The journey to Aba (the 2nd largest commercial town in Eastern Nigeria) was planned over a year ago. After keeping the Shabbat At Beth Shalom Knesset Awka in 2017, we learned about the supposedly largest Jewish place of prayer located two states away from Anambra. At first, it all seems as if it was an exaggeration, but however the only way to find out is simply to go there. So just as curious as we eventually became, it was obvious the discovery mission will have to wait until the following year, no doubt.
The 60 Kilometer Route From Port Harcourt to Aba
After the “Shabbat Hanukkah” With Professor Williams Miles in the garden city of Port Harcourt, the next location on our calendar was Abia state. It was “Day Three” of the Franklin- Miles Tour to Jewish Nigeria and a visit to two synagogues was in the schedule. The road network linking the two towns was not in the best of form, so we had to wake early in the morning and prepare for the road trip, which is estimated to be covered in about two hours time.
By the time Hadassah arrived at the hotel, our bags were loaded into the trunk of the car- and the movement got underway. Apart from Professor William Miles, the rest of the traveling team included Eben Cohen, Yoseph Ben Shmuel, and the brother behind the wheel of the Toyota Camry. Hadassah Marat Shmuel is the wife of the Rosh of Ohr Torah synagogue in Aba. A well known figure, smart and vibrant, an educationalist, as well as a powerful women leader in Jewish Nigeria. In 2016, she and her husband founded the Amit Et Zion Academy, one of the fastest growing Jewish-owned school in South-Eastern Nigeria.
A Mammoth Crowd Of Worshipers Welcomed Us To Ohr Torah Synagogue
It was already midday when we entered the commercial town of Aba. But knowing full well that we have only a couple of hours to spend, therefore it was important to make the best use of our time- because we really do not know the nature of the reception awaiting us. So Professor Miles began the interview with Hadassah inside the vehicle by asking her how Ohr Torah started.
From the discussion, we learned that she joined Judaism since 1996 with her husband, Uchenna Shmuel Yehudah, who is the Rosh of the synagogue. Recounting how it all began, she was invited by a friend to attended a ceremony in a synagogue and it appeared “Hashem” had indeed master-minded the invitation. In the years after, they continued to worship and attend services in other synagogues, before moving down to a temporal site in Aba and started the Judaism movement. In 2011, they acquired the property in 64 Imo avenue, off faulks road and started what have become the most populated Knesset in Nigeria today, having two other sister synagogues in Nnewi and Onitsha (both in Anambra State) according to her.
The interview ended just as the car halted in front of the gate of the Knesset. We were greeted by one or two people at the place of ablution, unknown to us the huge reception awaiting us inside the Knesset building. The Amit Et Zion Hebrew School occupied the land space on the extreme left and right side of the compound, with the main synagogue building centrally situated. Walking into the building through the central door, we were amazed to see the number of people waiting to welcome the American professor in his maiden visit to the state.
The Torah Is Brought Out Of The Ark
Although it was on a typical Sunday, yet they gathered numbering over eight (8) minyan, patiently waiting since morning to receive the Hanukkah visitor. Expressing their utmost excitement, their voices roared aloud as they repeatedly sang different songs and melodies in Hebrew. The stamping of their feet echoed around the building with so much energy, making our visit one that cannot be easily forgotten. The chief chazzan, Yoseph Ben Shmuel, who is the second son of the Rosh, was leading the song in front of the cheerful crowd.
Before the Torah was brought out of the Ark, the peak of the event was when everyone stood up, dancing together with hands joined, full of smiles and stamping their feet to the rhythm of the song. They were singing “Hosha-na, Hosha-na, Halleluyah, Hosha-na.” The chief chazzan, who was a student of Eben Cohen as far back as 2011, read a portion from the Toarh Parashat of the week. The Torah service was also conducted alongside Aharon Nnamdi Ben Shmuel, the young chazzan of the synagogue. Then after the brief reading, the Torah was dressed and returned back to the Ark.
Presentations and Exchange of Gifts
All the way from the United States, Professor William Miles had brought gifts on behalf of his Rabbi in Temple Emmanuel, Rhode Island. However, since that Sunday was the seventh day of Hanukkah, it was certainly the best time to give out part of the remaining Hanukkah gifts in his possession.
