D’R We’ll See

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — There are some places one just doesn’t associate with Jews. I think the Democratic Republic of Congo, more commonly called the DRC (or sometimes DR Congo, Congo-Kinshasa, Zaire-Congo), is one of those places. What first springs to mind for most people is something more like political unrest, malaria, even Ebola hemorrhagic fever. But “Jews” should be part of the mental image of the DRC, particularly among Jews, for there has been a Jewish presence and influence here for about a century. In some regards, that influence has been disproportionate for their minuscule population (currently estimated at 200 in the capital Kinshasa, 12 in Lubumbashi, capital of the southern Katanga Province, whose governor, Moise Katumbi Chapwe, is Jewish on his father’s side).

Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa)

Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa)

The vibrancy of Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa (the Jewish Community of Kinshasa) today belies the community’s diminutive size and fractured nature for all but a few of the people who comprise the community range from transient, temporary, to-and-fro, fleeting, to curious visitors like myself. A mere handful of people could be described as local.

I couldn’t quite figure out just what was what or who was who before I got here as details were sketchy. Internet searches turned up very little in the way of specifics and the contacts seemed reluctant to correspond with me. It only all made sense once I finally arrived.

There are really two distinct halves of the community, particularly in Kinshasa: the Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa, presided over by Aslan Piha, and Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, directed by Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, who runs Yeshiva Ohel Moshe. The twain are almost, but not quite, like oil and water: they mix but they do not quite stay blended.

Aslan Piha, President, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Aslan Piha, President, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa

Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa

What is regarded as “the community” has its offices, classroom, synagogue, and functions at a single complex. Both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila have their offices here, but the community and Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa operate as separate entities, though they have combined certain logistical forces. At least, that’s how I understood things to be.

I arrived in Kinshasa from Lubumbashi a day late due to a flight delay, uncertainty, and ultimate cancellation on Korongo Airlines (more aptly named, Koro-no-go Airlines). In fact, I eventually flew on a Safair Airlines plane leased by Koronogo which blew a wheel upon landing in Lubumbashi causing the problems. I didn’t feel “safe-er” on Safair. I was just glad to be on the ground (finally) in Kinshasa. Their tag line is, Experience, Expertise, Excellence; it felt more like Confusion, Consternation, Chaos.

Safair Airlines...Safer?

Safair Airlines…Safer?

The delay left me with a day and a half to get my photo work done. Like so many times before, things just seemed to work out and I found myself busy from start to finish. I was also warmly welcomed.

Arrival wasn’t quite so pleasant, however. I was slightly alarmed when no one was at Kinshasa airport to meet me as I thought had been the plan (at least it was the day before when someone was waiting for my non-arriving flight). It was a stroke of good fortune when the person I asked for help was not merely familiar with the airport and where someone meeting me might be waiting, he let me make a couple of calls on his cell phone. When I couldn’t reach my contacts, he offered a lift to my hotel in town. Turned out this Belgian guy grew up here and had recently returned. As we drove into town, he pointed out “that’s where I used to live” (pointing to a dilapidated building) and “that’s where I used to play” (pointing to the old port).

Once settled in my downtown hotel, I was able to reach Aslan. Twenty minutes later, his driver came to fetch me and take me the two or so kilometers to the community center. From then on, everything worked like a charm.

After meeting with both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila, I spent an unhurried afternoon photographing Beit Yaacov Synagogue, the mikvah, and various parts of the building, including an inner-courtyard lined with pillars that resemble giant Olympic torches

Courtyard, Jewish Community of Kinshasa

Courtyard, Jewish Community Center of Kinshasa

Perhaps the coziest, most colorful, and cheeriest place in the complex is the classroom. Under the direction and commitment of Myriam Bentolila, the Rabbi’s wife, she’s meticulously created a happy space for teaching the youngsters “our holy heritage,” as Rabbi Bentolila put it. She wouldn’t allow me to take a photo until everything was just so. I liked that.

Classroom, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

Classroom, Communaute Israelite de Kinshasa

I also photographed evening services and a study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa. Yes, there is a yeshiva in the DRC. Located a few blocks from the Community Center, it houses 8 young men at a time. They come from various places including the USA, Canada, and Israel, and they generally study here for about a year.

Evening study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Evening study session at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Between the service and the study session, Rabbi Bentolila invited me to dine with him and his wife Myriam and a few other guests in their home which is on the upper floor of the Community Center.

What started as a day of complete uncertainty — from my uncertain flight to my lonely arrival — turned into a hectic, busy, interesting, and photographically productive day.

I was up early the following morning to photograph the 8:00 a.m. service. That over, I headed back to the yeshiva for a bit of breakfast with the boys. Though they have people to prepare their food, they usually help out, so it created a bit of action in the kitchen for me to photograph too.

Breakfast time at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

Breakfast time at Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, Kinshasa

From there, it was back to the Community Center. By this point, I had really completed my photo work. The only details remaining were chats with both Aslan and Rabbi Bentolila about a few things pertaining to the community and to get brief video commentaries from them. Aslan wasn’t due in until mid-afternoon. Rabbi Bentolila, meanwhile, disappeared. Several hours of waiting later, he reappeared from his abode, having taken a long nap due to not feeling so hot.

I spent the time rephotographing the synagogue, this time with the lights off. The big chandeliers combined with a yellowy ambient light and daubs of natural light all created a challenging luminescence that resulted in some overexposed light fixtures. Hence, I retook many of the same angles from the previous day. The results were remarkably different. I filed both “lights on” and “lights off” versions of Beit Yaacov Synagogue.

Evening service, Beit Yaacov, Kinshasa

Evening service, Beit Yaacov, Kinshasa

After finally catching up with Aslan at nearly 4:00 p.m. and recording a video commentary, I returned to my hotel for a while, then came back yet again a few hours later to have dinner with the Rabbi and his wife. Before calling it a night, the good Rabbi recorded a video comment for me.

HISTORY. A meaningful Jewish presence in the DRC goes back to about 1904 when, under King Leopold II (1835~1909), the 2nd King of the Belgians and founder and controller of the Congo Free State (1885~1908), Jews arrived from Belgium and South Africa. They were Ashkenazi hailing mainly from central Europe, Lithuania, and Russia. A second wave of Jewish arrivals came in 1923 and they were predominantly Sephardim from Rhodes Island. With the building of a railway from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean, Jewish businesses of all sorts cropped up along the line, even in remote areas, but eventually, the Jewish communities grew in the main towns of Elizabethville (today, Lubumbashi), Luluabourg (today, Kananga), and Leopoldville (today, Kinshasa). Some of the early Jewish pioneers included Solomon Benatar, Ruben Amato, Nelson Hazan, Simon Israel. Other Jewish names include Surmani, Habib, Blattner, Alhadeff, Cohen, Piha, and Mizrahi.

