Aba is the second largest commercial town in Eastern Nigeria, and home to over two and half million people of Igbo origin. But interestingly, even though majority of the population are Christians, yet the mentality of the ancestral linkage between the Igbos and the Israelite, is openly displayed in this part of the world. It’s so common to see the Israeli flag almost every corner around the town. In fact, to make a slight comparison: there’s a tendency to see more of the magen David in the white background, than the National flag itself. This situation was also observed by the Boston lecturer and Jewish professor on his maiden visit to Abia state.
During that visit, two Jewish Synagogues in South Eastern Nigeria received two mezuzot from Rabbi Wayne Franklin. “Ohr Torah” was the first Knesset visited that day, which was on a Rosh Codesh. After spending some time with the large congregation in the synagogue, the next point of call was Har Shalom Synagogue, before returning back to Port Harcourt, ahead of the movement to Abuja to continue the rest of the Franklin-Miles tour to Jewish Nigeria.
Returning Again To Har Shalom For Shabbat-Keeping
The Franklin-Miles tour To Jewish Nigeria ended in Lagos with a spectacular Shabbat in Adat Yisrael Synagogue. That was during the ending of December 2018; so two months after this historic tour, it was amazing to step foot again in Har Shalom synagogue. But this time around; to observe Shabbat with the members of this new Jewish community.
Honoring the invitation of the rosh, I arrived the Knesset and was warmly received by members of the community. At the end of the Erev service, we happily chorused the brikat hamazon, and retired for the night. The following day, the morning prayers got underway very early and ended before noon. Although there is no Sefar Torah, but I enjoyed the whole prayer proceedings lead by the young chazzan, Tovia Ben Derekyahu. The second chazzan was Gideon UzzyaHu Ben Israel , and both of them performed excellently under the supervision of the synagogue resident teacher, Eben Cohen.
Indeed, the energy and enthusiasm shown by this young Jewish community made my entire visit worthwhile. The last time I set my eyes on a few of them was during the bar mitzvah of Tovia and Shimshon at Yisharim Synagogue in Port Harcourt. Hence, it was such a happy reunion to catch-up with most of them again. However, I spent an additional day in the synagogue with the family of the Rosh, which provided the opportunity to sit down with the Rosh for an exclusive interview with Jewish Nigeria Blog.
I began by asking him to tell me about himself, family and origin.
He introduced himself as Justice Chibueze Nwede; and known with the Hebrew name Derekyahu Ben Nwede. He was born into an Anglican family, and hails from Isialangwa North LGA in Abia Sttae. He is married to his lovely wife, Chinyere (Yehudit marat Derekuahu), the ima of the synagogue. Their union is blesses with two wonderful sons- Eben and Tovia.
What’s your background like before joining Judaism?
Listening to him as he speaks from the other side of the table, I was moved to hear his story from the beginning.
“My past experience in the world of business was horrible as my shop got burnt down 3 times and everything lost. This happened in Onitsha during my early beginning in business. “
He also disclosed his health challenges in the past, which prompted him to be taken to a synagogue in Onitsha where he started attending services in 1993 after finally leaving the Anglican Church in 1992. “Not only did we have no siddur back then, services were conducted in English and Igbo, but it wasn’t a messianic order neither,” he pointed out.
Then eagerly, I asked him the next question…
How did you find your path into Judaism?
After leaving the synagogue in Onitsha, he relocated to Abuja in the late nineties and resumed his trading business which flourished over the years. By 2014 he was finally back to the east, and settled in Aba, where he later founded and led a small religious congregation.
According to him, “he knew he had gift of leadership and spirituality, which he exhibited back in Onitsha by working with his leader to run the synagogue- including conducting prayers, deliverance, and giving prophesies.
“Finally, it was in 2017, through one brother Nathanhayu that I found the true path into Judaism. He also introduced our Synagogue to teacher Eben Cohen.
Tell me a little more about your synagogue, Har Shalom
From his brief answers, I learned that Har Shalom began in 2017 with the name “Hose of Relief,” which is the English meaning.
“How lucky we are to have teacher Eben Cohen, as guide and instructor since our inception. I’m grateful to Hashem for his favor, which kept us on the path of growth in Judaism.
“Our two chazzans have been trained to conduct services for both Shabbat and every other Jewish festival. The little children attend Hebrew classes for beginners, holding at the synagogue from time to time.
As a New Jewish Synagogue, what are the notable challenges at the moment?