Here’s the summary of all the forms of presentations made in Ohr Torah Synagogue:
- After he was introduced by the Rosh, Professor William Miles presented a brief speech in front of the crowd, relaying a Hanukkah message from Rabbi Wayne Franklin, as well as from his loving mother who is 92 year old.
- He also presented Hanukkah gifts to the synagogue comprising of menorah stands, boxes of candles, and dreidel for kids.
- Ima Hadassah, who is the current president of YCOM (Yahudim Council Of Mothers), also presented a brief welcoming address to the visiting professor and lecturer, on behalf of the women of the synagogue.
4. Then there was a presentation from a little girl, Ariella Amarachi Shmuel, who recited countless portions from the books of the Torah off heart, to the amazement of the listening audience.
5. Rosh Uchenna Shmuel Ben Yehudah also received a personal package presented to him from Professor William Miles
6. Then finally, on behalf of the members of the synagogue, the visiting team was presented with gifts of bottles of wine of the finest quality.
Fixing The 2nd Mezuzah on the Doorpost in Har Shalom Synagogue
The next place we visited was Har Shalom Synagogue, located within Umuejiji village in Osisioma area of Abia State. From the gate of Ohr Torah, it took us only about 20 minutes drive to get to this small Jewish community that joined Judaism only less than two years ago. But before we left Ohr Torah, the service was actually concluded with the historic mounting of the mezuzah on the right-hand side entrance into Ohr Torah synagogue. Prior to our visit, even though there are three entrances into the big hall; only one entrance has the mezuzah.
The case of Har Shalom was completely different, with no mezuzah on any of the entrances leading into the synagogue. This was certainly the reason the members of this Jewish community expressed great delight about the visit of the American explorer. Not only was he the first American Jew to discover this synagogue, he also installed the ever first mezuzah on the doorpost. Surrounded by a crowd of people, Professor William Miles recited the prayers of installing the mezuzah which goes as follows:
“Barukh Ata A-donai, E-lohenu Melekh Haolam Asher Kiddeshanu Bemitzvotav Vetsivanu Likboa Mezuzah”
Honoring The American Explorer With A Colorful Regalia
Unlike the famous Spanish explorers in the past, who founded and discovered many new lands, Professor William has become famous for discovering new and existing Jewish communities in Nigeria for the international community. Eben Cohen had made the initial contact with this community many months ago, and has guided them through the proper path of Judaism as an experienced Hebrew teacher.
Standing in front of the congregation, a welcome address was presented by Derekyahu Nwede, the Rosh of Har Shalom Synagogue. This was followed with the presentation of kola to formally welcome the visitors as the Igbo tradition and culture demands. The elders in the synagogue presented a full regalia of traditional attire comprising of the cap, the top clothe, and walking staff, and went ahead to dress the visitor in this lovely and expensive traditional attire. No doubt, it was such an honor to see this small community graciously doing more in terms of giving and welcoming of guests.
Also, the menorah and other Hanukkah gifts which include boxes of candles and some dreidel for the kids where also given to the synagogue by Professor William Miles. At the same time, a kippa maker in the synagogue, Moshe Anyanwu, presented his newly designed product to the professor, in the spirit of the tradition of giving gifts during the feast of Hanukkah.
Negotiating For The Bar Mitzvah of Tovia Ben Derekyahu
Our time at Har Shalom was almost coming to an end, but the Ima of the synagogue, Yehudit marat Derekyahu, wouldn’t let us leave without feasting with the rest of the members. A vehicle was already positioned outside, waiting to convey Professor William and I back to Port Harcourt. Having experienced a memorable and successful first leg of the visit to Rivers State, the return journey to Abuja to welcome the Rabbi and his wife, was the next task on the tour calendar.
On the way back to the garden city, I informed the professor about my brief discussion with Tovia’s mother, who wanted to know if he could have his bar mitzvah now that he has already turned 16 years? To answer the question, he told me the story of a bar mitzvah held in his synagogue in the USA and the celebrant was 45 years!
So if that’s the case, we started to reason how we could possibly help Tovia to fulfill this mitzvah; as this will be absolutely helpful in his Judaism growth and development as the young chazzan in Har Shalom Synagogue. But to achieve this, first we have to talk to the parents of the Shimshon, whose bar mitzvah will be coming up in a week’s time in Port Harcourt- to consider Tovia and let him take part alongside their son, in this important Jewish ritual.