These Jewish pioneers faced many challenges including the threat of malaria (the disease is still today a huge risk in the DRC). While they helped establish the Belgian Congo, the 1929 stock market crash left many in the Congo in bankruptcy forcing them into a sort of economic exile. The majority of the Ashkenazi Jews started anew in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Zambia. The resulting mainly Sephardic community enticed Rabbi Moses Levy, from the Rabbinical College of Rhodes, to the Congo where he presided as the community’s Chief Rabbi for more than half a century (1937~1991).

The Communauté du Congo Belge et du Ruanda-Urundi, the Jewish community center, was established in 1911. The first synagogue was consecrated in 1930 in Elizabethville (Lubumbashi); the second synagogue — Beit Yaacov — would not be built until 1987 in Kinshasa.

Lubumbashi Synagogue, consecrated 1930

Lubumbashi Synagogue, consecrated 1930

Beit Yaacov (Kinshasa), consecrated 1987

Beit Yaacov Synagogue (Kinshasa), consecrated 1987

Prior to independence, approximately 3,000 Jews lived in the Congo; 50% resided in Elisabethville and about 70 Jewish families were based in Kinshasa. Jewish children were provided classes in Hebrew and Judaism. In 1960, the Republic of Congo established diplomatic relations with Israel. Zaire broke relations with Israel under Arab pressure in 1973. A decade later, Zaire was one of the first to reestablish relations with Israel. Today, Israeli expatriates make up the majority of the Jewish community of the DRC.

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Hunger Games

LUBUMBASHI, Democratic Republic of Congo — Time. Food. We set our clocks by these things. But how we set them is relative. If I’ve learned nothing else in all my time and travels across Africa, it’s that time and associated expressions of time do not have a one-to-one correlation.

“Five minutes” and “just now”, for instance, merely mean “wait…perhaps for a long time. It’ll happen. Maybe it won’t.”

Just the other day, upon touchdown in Johannesburg, a guy on my flight called someone and I heard him say, “We have just landed [it was actually 10 minutes ago]…I’ll be coming out just now.” I thought to myself, “No you won’t. It will be at least 45 minutes from now till you appear at the front door. So that’s an absolute falsehood that you’ll be there “just now”.”

Or was it? I suppose it all depends on who the receiver is, who the speaker is, and just where on the planet the utterance is transmitted.

When hunger is compounded with “five minutes” or “just now”, time balloons and nearly stands still while your stomach and mind might actually be squirming.

My 50-year-old Belgian point man in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo (let’s call him Nathan), is a great guy. He did an outstanding job of not merely making sure I got the photos I came here for, but of steering me through a chaotic maze of bureaucracy in and out of the Lubumbashi airport (that’s a whole other story which can be summed up in two syllables: oy vey). Let me be clear: There isn’t anything Nathan did not do for me. He patiently fielded my many emails over several month. But, alas, we all have our foibles. In a land where time seems to have stopped or ceased to mean much by today’s general concepts, Nathan seems to have himself forgotten just how long two or five or ten minutes really is for he doesn’t seem to have the slightest sense of time. The lapses in measurement of time might have actually been comical if only — oh, if only — they had not left me so hungry.

The time warp began upon my landing. He was not at the Lubumbashi airport upon my arrival as was the plan. We had confirmed at least 10 times. I think almost literally.

Clearly, I needed to confirm 11 times.

I borrowed someone’s phone. Twice. “Nathan?”

“Oui?” said a doubtful voice on the first call.

“It’s Jono. Jono David.” Uncertainty. I tried a French-ish accent. “Jeaneau Daveed. I’m at za airport. Are you coming?”

“Ah, oui, oui. Yes, I weel be zere in 10 minoots.” I called him again 25 minoots later, and voilà, there he was.

Being a Sunday, his time was free for me. He patiently allowed me to work as freely as I needed to get photos of the well-maintained cemeteries and the capacious synagogue. That evening over pizza, he told me he would come for me at 9 a.m. the following morning. At 9:30, he rang to say he’d come some time after 2 p.m.

I spent my morning editing photos from the day before.

He turned up at 12:30. “Okay, let’s go!” he said with a wave of his arm and a tilt of his head.

“Uh, Nathan, I’m not ready.” I was expecting you at 2 p.m., I was thinking but did not say. “I need several minutes to put away my computer and get ready.” He waited.

Later in the day, he set dinner time for 7:00. I texted him at 7:24. He called half an hour after that. “I weel be zere at 8:30. It is good for you?”

“Yes, that’s fine.” Hunger and I waited in the lobby at that appointed time. At 8:46 p.m., I texted again: “It is getting late. Jono.”

At 9:00, I gave up and retreated to my room. At 9:08, Nathan rang. “Jeaneau, I weel be zere in 2 minoots.”

“No, it’s too late for me, Nathan. I can’t eat dinner this late. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

He was surprised. “Really?” Yes, really. “Zen I weel see you in za morning.”

I dipped into my reserve (yes reserve) food supply: energy bar, mixed nuts and berries, chocolate biscuits.

The plan for the morning was for him to come at 9:30 to be at the airport for 10:00 for my 11:30 flight to Kinshasa.

Pickup time came…and went. At 9:35, I called him. “Nathan. Bon jour. Where are you?”

“I am coming.”

“When?”

“Two-two-two minoots,” was the reply. I wasn’t sure if the stuttered response meant two minoots and twenty-two seconds, twenty-two minoots and two seconds, two hundred and twenty-two minoots, or really two minoots. At 9:45, I dialed his number again, and voilà, he was pulling up to the hotel.

At the airport, with a wink and a smile, I asked Joseph, the check-in man for Korongo Airlines (affectionately renamed by me as Koro-no-go Airlines), if the flight was on time. He hesitated ever so slightly. “Ten minoots delay, not more.” And then, as if to reassure me, “I promees you not more.”

I felt so much better. No, not really. In fact, I’ve never felt so uneasy in an airport before. It is so oppressively bureaucratic.

Four hours later, again hungry, the flight was cancelled due to an issue with a wheel. I was rebooked for the following morning at 8:00 a.m.

Nathan graciously welcomed me to his home for the night. I spent the afternoon resting and using the internet while he did his work.

