Deborah bat Shaul (Contributory Writer)
Jewish Nigeria is currently the fastest growing Judaism enclave in the African continent according to statistical reports from different sources. Geographically positioned across thirteen states in about five regions around the country- existing Jews belong to a specific Knesset probably closet to their residence. In a country of over 200 million population estimate, it appears their voices and Jewish activities are shrouded in the big political noises and Christianity explosion- yet they exist.
One of such places one can find hundreds of Jews living in harmony is in Ebonyi State, which is less than 50 kilometers from the Enugu Mountains. After an unforgettable visit to Port Harcourt for the “Seder Night” as Jewish communities marked the beginning of Pesach, my travel schedule ended in this south eastern State. But prior to arriving to my final destination, I’ve enjoyed beautiful sights and amazing moments of 2019 Pesach Celebrations across Jewish Nigeria.
By the time I got to the capital in Abakaliki, it was already dark after traveling about 200 kilometers from Delta State. I was received by Elder Ukpabio who presented a gift on behalf of the State, to Rabbi Wayne during the Franklin-Miles tour to Jewish Nigeria that ended in Lagos with a spectacular Shabbat in Adat Yisrael Synagogue.
10 Things Learned After The Visit to Jewish Communities in Abakaliki and Ezzamgbo
In the spirit of the feast of Pesach, I shared the erev Shabbat delicious meal with members of the host Ohr Hakodesh Synagogue. The hilltop Knesset headed by elder Avraham ben Yaakov, has been holding Jewish activities since 2016. How exciting to meet a number of vibrant Jewish youth that evening during a brief discussion session.
Anyway, at the end if the 3 days maiden visit, I learned 10 Things about Jewish Ebonyi.
Number #One- Their Unity As Jews is GOLDEN!
How exactly can one measure the degree of unity shown by a group of people? Certainly it should be the way they think or how they come together to do some things together. Looking at two options, we can say:
Option1: Whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi- that’s never an issue when it comes to coming together to perform Jewish activities.
Option2: Willingness to function and act like a typical Jewish community (giving less preference to their individual Synagogues – when it comes to showing strength of unity)
Being my first time to the Abakaliki Knesset, located at the foot of a high-rising hilltop, I was amazed while carefully observing the true spirit of Jews in the state. Although with some information already within my grasp before now, it appears the Pesach visit will eventually ascertain the authenticity of all the hearsay so far.
While discussing with some of the brothers before going to bed after the erev Shabbat meal, they hinted me about the Jewish camp at the outskirt of the state capital. According to them, it has been a long tradition to have all the Synagogues in the state holding combined services during certain festivals, especially Pesach.
No doubt, throughout Jewish Nigeria- no other state or region can one find such practices that ultimately strengthens the Judaism network in the country.
Number #Two- Lots Of Creative Prayer Songs
Judaism is identified as the religion and culture of the Jewish people who share similar moral, social, and ceremonial ways of life. One of these shared feature is reflected in the use of Siddurine for prayers (morning, afternoon, evening, Sabbath and other festivals). Almost all the categories, series and sequence of prayers said by Jews across the globe are contained in the prayer Siddur.
Traditionally- and in most of the Knesset across Jewish Nigeria- the Hebrew language is used during both weekdays and Shabbat services. Generally, the prayers Jews say comprises of the Psalms, selected portions from the Torah and the Prophets as well as other writings. But for majority of the Nigerian Jews, reading the Siddur in Ivrit is at least what matters and not necessarily knowing or interpreting the words and the corresponding meanings. Which is the reason making some of these prayers in the form of songs have made it pretty easy for new learners to learn how to recite some prayers with much ease. And eventually, adding more energy and enthusiasm to the Jewish prayer sessions.
While praying with the brother and sisters during the Shacharit, I was almost blown away. These folks seem to have done a pretty good job transforming lots of the prayers into sweet melodies. So interesting, absolutely!
Number #Three- Center for Halakhah and Torah Learning
Shortly after the Shacharit prayers, which was lead by Nathan ben Avraham (chief chazzan of Ohr Hakodesh Synagogue) it was time for Torah studies. In the absence of a Sefer Torah, the morning service ended quite on time, so it was important to extend the session by discussing a whole lot of Torah.
