Shavei Israel sending first ever emissary to Nigerian Jews
In 2012, Daniel Limor was invited to a royal audience with an African village king – a member of the Igbo tribe, the second largest ethnic group in Nigeria. The Igbo are one of the most fascinating possible “lost” Jewish tribes to be found anywhere in the world – many of them claim some sort of descent from the Israelite tribe of Gad, which was exiled by the Assyrians more than 27 centuries ago.
Limor had been meeting with Igbo communities in Africa for several years after he learned about them through his decades long work with Ethiopian Jews, first as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, and later in the Israeli defense establishment.
The king, whose full name was Eze Chukwuemeka Eri Ezeora the 34th, “had heard there was this white guy hanging out with the Jewish community in Nigeria and he wanted to meet me,” Limor recalls. The king didn’t identify as Jewish himself, but during the meeting, Limor noticed that the king was wearing a robe with a Star of David on it.
“I asked him if he put that on especially for me,” Limor says. “No,” the king told Limor. “I’m Christian, but I know that originally I’m Jewish. All of the Igbo know that!”
While the overwhelming majority of Igbo in Nigeria identify as Christian, an estimated 2,000-3,500 have embraced their tribal backstory and today practice a fairly modern form of Judaism, complete with synagogues (26 in the country), Torah scrolls, kashrut (keeping the kosher laws), the wearing of Tefillin (phylacteries) and tallit (prayer shawls), and circumcision. Local tradition holds that the word “Igbo” (it’s pronounced “ee-bow” – the “g” is silent) is a local variation of “Hebrew,” although Jewish Igbo’s call themselves the Benei-Yisrael.
Now Shavei Israel has gotten involved with the Igbo Jews. We are sending our first official emissary to the community, to teach as well as to learn. Gadi Bentley, 22, who recently completed his service in the IDF, leaves next week for a two-month stint. He will report back on what’s really happening in this distant hinterland on the African continent.
The Western world’s knowledge and interest in the Igbo dates back more than 500 years when Portuguese missionaries sailed to West Africa. They sent written reports back home about a tribe of Africans who were keeping the Jewish Sabbath and kosher laws. Most significant, though, was circumcision. With a large Muslim influence, circumcision was common among other Africans. But the Igbo were observing the tradition specifically on the eighth day, as Jewish practice stipulates.
The Igbo, the missionaries concluded, were practicing a basic Judaism based solely on the 613 commandments in the Torah since, according to their tradition, the Igbo’s ancestors left the Land of Israel long before the Talmud was codified and so their Jewish practice was Biblical rather than rabbinic in nature. (Some historians say the Igbo Jews migrated from Syria, Portugal and Libya into West Africa as late as 740 C.E. and were from several Israelite tribes – Gad, Asher, Dan and Naphtali. Later they were joined by more Jewish immigrants from Portugal and Libya in 1484 and 1667 respectively. You can read our full history of the Igbo Jews in the Other Communities section of our website.)
The missionaries successfully converted most of the Igbo, and the world forgot about Nigeria’s Jewish connection. But in the last several decades, the Igbo – like other “lost” Jewish tribes around the world – have begun reconnecting with their heritage. Rabbis and Jewish leaders began to visit them and bring more knowledge. Limor himself sent a crate containing 13 talitot (prayer shawls) and 13 pairs of Tefillin in 2013. The Igbo are keeping Shabbat and kashrut again, not to mention brit mila (circumcision on the eighth day), which was observed consistently even when other practices faded away.
And then of course there’s the Internet. “Most of the Igbo’s knowledge, when it comes to practicing mitzvot (commandments), comes from the Internet,” Limor says. “On Shabbat, you can hear them singing Hassidic melodies from Avraham Fried or those from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach – there, in the middle of Africa!”
