Story-ideas-1011172

In this West African country, a Jewish community is forming

  • JTACoteDIvoire
Avraham Yago, a married father of five who works as a linguistics professor at the University of Abidjan in the West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire, has visited Israel four times to learn about Judaism and practise his Hebrew.
by JOSEFIN DOLSTEN | Feb 01, 2018

Yago, 64, grew up with no religious affiliation. As a teenager, however, he embarked on a religious journey that led him, by way of Christianity as well as studies at the Kabbalah Centre in Abidjan, to Judaism.

“For me, the Torah is the truth,” he said from Abidjan, the country’s largest city.

Last month, after more than 20 years of studying Judaism, Yago converted along with 47 others, most of whom are members of the community he leads.

Gathering in Jacqueville, a coastal town in Ivory Coast, as it’s known in English, the community members answered questions in front of a rabbinical court, or Beth Din, whose members flew in from Israel and the United States. For the immersion required of converts, they used a lagoon that served as a mikvah, or ritual bath. Male converts underwent a ritual drawing of blood since they were already circumcised.

The conversions were facilitated by Kulanu, a New York-based group that supports communities around the world seeking to learn about Judaism.

Kulanu, which has been in touch with the community since 2012, had brought a Torah scroll, prayer books and other ritual items there on an earlier visit in 2014.

After the conversions, rabbis performed Jewish weddings for six couples in what Kulanu believes is a first in the country.

“This is the establishment of the first Jewish community in Cote d’Ivoire, and it was the first Jewish wedding,” said the group’s vice-president, Bonita Nathan Sussman.

The converts belong to two communities in Abidjan, Sussman said. The larger one, led by Yago, has 42 members, comprising five families as well as singles. Another six people identify as a separate group.

Like most members of his community, Yago believes he has Jewish roots.

This is not unique in the communities that Kulanu works with. Last year, the group brought rabbis to Nicaragua to convert 114 people, and in 2016 it helped 121 people become Jewish in Madagascar. Both communities also believe they have Jewish heritage, with the Madagascar community believing they are members of a lost tribe.

The Cote d’Ivoire community is relatively affluent, allowing them to buy Jewish ritual objects and books, said Nathan Devir, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who researches emerging Jewish communities.

“They are a very privileged kind of community, I think much more so than any other African communities could ever dream of being,” said Devir, who visited the Cote d’Ivoire community in 2015.

The community counts among its members doctors, dentists, university professors and diplomats.

Members follow Sephardic Orthodox customs and eat a pescatarian diet since they do not have access to kosher meat, according to Sussman.

“They dress very modestly. They’re very into laws of niddah and mikvah,” she said, referring to ritual laws regarding menstruation and sex. “On Shabbat they have a full day of prayers.”

Shabbat services are held in Yago’s home, but he said the community hopes to construct a synagogue and mikvah.

The community’s beliefs centre on the idea of a personal relationship with G-d, said Marla Brettschneider, a professor of political science and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire who joined Kulanu on the trip last month.

“They want to bring themselves closer to G-d, and believe that the Jewish framework is the best or primary framework for them to be pursuing that relationship with G-d," said Brettschneider, who has done research on Jewish groups in Africa.

Conversions to Judaism in the developing world aren’t without controversy.

Devir said that while the Cote d’Ivoire community is likely to be accepted as Jews by Jews in the US, including the non-Orthodox denominations and the Modern Orthodox, they would face more difficulties among haredi Orthodox Jews and in Israel.

Community members do not want to move to Israel, Yago said. Still, recognition in Israel is necessary if members want to receive visas to study at yeshivas there. Members of Uganda’s Jewish community, who converted under the auspices of the Conservative movement, have found it hard to obtain certain visas and stipends that Jews can apply for in order to study and live in the Jewish state, Haaretz reported in October.

Suspicions about the validity of conversions such as the ones done in Cote d’Ivoire stem from various concerns, Devir said. Among the concerns are the fact that the rabbis are flown in to perform the conversions and have not met with the community beforehand, and following the conversions, the communities may not have adequate funds or infrastructure to sustain Jewish life. Some sceptics also worry that converts still subscribe to Christian beliefs, Devir said.

Sussman said that the American Jewish community is used to seeing people who are born Jewish lose interest in the faith, not the other way around.

“In South America and in Africa, we find groups yearning to run and break through the doors to come in, and no one’s letting them in,” she said. “This is a huge problem. It’s an unfamiliar challenge to the worldwide Jewish community.”

Sussman said the three rabbis on the Beth Din – Leonard Book, Shmuel Mayteles and Andy Eichenholz – had Orthodox credentials.

Sussman sees the conversions as a way to “rebuild the Jewish people” following the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Arab countries.

Meanwhile, becoming Jewish has allowed Yago to fulfil a longstanding wish.

“It was a gradual realisation that [Judaism presented] a G-d that I had been pursuing for a long time,” he said. “And today, now that I am Jewish, I am satisfied.” (JTA)

 

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