Re-arranging the sitting position into one big circle, the discussion got underway and was anchored by the young chazzan with two of his brothers, who are:
- Yitzhak ben Avraham, and
- Baruch ben Avraham
It was the final day of Pesach (feast of matzot) and some of the brothers needed some clarification with some of the Halakhic interpretation concerning the requirement and obligation of Jews during the feast period. How amazing to see the three young brothers answering all questions in a very knowledgeable ways and making reference to several portions of the Torah. I was highly impressed because all through my brief travel across Jewish Nigeria, I haven’t come across a set of young and smart Torah Students with vast knowledge about the subject of Judaism. Nevertheless, I was later told by some persons about the firmness of the Jews in the state, which is viewed by many as the center for Halakhah and Torah leaning.
Number #Four- Energetic and Vibrant Youths
Just like in many of the Synagogues across the country, the youth have become a dominant force in the Judaism circle. This is a strong indication, and one of the factors that would eventually shape the future of the Jewish religion in this part of the World. The “future” as it commonly said, belongs to the youths and the much younger generation of the Jewish child- who will take over from the elders in the years ahead.
In the case of Ebonyi State, how interesting to notice the determination and devotion of their youths (both male and female). Even though there is no standard Hebrew school in the state, yet they have managed to make Ivrit learning a compulsory subject for every Jew, especially for the younger children. United both in the Jewish ways and as locals from the same state- they’re inclined towards supporting the other person to achieve spiritual growth and other important skills.
Nevertheless, from most of our recent findings and travels across the breadth of the country, we have found Ebonyi Jews in most of the Synagogues, where they have become a force to reckon with. Some of them are currently cantors outside their state and have done exceptionally well in discharging their duties.
To give a clear example- one of such persons- is Chislon Eben Cohen– referred as the teacher of all teachers- a published author and founder of the TorahWorld Outreach. His extraordinary input since the early days of Judaism have truly put the Nigerian Jews on the path of growth and learning. Another notable young man from the same state- regarded as the best Ivrit interpreter throughout the country is Nathan ben Avraham (Ohr Hakodesh Synagogue)- and who is also a former student of Eben Cohen.
Number #Five- There are 7 Synagogues In The State
List Provided by Deborah bat Shaul
Welcome to Ebonyi State, popularly called the Salt of the Nation. Located in the south eastern part of the country, the state is known to have one of the longest history of Judaism in the country. Currently, there are about 6 Synagogues in the state (and one of these synagogues is also playing a double role as the headquarters), which are shown below:
- Adat Emunat Ha Yahudim (Headquarters)- Ezzamgbo
- Adonai Echad Synagogue- Onueke
- Beit Yaakov- Presco, Abakaliki
- Beit Yehudah, Onueke
- Beit Teferet Afikpo
- Beit Shalom, Ezzamgbo
- Ohr Hakodesh Synagogue- Abakaliki
Number #Six- No Sefer Torah In The Entire State
But despite the level of growth in Judaism shown by the Jews in Ebonyi State- sadly, there is no Sefer Torah in any of the Synagogues throughout the State. How then do they conduct their Bar Mitzvahs I asked? They gave me a straight answer just as I thought as much- for parents who can afford some extra cost- a Sefer Torah can be borrowed from outside the State and transported tens of Kilometers. And in the worst case scenarios, the Kumash is used.
Speaking further with Nathan, he told me they were almost close to getting a Sefer Torah as donation from Kulanu about a year ago or so. But some issues came up unexpectedly that seems to have halted the whole thing and dashed the hope of celebrating the record-breaking in the state, according to him.
“However, there’s nothing impossible for HASHEM to do,” he added.
Number #Seven- One Lucky Man With The Only Tefillin
The Tefillin is one of the sacred materials Jews use for praying, but it is usually worn only during the weekdays. It usually consists of three main components, which include:
- The Scrolls
- The Box, and
- The Strap
In the fulfillment of the verse in Deuteronomy 6:8, Jewish Males above thirteen years are allowed to bind the Tefillin onto their head and upper arm as they pray.
After a Joyful Havdallah service with members of Ohr Hakodesh Synagogue to mark the end of Pesach, it was time to visit the central Jewish Camp at Ezzamgbo (about 20 minutes drive from the Capital). I was indeed grateful to the Rosh, Avraham ben Yaakov and his beautiful wife, for hosting me in their hilltop Knesset.
By the time we arrived at our destination that same night, I was amazed to see a camp with over 250 Jews. The surrounding was filled with Joy, laughter and happiness- marking the end of the eight days festival.