Gathering information from my frequent travels across Jewish Nigeria, I find similarities in certain challenges faced by most synagogues. The most common one is the not-so-good financial state of the average Nigerian Jews.
Two factors responsible for this are:
- High rate of unemployment in the country
- Lack of functional companies owned by Jews- and positioned to provide jobs for qualified Nigerian Jews.
Then two other similar situations typical of emerging synagogues such as Har Shalom are:
- Lack of siddurin, Jewish-related books, and other Jewish materials
- No Sefer Torah
- No Teffilin
During the Franklin-Miles Tour to Jewish Nigeria, Har Shalom was one of the synagogues visited by Professor William Miles. What’s your reaction to the visit and what has been the effect so far.
“It was a wonderful visit,” he replied. “The surprised visit boosted our existence as a synagogue in the eyes of our neighbors- who were completely amazed to witness the evidence of the linkage between American Jew and the African Jews.” He went ahead to say, “members were also thrilled with the maiden visit of the Jewish professor, which has kindled hope that even as a small Jewish community, we’re not alone- the future is bright.”
“It is now on record that the first Mezuzah placed on the door of our synagogue was brought by Professor Miles. How grateful we are to the Rabbi for sending us such a wonderful gift. We appreciate greatly.”
There was a bar mitzvah during the visit of Rabbi Wayne Franklin to Port Harcourt, in which your son, Tovia, was one of the celebrants. As a father, how was the feeling that day, as it happened to be the first celebrant in Har Shalom?
He was full of smiles and began by saying that words could not be enough to express his true excitement. “It was all like a dream. The bar mitzvah was planned in less than a week. We got into a bus with some members, drove to Port Harcourt, and it all went down in Yisharim Synagogue.
Before he finished, he said he was grateful to the following people for making the bar mitzvah a reality:
- Elder Akaniwo, Rosh of Yisharim Synagogue
- Rosh Moshe Ben Avraham, Aaron Hakodesh Knesset, Port Harcourt
- National Coordinator of the Tour, Abraham Ben Abraham
- Professor William Miles, North Eastern University, Boston
- Eben Cohen, Executive Director of TorahWorld Outreach
- Yehudit marat Derekyahu, Ima of the synagogue, and
- Members of Har Shalom Synagogue
The crowd at the occasion was so massive, with guests in attendance from over 10 synagogues. What do you have to say about the growth of Judaism in Eastern and Southern Nigeria?
“We are growing.
We’re spreading fast.
Look at Anambra State alone, there are over twenty Jewish Synagogues. The number here in Aba is also quite a large community of Nigerian Jews. The growth is dominant here in the East and South, I’d say.”
After he ended, I assured him the interview will soon be over. I guess we’ve spent over 45 minutes already.
The Feast of Purim is just around the corner. What’s the significant of Purim to the Jews and how is your synagogue preparing for the festival?
As Jews who are bound by the provision of the Halakhah principles, certainly we look forward to joining the rest of the brother and sisters across the globe to observe the festival of Purim. The purpose of the feast is to celebrate the miraculous victory of the Jews against their enemies. It’s a time to remember Queen Esther for her divine role in reversing the evil plot against the early Babylonian Jews.
Everyone is invited to celebrate the feast here with us in Har shalom, said. There will be plenty of food to go round, and enough drinks to make this year’s celebration a memorable one.
Then finally, the last question before I reached for my bag- to hit the road to Imo State.
What project is currently ongoing in the synagogue, and mention specifically any long-term projects or future one’s you’re considering?
For the future projects, he mentioned:
- Construction of a permanent and much bigger synagogue building with capacity of at least 200 worshipers.
- Establish a small Hebrew school to speed up the training of the Hebrew child.
For the ongoing projects:
- Teaching and study of the Torah and the Jewish principles
- Organized Ivrit lessons for the little children in the synagogue.
It was such a great time listening and talking with Rosh Derekyahu. I thanked him for taking his time to share lots of information with Jewish Nigeria Blog. It was finally time to get going, after a long weekend and extended time in Aba. It’s just a matter of days ahead, and I’d return again to this vibrant and new synagogue to celebrate the festival of Purim.
Upcoming Stories on Jewish Nigeria:
- Celebrating the Feast of Purim with the Jewish Communities in Aba, South Eastern Nigeria
- Inauguration of Bet Yaakov Haknesset, Agulu, Anambra State