“This evening,” I said sometime around 4:00 p.m., “I must eat a proper supper.”

“We will go somewhere nice.”

By 7:00 p.m., I was desperate for food. Nathan, however, was in his usual condition: on the phone and entranced by something on the computer screen. He looked as if he had all the time in the world.

“Nathan, I’m hungry. I really must eat.”

I waited.

At 7:35, I heard the clink and clang of a spoon swirling around a mug. I looked over and to my astonishment he was ever so casually making himself a cup of tea.

“Would you like a tea or coffee?” he offered.

“No, thanks. I need food. Now.” Nice of him to offer, I supposed. But nope, I needed solid food. I needed something to chew on, to savor, to tantalize my tongue.

“I weel just feeneesh my tea, zen we will go,” he said with a backward flip of his hand. “Not more zan five minoots,” he added with a shrug and puckered lips.

Fifteen minoots later: “Nathan, I’m sorry. I am grateful for all you are doing for me, but I really…must…eat. S’il vous plaît.” Yes, I said s’il vous plaît.

I was actually pleading with him to take me to eat.

Finally, just before 8:00 p.m., we got in the car.  He revved it up…then his phone rang.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuckkkkk!!!!!” reverberated inside my head.

He switched off the car and held me captive for an eternal five minoots more. I was squirming inside.

Finally, we drove. About 10 minoots later, we pulled into a parking lot of what appeared to be an Italian restaurant. I was beginning to salivate.

“No, no. Zis is wrong,” Nathan said. “It is za next entraance.”

You’re killing me here, I was thinking.

At last, the right parking lot. Thirty minoots later, I was sitting on a verandah on a perfectly cool Lubumbashi evening at a Greek-owned restaurant staring at and drooling over a plate of chicken fillets smothered in a cream sauce with a side of rice and salad. Real food. Before tucking in, I actually grinned at it as if to welcome it to my mouth. I washed it down with a large size chilled Simba beer, a local brew.

I devoured it all in two minoots. No, not quite. I just wanted to say “two minoots” one more time.

Oy vey.

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Marooned in Cameroon

YAOUNDE, Cameroon — Exhausting. Frankly, that’s the one word that sums up my visit to the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon. I was exhausted before I got here. I shared what began to feel like and endless stream of emails over a few months with spiritual leader Serge Etele to make arrangements (though I must emphasize that Serge was always gracious, patient, accommodating, and welcoming). Once I finally arrived, I found the heat and humidity draining, the traffic-choked roads stressful, and the potholes punishing as they pounded on my body like a boxer. I was booked for six nights. I needed only three. With nothing of tourist interest to see or do in either the capital of Yaounde nor the coastal city of Douala, time itself became a task.

Beth Yeshourun members photo themselves at the Ambomo home, the community gathering place in Douala.

Beth Yeshourun members photo themselves at the Ambomo home, the community gathering place in Douala.

Most trying of all, however, my visit was sabotaged by a disagreeable, self-righteous 60-something Australian named Menachem who misrepresented himself as an Israeli. Just what his purpose for visiting the community was, I never found out. Prior to my arrival, Serge had asked if he could join our itinerary. I agreed so long as all driver/transport costs were shared equally. When he refused to pay half the petrol cost at the first fill-up, I knew I was in for trouble with this guy.

Before arrival, I didn’t think it was necessary to stipulate to Serge that the person would have to abide by a mutual itinerary. No, this guy wanted it all, and on the second day, I was done with him. The clash with this guy can be summed up in this exchange: “You can take a bus back [to Yaounde from Saa],” he ordered me. “You’re not going back in this vehicle. Our plans are made.”

Overnight, he unilaterally decided to visit another town (some five-hours away) with Serge, and he couldn’t care less how I would return to my hotel in Yaounde from the village of Saa (an hour’s drive), where the community is mainly based.

“We’ll discuss matters with Serge,” I said diplomatically. He would hear nothing of it, and when he protested, I firmly repeated myself.

For all intents and purposes, he commandeered the vehicle (even the front passenger seat), the itinerary, and the time and attention from the community members. Even when we met a long-time Israeli resident in Yaounde the previous day, he sat and spoke to him for over an hour only in Hebrew, a language that not one of the other dozen people around the table speaks. He shut everyone out. He was so overbearing that it was easier to just let it all go. In the end, I saved myself not only a great deal of stress and aggravation, but hundreds of dollars in driver and fuel costs for what would have proved very few additional images for the archives.

Despite all of that, I only have kind words to say about the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon. Everyone I met, was terrific. I didn’t come here expecting a great deal of photographic opportunities, nor to leave with thousands of images for the archives. I basically got what I came for, which was to visit the community in Douala, Yaounde, and Saa, and get enough images to represent their emerging community.

Beth Yeshourun community members (at community prayer/social hall), Sa’a.

Beth Yeshourun community members (at community prayer/social hall), Sa’a.

I landed at Douala International Airport, one of the least desirable airports in the world, from Accra, Ghana via Lome, Togo. There were no other planes parked at the terminal gates. It soon became clear why: It’s a grotty, worn, and hot place. The baggage claim was a veritable sauna. I brought with me an uchiwa, a non-folding fan from Japan. Consequently, I was in the coolest spot in that cramped hall. The stuffiness of the late afternoon air outside was actually cooler than inside the terminal. It was all warmed over by an enthusiastic welcome by community member Parfait Bodo who basically acted as my chaperone for the duration of my visit.

“Thank you very much for your message and links,” Serge wrote me via Facebook in June, fully half a year prior to my visit. “Your pictures are fabulous and your project is fantastic.”

With those words, I knew I had a reliable partner.

“We only have one synagogue in the town of Saa,” he continued, “which is in my father’s house. In Yaounde, we gather in my home for Shabbath but we all go to Saa for holidays. There are a few people in Douala too, but no synagogue there for now.”

I liked Serge’s hopefulness.

“The community exists since 14 years and is about 40 to 50 people. No cimetery (sic) or Jewish building yet, we are trying to build a dedicated place for worship, but for now, we are using private houses as synagogues.”

A farming community, they grow cassava, plantains, some fruits such as papaya, and cocoa, the most valuable crop. But their sights are set on something bigger.

“We have just started a huge communal cocoa farm project which involves the entire community and should help us improve our economic situation. Anyway, you can photograph all those places and the people in their Jewish life and activities as well as in our secular projects.”

Moreh Nachman Etele, community leader, on his cocoa farm, Sa’a.

Moreh Nachman Etele, community leader, on his cocoa farm, Sa’a.