However, something interesting happened the following morning as people began to break camp. At the break of dawn, while many can be seen leaving with their luggage, I did noticed a few waiting in line to put on the Tefillin and say their morning prayers.
Surprisingly, there was just one Tefillin in the entire camp, which all of them had to put on one after the other. I was curious to find out why everyone was using this particular Tefillin. Then I was told it belonged to Eliyahu ben Avraham- and that he owns the only Tefillin, not just in the camp but in the entire state!
Anyway, I walked up to the young man to find out how it feels to be the one lucky man with the only Tefillin in Ebonyi State. From our brief discussion, he told me it was given to him during a seminar in Anambra State by Dani Limor, after he impressed the Israeli Jew by answering a very intelligent Halakhah question that no one else was able to answer on that lucky day. I was Impressed!
Number #Eight- The Legacy of Rabbi Howard Gorin
The Jewish community in Ezzamgbo has continued to act as a central ground for the unification of Jews in the entire State. This has also attracted a number of visitors outside the state who have heard stories about the uniqueness of the mindset possessed by Jews residing in Ebonyi. So apart from Gadi Bentley who has been here, just recently Rabbi Shadrach Levi from Abayudaya Jewish Community in Uganda (East Africa) visited Ezzamgbo before heading to Lagos to witness the Celebration of love as Eri wedded Tamar in one of the most colorful Jewish wedding of our time.
Rabbi Howard Gorin is also another man who has been a great admirer of the Ezzamgbo camp. Not only did I find his photograph hanging on one of the large rooms, there is also a library to his credit. The library, which is rich with huge collections of Jewish-related books, has served as a broad source of knowledge of the Torah and Halakhic learning for Jews in the state.
No wonder their youths have continued to excel and display a higher energy when compared with some of their counterparts in other regions around Jewish Nigeria. However, even though I haven’t met him before, I will continue to acknowledge Rabbi Gorin for his selfless contribution to propel the Judaism Network in Nigeria.
Number #Nine- The Upcoming Youth Shabbat
From my recent travels across the country, I have noticed the significant role played by youths in sustaining the growth and unity of Judaism. Their cooperation has been creating stronger bonds across Jewish Nigeria through the National Youth Shabbat Movement.
But outside the National level, some states have been able to organize their own state chapter of the youth Shabbat. The three days event usually begins from Friday and ends on Sunday.
Information reaching our desk is that Ebonyi State youth Shabbat will be coming up on the 22nd of June, 2019. The venue for the youth Shabbat is usual is the headquarters at Adat Emunat Ha Yehudim. I am guessing it will be another opportunity for the young men to show off their football skills at the end of the 3 days event.
Number #Ten- The Youths and Their Love for Sport and Entertainment
All works and no play make Jack a dull boy as it is usually said. This is the reason whenever there is an opportunity to gather as a group- we expect to see some forms of recreational activities as well.
Therefore, it didn’t come as a surprise when I saw a group of children playing soccer at the Ezzamgbo camp that morning while people where hitting the road back to their various destinations. Even though I am not a football-person, I was watching the young Jewish boys playing while discussing with Yochanan Ibe ben Avraham, the chief Rosh of the entire Knesset in Ebonyi State.
The previous evening as I was interacting with some new friends, we were entertained by a young comedian who got all of us laughing out loudly till it was around midnight. It was no doubt such a great time there at the the camp, making the maiden visit a memorable one that will not be forgotten in a hurry.
Finally- Jewish Nigeria Blog Gets A New Writer!
Before leaving the camp that morning, I also met a young song writer and listened to one of her songs. How amazing that in a single night in the camp, I was able to spot a couple of youths with promising future prospects if harnessed rightly. So perhaps, in the next visit, the expectation of meeting and discovering more talents is certain.
Deborah bat Shaul is also one of the youths with a promising and rare talent in the country. After meeting her the previous night and then conducting an interview the following day- the young writer, poetess and undergraduate was recruited to write for Jewish Nigeria Blog. Therefore with her contribution, the Blog can be able to explore, expand, cover, and report several Jewish activities from around the Eastern part of the country and beyond!
Upcoming Stories on Jewish Nigeria:
- The Shavuot Celebrations in Lagos State
- Olam Yisrael Synagogue Lagos gets a new Sefer Torah Donation
- Ebonyi State Youth Shabbat
- Ordination of the Elders and Mothers council in The Divine Seed of Adonai Synagogue Int. Inc