Africa’s ‘lost tribe’ of Jews in a pickle

  • Rabbi Shlomo Riskin home
AJC is hopping mad as Rabbi Riskin inadvertently creates a humanitarian crisis in Africa. This as well as the major brouhaha building up in international Jewish media about the most respected Mizrachi rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, pictured. Riskin is the Chief Rabbi of the settlement of Efrat, where many South Africans Olim (immigrants) have settled who has been summoned to a hearing by the office of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel scheduled for 29 June.
by Jewish Report | Jun 02, 2015

The Chief Rabbinical Council, the Rabbinate’s governing body, and Rabbi Riskin’s employer, say that the hearing is to discuss his reappointment as rabbi of Efrat, a town he co-founded in 1983. A spokesman for the Religious Services Ministry, Daniel Bar, said the hearing is simply part of a process all municipal rabbis age 75 or older must undergo in order to review their health.

But Riskin, who is 75, believes the Rabbinate may use the hearing as a pretext to dismiss him. He supports the Rabbinate and, he says, he operates within their bounds of Orthodox Jewish law, or Halacha. He has, however, called on the Rabbinate to condone his progressive and controversial policies regarding conversion and ordination of women to Orthodox judicial positions.


Travelling Rabbi Silberhaft - home

RIGHT: Ann Harris and Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft are left holding the humanitarian baby

There is no shortage of Israelis who want to reform the office of the Chief Rabbinate, wrote JTA's Ben Sales last week,

They range from advocates of religion-state separation to leaders of Israel’s non-Orthodox movements to newspaper columnists, there are many who want to see the end the Rabbinate’s monopoly over the country’s religious services.

Some non-Orthodox groups want to challenge the Rabbinate’s stranglehold of the Kotel (Western Wall) which they run as if it was an Orthodox shul, which it isn’t, and their absolute control of all Jewish marriages, even non-Orthodox ceremonies.

Still others want to dissolve the Rabbinate entirely.

But Rabbi Riskin is a modern Orthodox rabbi who supports, and is in the employ of, the Rabbinate, and the most respected rabbi in the wide-spread Mizrachi movement.


Ugandan mass-conversion opens raw wound

This week, Jewish Report has found out that rabbi Riskin is also at the centre of one of the African Jewish Congress’s (AJC) biggest problems as well. The twelve-nation AJC is chaired by Ann Harris, wife of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, and has “Travelling Rabbi” Moshe Silberhaft as its CEO and Spiritual Leader.

Travelling Rabbi Silberhaft - home

LEFT: Moshe Silberhaft is also the spiritual head of the South African Country Communities which is administered by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies


The AJC took a policy decision four years ago not to accede to requests from several black groups who consider themselves Jews and who wanted the AJC to minister to them and consider them as Jews.

The largest groups of claimants are the Abu Yudaya tribe in Uganda and the Lemba tribes in Zimbabwe and Limpopo, South Africa.

“The basis for their claims is paternal and their male Y-chromosomes make them genetically more Jewish than many of us,” Rabbi Silberhaft told Jewish Report this week. He concedes that they do practice certain Jewish rites and may have originated from a lost tribe. However, says Silberhaft, there is no way for these groups could meet the requirements of Orthodox conversion as they cannot keep Halachic practices.

Riskin, however, conducted a mass-conversion of about 240 members of the Abu Yudaya who now believe they are Halachically Jewish.

Travelling Rabbi Silberhaft - homeRIGHT: AJC chair Ann Harris is
the wife of the late Chief Rabbi of SA

They are now being persecuted by local Muslims, says Silberhaft, and they want the AJC to facilitate what they believe is their “right of return” by having Israel uplift them and resettle them in the Holy Land.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft is angry about the situation that the AJC finds itself in. “The AJC does not minister to (the Abu Yudaya),” he says emphatically, neither does it, or Israel, consider them Jewish. “A conversion has to be recognised by some authority,” he explains, and Rabbi Riskin did not do this under the auspices of the South African Beth Din nor Israel’s Rabbinate. Neither would have condoned it, says Silberhaft.




But, says the world-famous Travelling Rabbi, for “humanitarian reasons” the AJC also can’t ignore the plight of the Abu Yudaya who now find themselves trapped and persecuted. “It is unjust to have made them believe that they would be considered Halachically Jewish and therefore entitled to the right of return!” he says.

Moshe Silberhaft met with authorities on a humanitarian basis when he was in Israel last month. Despite going to the highest levels in the land, he says, Israel was not prepared to consider intervening. “Firstly, Israel will not lift a complete community anymore,” he says, as they had, for example, the Ethiopian Jews, only individuals. “Secondly, Israel won’t consider them (for immigration) unless they have a recognised conversion, which they cannot do,” he says.

Israel has to come up with “guidance”

In Zimbabwe and in Limpopo Province in South Africa there are also members of the Lemba tribe who could find themselves in a similar position – and the SAJBD and the AJC could find themselves having another humanitarian crisis on their hands.

Silberhaft is also angry about the fact that there are modern Orthodox rabbis and their wives who come out to minister to the Lemba. “(They) have no authority to do so,” he says. They are creating unfair expectations among this tribe, too. “It is unjust,” says Silberhaft, as the Lemba will never be be considered Halachically Jewish.

He is not sure who the rabbis are who are ministering to the Lemba, says Silberhaft. They represent Orthodox outreach organisations based in the US and Israel, but do not seem to represent any group with ties to South Africa.