Many of today’s Beth Yeshourun members were Evangelical Christians who felt the embrace of Judaism better fit their lifestyle and beliefs. But unlike the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda, the believers in Cameroon have yet to be officially converted or even recognized as Jews by any official Jewish body. They have, however, had varying degrees of outside help and a fair amount of interest, the Kulanu Organization being the biggest spiritual and financial provider to date. Much of what the members know and practice of Judaism has been self-instructed via the internet.

Serge Etele, spiritual leader of the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon, uses a stone to hammer a mezuzah into the doorframe of the Ambomo family home (where the community gathers in Douala). Balthazar Ambomo assists eagerly as Frederick Ndawo (at left) observes reflectively. “This is the first Jewish home in Douala,” said Balthazar to applause.

Serge Etele, spiritual leader of the Beth Yeshourun Jewish community of Cameroon, uses a stone to hammer a mezuzah into the doorframe of the Ambomo family home (where the community gathers in Douala). Balthazar Ambomo assists eagerly as Frederick Ndawo (at left) observes reflectively. “This is the first Jewish home in Douala,” said Balthazar to applause.

The Jews of Cameroon share at least one common denominator with other emerging communities in Africa: an extremely tenuous, even far-fetched, claim to an ancient Jewish presence in the country via traders who arrived from Egypt and/or the Sudan. While it is proven that Jewish merchants and craftsmen lived and worked along established ancient trade routes, modern Cameroon is geographically disconnected from those ancient pathways. Islamic conquests across North Africa most certainly sent Jews scurrying, but to where remains an open question. Many of them were likely forcibly converted to Islam or Christianity. At least as likely, Christian missionaries who came to Cameroon and environs to dispense their gospel probably viewed any varying ethnic African groups who differed from the more general and stereotypical deeply black population as having some non-African lineage, and hence, as a possible Lost Tribe of Israel. It doesn’t take much in the way of persuasion from “people of the cloth” to make an impact on unassuming and unquestioning populations. If you throw enough stories at the wall, a certain number of tales are bound to stick and become part and parcel of the local history.

So much for oral traditions.

Jewish star and the Cameroon star, at the Beth Yeshourun prayer/study/social hall, at home of Moreh Nachman Etele) in Sa’a.

Jewish star and the Cameroon star, at the Beth Yeshourun prayer/study/social hall, at home of Moreh Nachman Etele) in Sa’a.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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House of Israel, Ghana: Days 4 and 5 (of 5), A Jewish Epiphany

NOTE: This post is part four of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

SEFWI WIAWSO, WESTERN REGION, Ghana — Wednesday, February 19: “There’s a guy in town who makes challah covers,” Alex mentioned the other day to my astonishment. I wanted to meet him.

The plan for Wednesday was for Alex to stop by late-morning at my hotel en route to meet this man. Alas, the challah cover guy was not around. It didn’t leave much else to do for the day.

“Well, take me somewhere that you’d like to show me,” I said. “Something touristy.” There’s nothing remotely touristy out here. There’s only remotely.

A typical dirt lane in New Adiembra, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana.

A typical dirt lane in New Adiembra, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana.

Not far from the synagogue is the College of Education, an adult education facility geared to prepping aspiring teachers. We took a pleasant stroll in the searing mid-day heat across the agreeable sprawling campus and circled our way back to the guesthouse. It was particularly peaceful as classes were not in session. The local roads were quiet too as most everyone was in the fields working. Being the only white person around, one tends to stand out. But this worked to my favor. From afar, kids and adults alike tossed waves and giddy smiles my way. Out here, everyone greets everyone with politeness. I exchanged many “Good afternoons”.

I spent the remainder of the day relaxing at my hotel, chilling (literally and figuratively) in my air conditioned room. I worked on my blog and backed up all my images from the recent few days.

ACCRA — Thursday, February 20: Thursday morning was supposed to be relaxed before the long drive back to Kumasi airport and my return to Accra. I thought my photo work would have been completed. With no service to photograph on Monday morning, I was determined to include Thursday’s service. So I was up with the roosters in order to be ready for a 7:15 a.m. pick up by the same driver who fetched me with Alex at the airport, and who was to drive me back to the airport too.

When I got to the guesthouse, Alex had disappointing news: The challah guy was still not around, and only a few people had shown up for the service. I sighed, then we went over to the synagogue.

Alex initially told me Monday and Thursday morning services were held at 8:00 a.m. When I showed up on Monday at 8:00 to find only Joseph there, he told me services are usually at 6:00 a.m. That’s early. On Wednesday, Alex asked what time I’d like to start.

Morning service, Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Morning service, Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

“Well, that’s not up to me. But, phew, 6:00 is too early for me. I don’t think I can make that,” I said. So we actually negotiated a time and settled on 7:30. “So long as that works for you. I can’t expect everyone to suit me.”

In the end, there were three ladies and three gentlemen, plus myself, in attendance. Alex held an abbreviated service. “Even if we get 10 people including women, we count a minyan,” he told me. On this day, the Torah remained unopened.

Alex Armah, spiritual leader of the House of Israel, leads the morning service at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Alex Armah, spiritual leader of the House of Israel, leads the morning service at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

When the 30-minute service concluded, held mostly in the local language, a bit of English (for my benefit), and a spattering of Hebrew, Alex asked me if there was anything I’d like to say.  From the bimah, I thanked them all very much for the welcome and opportunity. I also explained that my Jewish photo work is my passion, but it hardly pays the bills.

Before the service, they seemed a bit circumspect.

“Many people have been here to photograph our community,” one of the men told me dubiously. “Will we get a copy of your book?”

“Well,” I said, “I certainly hope so. But I still have a long way to go and it may be a few years.”

They seemed disappointed by that. I made sure they understood that I was working on an Africa-wide Jewish project, not just their community, and it was only about half completed.

“I will keep in contact with Alex. In the meantime, however, all of the photos I have taken I am giving to Alex today before I leave. So your community has them for sharing and record keeping.” They seemed ok with that.

“I want people to know about your community. I hope that my photographs will generate interest in and support for your community.” They seemed pleased by that too.

Alex and I returned to the guesthouse where I quickly downloaded the service images, then scanned and edited a few of them. I then download all my images from my visit to his computer. (It is my personal policy to reciprocate the time, assistance, and welcome each and every community and/or institution provides me by making my photographs available to them free of charge. This reciprocity only seems fair.)

