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And they call themselves Nigerian Jews




So says Nathan Obiekwe, 56, who calls himself the “rabbi” of the Bethel Messianic Assembly in Yeoville in Johannesburg. Obiekwe has been a so-called rabbi for 35 years and leads a congregation of between 50 and 100 people at his small temple.

Obiekwe is tall and confident, with a beatific smile. He wears long white robes and a white yarmulke. Three things set him apart from other rabbis in Johannesburg:

First, Obiekwe leads a congregation of what they call “messianic Jews” who believe that Jesus Christ, or Yahshua, was the messiah. “We believe that the messiah has been here, and he will come again,” Obiekwe explains.

Second, Rabbi Obiekwe is Nigerian. And third, he is black.

Obiekwe comes from southeastern Nigeria, home of the prominent Igbo tribe. While most Igbo people practise Christianity and traditional religions, many believe the tribe originated in Israel, migrating across Africa 3 000 years ago. A small number of Igbos identify as Jewish and practise Judaism, although Halachically, they are definitely not Jewish.

They believe differently. “We see ourselves as Jewish,” says Obiekwe. “Both biologically and religiously.”

Obiekwe came to Johannesburg in 2006, after seeing South Africa in a dream. He knew virtually no one and remembers waking up his first morning in Johannesburg, wondering where all the people are. Compared with Lagos, the streets seemed empty.

He visited various local synagogues at first, primarily attending Temple Israel in Hillbrow. But Obiekwe tired of being told he must convert to become a Jew. He began to meet other Nigerian “Jews”, praying with them in his one-room flat, and eventually started a congregation of his own.

Today, Bethel Messianic Assembly worships in Obiekwe’s modest home on tree-lined Regent Street in Yeoville. A white Jewish man originally owned the house, Obiekwe says, and after the owner died Obiekwe was able to purchase the house himself.

On a rainy Saturday morning in January, cars park end-to-end along the street in front of Bethel Messianic. Across the road is a Pentecostal church – the palm trees in front of it are draped with Christmas lights. Loud wails emanate from inside.

Bethel Messianic has a pleasant blue gate painted with a gold menorah and Jewish star of David. A man in a yarmulke welcomes us in; we hurry through the outdoor passage in the rain, struggling to cover our heads and remove our shoes in the downpour.

We duck into the synagogue, a makeshift building with a low ceiling and corrugated iron roof behind the main house. A woman thrusts a sarong into my hands.

“Women aren’t allowed to wear trousers in the temple,” she whispers curtly. I struggle to tie the sarong over my jeans.

The congregation is mostly men, with two rows of women and children at the back. In the far corner, dark and shadowy on this rainy Sabbath, a band sets up.

Obiekwe stands at the front on a small stage, arms aloft. “Say Hallelujah!” he commands.

“Hallelujah!” the audience responds. Rain batters the roof.

Obiekwe holds a bible and refers to readings from both the Old and New Testaments. He frequently signals his daughter, seated near the back, to read verses.

“Who won the election?” Obiekwe asks. “TRUMP!” The audience calls in unison.

My jaw drops.

“We prayed for this!” he says. “Say Hallelujah!”

Obiekwe signals it’s time for worship. “We praise G-d like black people,” says the rabbi, winking in our direction. The band, which includes a guitarist, a trumpet-player, a drummer, and men with various Nigerian percussion instruments, begins to play. The congregation rises to its feet and dances.

The music hits me in my solar plexus. Nigerian jazz mixes with the sound of pattering raindrops.

A Bethel Messianic trainee with a bushy black beard boogies at the front of the temple, hoisting a shofar. He widens his arms, head up, and bellows joyfully toward the heavens.

Bethel Messianic struggles to make ends meet. The temple’s ceiling leaks in places, and the home is in need of repair. Obiekwe’s oldest son has just begun university, training to take over his father’s work some day.

But Obiekwe doesn’t like to ask for money, wary of being viewed as a scammer. And anyway, money isn’t everything. What he says he craves, above all, is validation from the greater Jewish community.

“We still need more recognition, more help from whoever is serious with Judaism… We need to be recognised. We need religious help.” Unfortunately, this dream is not going to be realised.

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  1. Adaolisa Obiekwe

    May 29, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    ‘I think its very mean of you (the writer) to say that \”this dream is not going to be realised\”. Why don’t we leave that for time to decide.

    And I’m also not very happy with the fact that the words ‘Jews’ and ‘rabbi’ have been put in quotes, you are convincing readers to see things the way you do and that is not fair.

    I’m the rabbi’s daughter (as you might have guessed by now) and I feel the need to inform every other Jew out there that Bethel Messianic Assembly will stand whether we get recognition from the rest of the Jews or not.

    We might not be the strongest in terms of finances and other resources but I can assure you that our \”makeshift\” synagogue brings us closer to Hashem.

    You shouldn’t be the ones to decide who the real Jews are. Hashem knows his own poeple and I’m sure that, unlike most Jews in South Africa, he DOESN’T care about skin colour.’

  2. Rachell Holmes

    Sep 30, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    ‘So why did you not express this to him directly Judas. You wrote 2 articles Heather the Roman. You could not say this in his presence because you are not foolish enough to do so God forbid. You are of 2 different natures , jealousy and envious person. But nothing is worse than a coward ‘

  3. Nathan Obiekwe

    Apr 26, 2024 at 11:51 am

    I want to address the misrepresentation of our community in the article.

    When the writer visited Bethel Messianic Assembly, they were greeted with genuine warmth and hospitality. However, the article’s tone fails to reflect this, painting them in a negative light.

    The phrase “as they call themselves” undermines their sincere beliefs and self-identification. They proudly embrace our Jewish heritage and faith, regardless of others’ perceptions.

    Critiques suggesting They’re not “real Jews” based on narrow interpretations of Jewish law overlook the diversity within Judaism. Their beliefs and practices are valid and deserving of respect.

    Furthermore, insinuations of insincerity or ulterior motives are unfounded and hurtful. Their community is built on values of empathy, integrity, and authenticity.

    Let’s foster understanding and respect for diverse expressions of Judaism. Instead of labeling them as “fake,” let’s recognize the richness of our faith journey and celebrate our shared heritage with confidence and pride.

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