The Igbo primarily have “a thirst for knowledge,” Limor says. They’re not a particularly downtrodden people – “they are well-educated and many are studying in university,” Limor adds. Aliyah is far from the agenda at the moment. More important is learning and acting on the rabbinic traditions the Igbo never had. For example, the Igbo have started to celebrate the post-Biblical holiday of Hanukah, as well as Purim.
Most of the Igbo Jews live in Anambra state, the ancestral Nigerian region of the Igbos. A smaller number of Igbo Jews live in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, where they have three synagogues.
Shai Afsai visited the Igbo in 2013 and reported on his trip in The Times of Israel. “To Igbo Jews, the Jewish practices they have begun embracing in the past few decades are not those of a foreign religion or culture, but rather their own. They see themselves as ba’ale teshuvah: Jews returning to Judaism and to the traditional observances of their ancestors, which were lost due to the Igbos’ long exile from the Land of Israel and due to the introduction of Christianity to Igboland.”
Limor connected with Shavei Israel through its educational director Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum. Both Rabbi Birnbaum and Limor are originally from Uruguay and they formed an immediate (and Spanish-speaking) bond. In December 2014, Limor led a fact-finding mission to Nigeria with Rabbi Birnbaum and Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund.
It was very much a matter of seeing is believing. “I can tell you stories and show you video clips, but until you see it with your own eyes, you don’t understand the power of this community,” Limor says. The decision to send a longer-term emissary was made and Bentley was selected. “We wanted someone who is religious, who can teach, but who is also not afraid of different situations,” Limor adds.
Bentley served as a paratrooper in the IDF and was a graduate of a hesder yeshiva (that combines yeshiva study with army service). He also speaks English fluently – a language spoken by many among the Igbo Jewish community.
Bentley will spend his two months in Africa visiting the largest of the 26 Igbo Jewish communities. He’ll be bringing a variety of materials – including prayer books and machzorim for the High Holy Days (which will be high on his list of subjects to teach). Of the 26 communities, 5-6 already have Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) to read from during synagogue services. Bentley will also teach Hebrew.
As important as his teaching is what Bentley will report back to Shavei Israel. “Gadi won’t be able to reach every community in those two months, but he’ll do his best to map out the situation as a whole,” says Limor, who plans another visit to the Igbo about a month into Bentley’s stay.
What will Bentley be able to eat while in Africa? Do the Igbo keep kosher to his Israeli standards? Before taking up the post, Bentley asked Rabbi Birnbaum, who explained that the Igbo are strict vegetarians. That’s due in part because they have no trained shochet (ritual slaughterer) in Nigeria. “You can eat the food,” Rabbi Birnbaum assured Bentley.
What about safety? When one reads about Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram is quick to come up. “Nigeria is a huge country,” Limor says. “Boko Haram is in the far northeast. The Igbo Jews are in the south. Moreover, there is no local incitement against the Igbo Jews,” Limor continues. “They live amongst Christians of the same tribe. Most are 7th Day Adventists, which means that Saturday is their Sabbath too. It’s probably safer for a Jew there than in Paris or London.”
Limor has a vision for what he would like to see happen with Nigeria’s Jews. “My dream is to open a school in Jerusalem that every year will take 30-40 young Igbo Jews who have just finished high school in Nigeria. They’ll come to Israel to study Judaism for a year. They can officially convert if possible. Then they’ll go back to Africa to teach the next generation.”
Bringing Jewish content to the Igbo is an ambitious and potentially enormous project. When Limor, Rabbi Birnbaum and Freund were at the airport in Abuja, a police officer approached them. “He had a face that said, ‘I’m going to eat you alive,’” recalls Limor. All three of the Israelis were wearing kippot; Rabbi Birnbaum has a long beard. The police officer “turns to Michael and he asks, ‘are you a Jew?’ Michael answers, calmly, ‘yes,’ then adds, ‘are you also a Jew?’ And the officer lights up. ‘Yes I am!’ he says.”
We have several videos taken of the Igbo Jewish community to share with you:
As Bentley files his reports from Nigeria, we’ll keep you posted on Shavei Israel’s latest undertaking.