Members of the House of Israel Jewish community outside Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Members of the House of Israel Jewish community outside Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

It was a long ride back to Kumasi airport. By the end of the 3 hour, 45 minute, 167 kilometer (104 mile) journey, I was hot, sweaty, tired, and anxious to get out of the vehicle. I have no idea how many speed bumps we jolted over, but for all their annoyance, I was actually grateful they were there. Where the road passes a village, many of the speed bumps are dirt humps the locals made themselves. I guess they got tired of waiting for the official road works authority to turn up and took matters into their own hands. Kudos to them, actually.

As we got caught up in the traffic in Kumasi, I looked more closely at passing cars. I saw a few taxis with Israeli flags on the dashboards, peculiarly enough. One van had the word “Israel” written across the rear window.

What’s that about, I wondered aloud. Alex didn’t have an explanation for me.

As I look back through the rear window of my five-day sojourn with the House of Israel Jewish community, I wonder where their believer road is going for it seems to have as many speed bumps ahead as those I had just traversed. Let’s be honest: These people are monetarily poor and are lacking materially as a Jewish community. Never did I sense sadness or frustration because of this condition, however. As a photographer, my focus is in the images and to portray each community and each of its member for who they are, for how they live, and, most importantly, for how they see themselves as Jews. It is not for me to judge their commitment or their claims of Judaism. I was not welcomed to be their referee. I’ll leave interpretation to someone else.

What I do know is that Alex and his flock have accepted Judaism in their hearts and minds because they have found spiritual wealth in the tenets of the religion, something that was clearly lacking in their previous lives as Roman Catholics.

Amponsah is a taxi driver friend of Alex. It was he who, with Alex, met me at and returned me to Kumasi airport. When I first got in the car on arrival, there was a crucifix affixed to the inside of his windscreen that read “Jesus Saves”. There was also a hologram dangling from the rear view mirror with Jesus on one side and Mary on the other.

“You need to change that for Moses and Rachel,” I said, laughing. I didn’t bother trying to explain the  “Jesus saves, Moses invests” joke, however.

When Amponsah fetched me at the hotel on that final morning to take me to the synagogue, I noticed the dangling Jesus and Mary hologram was gone. But the cross was still there.

“I want to be with you,” Amponsah said, theologically speaking.

“You really should talk to Alex. He can guide you.”

“I’ll do that,” he acknowledged.

“But before you do, you need to do something else.”

“What?”

“You need to renounce Jesus as your Lord and Savior,” I said. “You can start by removing the cross from with window.”

Maybe that’s how it all starts for some people, with a Jewish epiphany. After all, the House of Israel was said to have started as a result of a vision (unlike the evangelists where it begins on television).

 

NOTE: This post is part four of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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House of Israel, Ghana: Day 3 (of 5), “Meshugah for Mezuzah”

NOTE: This post is part three of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

SEFWI WIAWSO, WESTERN REGION, Ghana — Tuesday, February 18: I met Alex just before 10:00 a.m. at the community guesthouse where he and his wife reside. We went to the synagogue with the mezuzahs. I photographed him as he tightly rolled up the scrolls and sealed them in the cases.

Alex Armah, spiritual leader, places kosher mezuzah scrolls into their cases.

Alex Armah, spiritual leader, places kosher mezuzah scrolls into their cases.

I took note the previous evening that only one of the synagogue’s three doors, the most commonly used door, had a mezuzah. Unexpectedly, Alex removed the weather beaten mezuzah and replaced it with a new one. As he hammered the shiny new mezuzah into place with the butt end of a lock for a hammer, I think we both shared a sense of joy in the moment.

“I’ve never actually put up a mezuzah,” I said. Alex seemed as surprised by that as I was. I had never thought about it till that moment.

Alex Armah affixes a new mezuzah to the main door of Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Alex Armah affixes a new mezuzah to the main door of Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

I explained to him that the kosher scrolls were a gift from a woman in Texas, USA and that I had provided the covers. “The mezuzahs are yours and you can put them where you like, of course, but I really think the guesthouse needs one,” I said. So we went back next door.

Again, I photographed Alex as he affixed the first-ever mezuzah to the frame of the main door on the incomplete guesthouse. Once that was done, we returned to the synagogue where Alex recorded two video commentaries and posed for a portrait photo. Alex is a low key person, but he seems to quietly relish the attention that a spiritual leadership role demands.

Spiritual leader Alex Armah affixes the first-ever mezuzah to the main door of the community guesthouse.

Spiritual leader Alex Armah affixes the first-ever mezuzah to the main door of the community guesthouse.

The verdant rolling hills of the Sefwi Wiawso District of Western Ghana delayed the arrival of missionaries and their gospel. Long before they finally penetrated these parts, the indigenous people practiced their own religion, one that was similar to the laws of the Torah, though written documentation does not exist. It is known that the sabbath was strictly observed, pigs and other unclean animals were not eaten, and males were circumcised. But Christianity eventually took hold and the Jewish-like practices faded.

Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa (alt. spelling, Towakyerafa) is regarded as the founder of the modern day House of Israel. It is said that in 1976 he had a vision that the Sefwi people were descendants of a Lost Tribe of Israel who can trace their origins to Ethiopia and Sudan. His Jewish epiphany returned his flock to the ways and laws of Judaism. But it was not easy. Locals did not accept their Jewish faith and ultimately forced the newly-born Jewish community to flee their village in Old Adiembra and relocated in New Adiembra. In more recent times, the Freedom of Worship Act insured not only religious liberation, but deliverance from the threats of violence. Today, the House of Israel Jewish community is comprised of some 120 souls who live in social and religious harmony with their Christian and Muslim brethren.

Initially, the community was granted 40 acres of land by the local chief, and today the community is mainly agrarian. Over time, they earned enough money from cocoa, cassava, sugar cane, and plantain crops (among others) to build the Tifereth Israel Synagogue, the only synagogue in all of Ghana.

Alex, whose Hebrew name is Aaharon Ben Avraham, studied in earnest with the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda under the supervision and direction of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. He did a number of tours of study with the Abayudaya between 2008 and 2012, earning him a “Certificate of Introduction to Rabbinics” issued on 21 October that final year. He’s even trained in kashrut (of chickens and small animals, not cows).

Alex Armah shows off his Certificate of Rabbinics he earned under the supervision of Abayudaya Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Uganda.

Alex Armah shows off his Certificate of Rabbinics he earned under the supervision of Abayudaya Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Uganda.

Besides financial resources, I asked what he feels the community needs most: “The three most important needs of our community are to connect with the outside world; for our community to be officially converted; and to be recognized by the State of Israel,” Alex replied without thinking about how to answer.. “I also want all our children to go to school and get the health care they need.”

