sefwi Wiawso take all of those positive character traits and apply them towards their Judaism. They wake up at 5 A.M. to attend synagogue before going to work, they feed their animals before they feed themselves, display an affection for every human being they meet, and all the while have unflinching smiles on their faces. Yet one thing amazed me more than anything else, they gave up their very beds so that Nate and I would have a place to sleep… that is how much they care about their Judaism and Jewish education.
Nate and I had our work cut out for us: teach a large group of people, many of whom don’t read any language, how to read Hebrew. Although we were only there for five weeks, we accomplished that goal, along with teaching them about Jewish history, modern Jewish practice, and the state of Israel (until a decade ago, they never knew it existed). Each day, we held two classes, one for the children and one for the adults. Between classes, we would ascend the village’s mountain and give private lessons to adult students merchants and tradesmen when they were not too busy with customers. While in the downtown area, we would play ping-pong, eat roasted corn and drink pineapple juice. After the classes were finished for the day, an exciting game of football (soccer) would begin on the large, rocky playing area with only one goal. Toward evening, I would help prepare (and then eat) dinner; the nights were spent relaxing with all of my new friends.
After spending a month and a half in Sefwi Wiawso, I thought I never wanted to leave. Living among such decent, upright people and becoming accustomed to their simple but caring culture made it difficult for me to get on the plane that would take me home. Sefwi Wiawso made me utterly happy, calm, peaceful, and thoughtful. I can’t wait to go back.
What Must Happen Now?
Connections with the Jews of Ghana must be strengthened. More teachers and rabbis have already started to visit the community, more educational and religious materials have been sent to them. It must be understood that even a single dollar of charity will mean a lot to them. For example, they are currently hoping to build a guesthouse with running water (which is rare) to serve unexpected visitors. The entire project, including labor and materials, is under $1,000. To Americans, that is very inexpensive. To Ghanaians, that is an unreal sum of money.
We must strive for more interaction with their community, both by sending members of our community there, and by bringing members of their community here. While we have much to teach them, they also have a lot to teach us. We have the ability to help them tremendously, so we must act on it.
I feel that I accomplished all the goals I set for the trip. Yet, the job is far from finished. Only when the Sefwi Ghanaians are universally accepted as Jews around the world, when they read and speak Hebrew with the fluency that now evades them, when they are able to live in Israel, or have at least visited it, only then will the job be finished. Or perhaps that is when the real job will start.