“There has to be some kind of guidance from Israel,” says an angry and frustrated Silberhaft, who clearly feels that the AJC is being expected to clean up African messes that are not of their making!


  1. 9 Denis Solomons 02 Jun
    The Cohen-Mohal haplotype is carried on the Y chromosome and is believed to have originated from Aaron , Moses's brother , the first Cohen Gadol .
    Thus the Cohen -Mohal haplotype is carried along paternal line and is believed to be a mitochondrial chromosome.
    So ones Jewish characteristics are carried on the X chromosone and originate from tour mother but your Cohen potential or ability is derived from your father ! 
  2. 8 Choni 03 Jun
    Thanks for the info Dennis.
    Reminds me of the story of a wealthy Jewish man who hardly ever attended shul. One year he did decide to go on Rosh Hashana, and was very impressed by the honour given to Kohanim.
    He approached the Gaboim and asked them if he could become a Kohen. After continuous refusals to his request, and even after refusing a large sum of money offered by the man, the Gaboim finally asked him why he was so adamant in becoming a Kohen.
    Well, replied the man, "I really want to become a Kohen because my father was one"
  3. 7 Jp 05 Jun
    • A note on accuracy: Technically I understood the Abu Yudaya didn't claim Jewish descent, rather chose to be Jewish. I stand to be corrected.
      Contrasted with other groups who do claim Jewish
      descent as in the "Lemba", "Igbo" of South-East Nigeria, or 'Beta Israel" and "Beta Avraham" of Ethiopia .

      For your interest...

      LIS, D. (2015). Jewish identity among the Igbo of Nigeria: Israel's "lost tribe" and the question of belonging in the Jewish state. Trenton, New Jersey : Africa World Press
      BRUDER, E., & PARFITT, T. (2012). African Zion: Studies in Black Judaism. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK : Cambridge Scholars Publishing
      BRUDER, E. (2008). The Black Jews of Africa: history, religion, identity. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
      PARFITT, T. (2013). Black Jews in Africa and the Americas. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England, Harvard University Press.
      BRETTSCHNEIDER, M. (2015). The Jewish phenomenon in Sub-Saharan Africa: multiple and conflicting discourses. Lewiston, NY : Edwin Mellen Press
      MILES, W. F. S. (2013). Jews of Nigeria: an Afro-Judaic odyssey. Princeton, NJ, Markus Wiener Publishers.
      MILES, W. F. S. (2014). Afro-Jewish encounters: from Timbuktu to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Princeton : Markus Wiener Publishers
      LE ROUX, M. (2003). The Lemba: a lost tribe of Israel in Southern Africa. Pretoria, Unisa Press, University of South Africa.

      From the above literature it is clear that reform, reconstructionist and conservative groups have been involved with some of the groups as well - confusing the issue even further. I feel for those who may desire to be genuine converts.
  4. 6 Jp 08 Jun
    Also see:
  5. 5 Gerald Sussman 27 Jun
    This article is amazingly full of misstatements.  As someone who is in touch fairly closely with the Abyyadaya I have not heard of Muslim persecution or the desire to be airlifted to Israel.  I have also not come across the AJC having a relationship with them. Neither do the Abayudaya claim Jewish genetics.  From what is written I wonder if Rabbi Silberhaft could actually have made statements  attributed to him as they show such an almost total lack of knowledge of the subject.

  6. 4 American BioSci Jew 28 Jun

    Not clear if you are making a statement or questions.  But  the maternal-parental association would necessarily be the case if it existed.   When looking for genes associated with Jewish lineage researcher would inherently target maternal only provided genes (mitochondrial). Conversely, they look to the Y chromosome for paternal (tribal).  The amazing (biblical) outcome is that in fact there are genes that show close genetic relationships among geographically and culturally  remote groups that are not shared with nearby similar people.
  7. 3 ANT KATZ 29 Jun
    Dear Rabbi Sussman,

    I am not sure where your source of knowledge on the subject comes from and so cannot pass any comment on the veracity of your statements vs. Rabbi Silberhaft's.
    However, as the online editor of this publication and from many years of dealing with Rabbi Silberhaft and Ann Harris, I can assure you that this article was fact-checked with R. Silberhaft. As such I must protest your implication that we have misquoted him. "From what is written I wonder if Rabbi Silberhaft could actually have made statements  attributed to him.."

    ANT KATZ - [email protected] 
  8. 2 Yakov Zamir 30 Jun
    The modern-day experts on the Abayudaya are Professor Tudor Parfitt, and Dr. Edith Bruder, as well as the members of Kulanu who are in regular contact with the community.  Anyone wishing to be well-informed should consult these sources, or the Abayudaya themselves.  As for conversion, there is a major crisis in the Jewish community because of the insistence by the Rabbanut that all conversions be by rabbis approved by them.  Judaism does not have centralized control and has flourished without it.  This attempt to centralize is very unpopular, not just with many Orthodox rabbis in Israel, but with Orthodox rabbis all over the world. 
  9. 1 Lemba 21 Feb
    Indeed rabbi  Sussman is right, the Abbayudaya are not persecuted by Muslims, neither do they desire tonne airlifted to Israel. They are just happy to be a group of people trying to practice Judaism to the best of their abilities, staying where they are. The And asking don't have a relationship with them,  just like they don't have a relationship with the Lemba


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