“Well,” I said, “I hope my photographs and blog notes about your community will help with the first one. That’s part of my overall mission — to bring light to communities.”

Alex was driven to Judaism for “purpose and responsibility” that the Roman Catholicism he renounced didn’t provide. “Commitment to Judaism and teaching its laws and ways of life are commandments,” he noted. “So these things give me purpose.”

From the synagogue, we headed back to the town near my hotel to visit Akiva Kenah, the community chairman. With his nine-month-old daughter Rachel on his knee, we sat in the front room of his very modest house chatting about his farming life and his role as chairman. But what I liked most was hearing him say the names of his other children: Elijah, Deborah, and Moses.

Akiva Kenah, House of Israel chairman, at home with his daughter, Rachel.

Akiva Kenah, House of Israel chairman, at home with his daughter, Rachel.

In the late afternoon, Alex took me back to the home of Isaac and Florence Aidoo. They again welcomed me with smiles. Jovial Florence offered several giggles. Isaac, shirtless and sweaty, had just returned from the fields. Nevertheless, he put on a shirt, picked up his machete, and let me photograph him as he hacked a long tree branch into a mallet that will be used for pounding cassava and yams.

Isaac Aidoo hacks out a new mallet for pounding cassava and yams.

Isaac Aidoo hacks out a new mallet for pounding cassava and yams.

Florence, meanwhile, was crouched in her kitchen — just as I had seen her two days earlier — crushing small chili peppers into a fiery hot paste. She just seems to enjoy herself and being with her family.

Florence Aidoo in her kitchen mashing chili peppers while her brother eats an early supper.

Florence Aidoo in her kitchen mashing chili peppers while her brother eats an early supper.

NOTE: This post is part three of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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House of Israel, Ghana: Day 2 (of 5), “I Thought There was a Service”

NOTE: This post is part two of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

SEFWI WIAWSO, WESTERN REGION, Ghana — Monday, February 17: Alex texted me at 5:56 a.m. “How are you doing? Please I am going to Awaso to present my CV to a company and come meet you soon. See you.”

That’s up-with-the-roosters early, I thought. The plan the evening before was for me to make my own way to the synagogue for an 8:00 a.m. service. I responded immediately asking what time I ought to be ready or shall we just meet at the synagogue as planned.

I wouldn’t hear from Alex again till dinner time when he turned up at my hotel.

So, I took a taxi to Tifereth Israel Synagogue. Just 10 minutes from my hotel, the New Adiembra village is located up and over several verdant hills in a fairly remote area though easily reached by generally good roads. For 1 Ghanian Cedi (about US$0.40), I was able to take one of the frequent shared taxis that cruise up and down the main drag. That road passes whimsically named red dirt lanes such as Psalm 25, Posh, Fruity, Possible, Stand Firm, and the more menacing Lion Lane. Then there’s Zion Lane, though it’s not quite the same as that hill in Jerusalem on which the City of David was built. Despite many of the side lanes lacking pavement, they all seem to be signaled by shiny new street signs poised high atop sturdy poles.

At the synagogue,I met Joseph Nipah, age 42, Alex’s older brother by nine years. They are the only two children in their big family who have accepted Moses as their savior. “They are proud of us,” Joseph told me. “They have their way, we have ours.” That simple comment seemed reasonable enough for me.

Joseph Nipah recites his morning prayers at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Joseph Nipah recites his morning prayers at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

But no one else was to be seen. In fact, it was so quiet, all I could hear was the unnerving hum of giant wasps coming and going from their miniature earthen-like abodes affixed to the walls just inside the window slats.

“I thought there was a service.”

“Yeah, there were some people here about 7:00. But they are all gone to work and school now,” Joseph said. “But I am here for you. Take your time.”

So I did. I photographed the synagogue and the exterior of the adjacent guest house where Alex lives. He offered me a room there, which I declined when he texted me via Facebook, “There is electricity but no running water. The toilet is nearby. Or you can stay in a hotel.”

Hotel, please. Ding!

House of Israel Jewish Community guesthouse, with synagogue adjacent (far right).

House of Israel Jewish Community guesthouse, with synagogue adjacent (far right).

I asked Alex how much money was needed to fix up the guesthouse toilets. “About 4,000 cedi (US$1,600),” he calculated. I was shocked by that number. It’s no wonder buildings like the guesthouse take years to complete. Very few in these parts have that sort of money, a veritable fortune. Joseph earns 150 cedi (US$60) a month from his security job at a local government office (he’s got a wife and 4 kids to look after). Alex is an electrician though he’s currently unemployed (his wife is a teacher at a nearby private school; he has 2 kids from a previous marriage; “She was not a Jew, so we had to quit,” he told me).

As much as I wanted to stay in the community, I just knew that I’d be happier at a hotel with air conditioning and an en suite room, even limited satellite TV which seemed only to receive football (i.e. soccer) and made-on-the-cheap, poorly acted Ghanian and Nigerian dramas in which everyone seems to be either arguing or dying histrionically. Of course, there is always a televangelist on too who’s either screaming at you in measured cadence or somnolently warning you about the fiery pits of hell.

Tifereth Israel Synagogue, House of Israel Jewish Community, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana.

Tifereth Israel Synagogue, House of Israel Jewish Community, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana.

I spent nearly two hours photographing, taking my time as Joseph had instructed me too. We chatted while I worked, and I wondered aloud what the rest of the day would hold in store without Alex around to guide me. I decided to head back to the hotel. I spent the entire afternoon editing the morning’s photos and catching up on my blog.

It rained again around three o’clock.

Twelve hours since his morning text message, Alex called. “Hey, how are you? WHERE are you?” I asked.

“I’m outside your hotel.” I went right down.

We caught up on the day, then I presented Alex with six kosher mezuzah scrolls and mezuzah covers. I noticed that only one of the synagogue’s three doors had a mezuzah and that there weren’t any on the guesthouse. I had intended to hand over the mezuzahs at the morning service so everyone could see them.

Just then, Joseph turned up. I invited them to eat with me. We all ordered, but only Alex and I ate together. To my surprise, Joseph’s meal was served in a styrofoam box and a plastic bag.

NOTE: This post is part two of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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House of Israel, Ghana: Day 1 (of 5), “I’m Jewish Too”

NOTE: This post is part one of a four part series on the House of Israel, Ghana.

SEFWI WIAWSO, WESTERN REGION, Ghana — Sunday, February 16: Alex Armah is the spiritual leader of the House of Israel Jewish Community located in New Adiembra, Sefwi Wiawso, Western Region, Ghana. I first established contact with him in October 2013.

“I will help you get what you want, all the question you have as will be done as you wish. I will assist you,” he told me by email. He certainly kept his word. He drove nearly 3 hours to greet me at Kumasi airport (more or less central Ghana), 40 minutes flight from the capital city of Accra. We then, of course, drove 3 hours back. I treated him and our driver to a well-deserved lunch at the Minado Hotel where I lodged comfortably for the duration of my 4-night, 5-day stay.

Lunch with Alex Armah, spiritual leader, House of Israel Jewish Community, Ghana

Lunch with Alex Armah, spiritual leader, House of Israel Jewish Community, Ghana

An afternoon nap coincided conveniently with a downpour, then Alex guided me round his village including a look at the simple pale blue and white concrete synagogue (built between 1995~1998) and visits to several homes of the 120 or so community members.

I met Isaac Aidoo and his wife Florence who farm five acres of land (mainly cocoa). Their homestead surroundings were teeming with kids, chickens, goats, guinea fowl, cats, and lizards. I also met Samuel, an elder, in a room swaddled by the darkening of dusk. Oddly, he was watching a preacher on TV, the room’s sole source of light. I later found out it was the only channel he could receive, and I surmised he was hoping for a rabbi to come on. He’s still waiting. Then I met Joshua outside my hotel.

“Hi, I’m Joshua,” he greeted me.

“I’m Jewish too,” I replied.

“I’m Joshua,” he repeated.

“Yes, I’m Jewish too,” I repeated.

“His name is JO-SHU-WA,” spelled out Alex.

I laughed, and Alex laughed. Jo-shu-wa just looked confused.

English is an official language in Ghana, but there’s a pronunciation gap. As it turned out, Joshua wasn’t Jewish after all.

NOTE: This post is part one of a four part series on the House of Israel Jewish Community of Ghana.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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Country Community Roads

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Third time lucky. The first time I aimed to sojourn in Kimberley and Bloemfontein in the South African outback, plans were scuttled by the theft of my camera gear. The second time, I couldn’t find a driving parter. The journey was worth the wait. Though there are few Jews who actually reside these days in the “country communities” of South Africa, the few who do were gracious and welcoming. I wouldn’t expect anything less, actually, for the South African Jewish community at large is the warmest anywhere.

The trip was punctuated by a bygone era of handsome synagogues, the jewel in the crown being the Memorial Road Synagogue (aka Kimberley Synagogue) in Kimberley, Northern Cape Province. While synagogues are like fingerprints (i.e. they are all different), this shul lived up to the architectural hype.

Memorial Road Synagogue. Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

Memorial Road Synagogue. Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

The octagonal house of worship was completed in July 1901 and features prominent front turret-like stairwells, complementing spires, and interlaid zipper-like stonework at the corners. It’s a cross between an English castle and a French chateau…and a synagogue. Inside, all eyes are drawn to what is surely one of the most comely Aron Hakodeshes in all the Jewish world. It seems to tower above the eight folds of the ceiling, if that were possible, capped by gorgeous domes which give the holy ark a notably spiritual aura. From a photographic point of view, a synagogue like this one is fun to photograph because there are many nooks and crannies and unexpected angles.

Memorial Road Synagogue. Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

Memorial Road Synagogue. Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

Kimberley was founded as a diamond mining town (De Beers Diamonds still have their world headquarters there). Undeniably, where there are diamonds, there are Jews. Barney Barnato (1851~1897) was an entrepreneurial British Jew who played a prominent role in the sparkling industry. He founded the Barnato Diamond Mining Company. What remains today is known as The Big Hole, the world’s largest hand-excavate open diamond pit which closed operations in 1914 but remains open today as a gaping tourist attraction.

The Big Hole. Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

The Big Hole. Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

It was in the mock old town at The Big Hole that I discovered a gem, a Jewish hearse, housed in the old automobile garage. The placard read, in part: “The wooden box-like container was originally mounted on a horse drawn carriage. In about 1926 the body of the hearse was mounted on a Chevrolet six cylinder chassis and cab.”

Jewish hearse, housed at The Big Hole. Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

Jewish hearse, housed at The Big Hole. Kimberley, Northern Cape, South Africa.

I was traveling in a bit more style, a Volvo something-or-other with Diane Fine, a genealogical buff who traces much of her family to the region but who has long resided in Johannesburg. I met her in August 2013 at the Limmud conference in Johannesburg. She came to my presentation, and I went to hers, after which she made an offer I couldn’t refuse: “I’d love to do road trip with you,” she proposed.

“Now that’s an offer I am not likely to refuse,” I retorted. And so, after a period of planning over a couple of months, our wheels were set in motion. We spent 4 days and nights on the road with stops in Kimberley, Bloemfontein, Ficksburg, Bethlehem, and Heilbron, all but Kimberly being located in Free State Province.

Under the 40C swelter of summer and betwixt the rolling folds of the green foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains, I once again found myself listening for a soundtrack of a community that no longer or barely exists. Kimberley community president Barney Horwitz told me there are only 27 Jews living in town. On each of our two evenings, he spun intriguing tales which entertained both Diane and me. Still, it’s sobering to think that the community’s days are numbered.

But mostly what I found — and what I knew I’d see — were cemeteries in varying states of (dis)repair and defunct synagogues that today house businesses that are utterly disconnected to the structures in which they are housed.

In Bloemfontein, the former Fairview Synagogue is now the head offices of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I’m not sure which disappoints more: a synagogue-turned-church, or a synagogue-turned-car parts shop, as what has become of the Bethlehem Synagogue.

Fairview Synagogue (former). Bloemfontein, Free State, South Africa.

Fairview Synagogue (former). Bloemfontein, Free State, South Africa.

Bethlehem Synagogue (former). Bethlehem, Free State, South Africa.

Bethlehem Synagogue (former). Bethlehem, Free State, South Africa.

The Ficksburg Synagogue is now a welfare center. Somehow, that seems almost deferential to the Jews who once prayed there. Yet, all of these former synagogues share a common denominator: they are extant. I’d prefer the synagogue buildings remain standing and viable rather than be torn down and left to memory and photographs (and it is, in part, for this reason that I do the photo work I do).

Ficksburg Synagogue (former). Ficksburg, Free State, South Africa.

Ficksburg Synagogue (former). Ficksburg, Free State, South Africa.

But all is not lost. The United Hebrew Institutions of Bloemfontein Synagogue is still alive and kicking stronger than Kimberley. But, as community president Solly Krol put it, “Look, this synagogue originally belonged to the progressive community. We [Orthodox community] bought it when there was no longer a need for two shuls. I suppose our next logical step will be to sell this place and downsize yet again to a house.”

Solly Krol, president United Hebrew Institutions of Bloemfontein Synagogue. Bloemfontein, Free State, South Africa.

Solly Krol, president United Hebrew Institutions of Bloemfontein Synagogue. Bloemfontein, Free State, South Africa.

On our last leg back to Johannesburg, we stopped in Heilbron, just 90 minutes from the big city. There, too, the community is long gone, but their synagogue is preserved today in the guise of the Riemland Museum which tells the tale of the local area.

Jono David, on the bimah with a “rabbi” at the Riemland Museum, Helibron, Free State, South Africa.

Jono David, on the bimah with a “rabbi” at the Riemland Museum, Helibron, Free State, South Africa.

One corner of the exhibit not only recognizes the building’s history, but tells a snippet or two of Jewish life in general complete with a diorama featuring pews from the former Ficksburg Synagogue, an Aron Hokodesh, and a glass case displaying Judaica, including a Haggadah. The latter seemed fitting because Jews have made a modern-day exodus from these bucolic parts.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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All Aboard the Number 4

OSAKA, Japan — Plans for leg #4 of my Jewish Africa photo survey project are mostly in place now. The few gaps in my schedule that remain to be filled will mostly be left to chance and spontaneity.

Here’s the plan: I depart on February 8th for Johannesburg, South Africa. By the time I come home on April 4th, I’ll have visited Jewish communities in Ghana, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. I’ll have also sojourned to country communities in South Africa and even traveled 25 hours on the delicious Johannesburg-to-Cape Town Shosholoza Meyl train. I look forward to the comfort of my private berth Premier Classe Deluxe Sleeper accommodations and enjoying the camaraderie of fellow passengers as we wine, dine, and chat our way across the beautiful landscapes of South Africa. The whole of my journey should be remarkable, and I can think of no better way to end it by spending a week in Cape Town.

But my vision for this trip didn’t start out the way it has shaped up. In the initial planning stages, I was certain I was going to Nigeria. But plans fell through when a “Jewish tour” across the country I had hoped to join was cancelled. Maybe next year instead, so I was told. I hope so, for Nigeria is the destination that I most prefer to travel with others. For the second time, I also intended to go to Madagascar. But February/March is rainy season and that creates potential hazards and hassles. I nearly went to Cape Verde. Alas, the Jewish cemeteries there are currently under restoration so I am holding off a year till the work is complete.

In SOUTH AFRICA, my work continues primarily in and around Johannesburg and Cape Town. I’ll hit the ground running as the day after my arrival, I’ll be taking a 5-day road trip with Diane Fine, a local enthusiast of Jewish heritage particularly around Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province. Our journey will also take us to Bloemfontein, capital of Free State Province, and a few other towns as well. Plans to visit these areas fell through on two prior occasions for different reasons — including having had my camera gear stolen in February last year.

In GHANA, I will spend several days with the House of Israel in Sefwi Wiawso District, Western Ghana. As an emerging Jewish group, I will be keen to observe their interpretations of Judaism, their manner of worship, and their daily lives. Their Jewish roots only reach back to 1976 when community leader Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa was said to have had a vision calling for a return to their Jewish roots as a lost tribe of Israel. In 1998 in the Jewish neighborhood of New Adiembra, they built their first synagogue. The Sefwi people are thought to have come from Ethiopia and Sudan.

“Please, you can come at an time that you want to come,” assured community leader Alex Armah via Facebook. “Please, what ever you want to know you can ask me I will do all my best to answer you.”

In CAMEROON, spiritual leader of Beth Yeshourun, Serge Etele, has been no less enthusiastic and welcoming to his emerging community. “You can photograph our synagogue and homes and the people in their Jewish life and activities as well as our secular projects,” the mainly self-taught Serge wrote by Facebook, and also told me a bit about the community.

“The community exists since 14 years and is about 40 to 50 people.” Apparently, the group splintered off from an Evangelical church because they no longer believed in Christianity.

“No cemetery or Jewish building yet,” Serge continued. “We are trying to build a dedicated place for worship, but for now, we are using private homes as synagogues. Our main activity is agriculture. We grow cocoa, cassava, plantain, etc. We just started a huge communal cocoa farm project which involves the entire community and should help us improve our economic situation.”

In the DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (DRC), I’ll be dodging mosquitos and bullets. That sounds dramatic but malaria is extremely prevalent in the DRC. Something like 40% of all new malaria cases in Africa happen there, or so I have been told. As for the bullets, I haven’t yet found a repellent spray. Armed groups and clashes are mainly in the east of the country, but not entirely. I’ll be in the southern city of Lubumbashi, the nation’s second largest, and the capital, Kinshasa, which lies on the western edge of the country literally across the Congo River from Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo.

I am traveling to Lubumbashi (formerly, Elisabethville) with Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the Travelling Rabbi from Johannesburg. While I am going for the purpose of photographing the remaining synagogue, Jewish cemeteries, and meeting the handful of remaining Jewish residents, the Rabbi will be doing more of an inspection on current matters within the small community. I’ll fly to Kinshasa on my own where I’ll be spending time at Chabad of Central Africa. Yeah, there’s a yeshiva in the DRC. From what little I currently know, it mainly serves Israelis who live and work there. (NOTE: Rabbi Silberhaft will not be accompanying me to Lubumbashi due to unforeseen events.)

Jews first arrived in the country in 1907 from Eastern Europe, and a few years later, Jews from the island of Rhodes settled in the former Belgian Congo too. Many people worked in the mining business with the development of a regional copper industry. The city boomed through the 1960s but went mostly on the decline thereafter mainly due to political unrest which, in many respects, continues to this day. Still, the city is dotted with some grand architecture from a bygone era and a visit promises to be very interesting.

In RWANDA, there is no Jewish community to speak of. There are two places of interest for my Jewish Africa photo project, however. One is the Kigali Memorial Centre (KMC). Opened on the 10th anniversary of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the facility is a memorial is built on a site where some 250,000 people are buried, a quarter of the estimated total number of people who were murdered. The KMC has some Jewish features including the “Windows of Hope” stained glass by an artist whose father survived Auschwitz.

The other place of interest is the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) about an hour outside Kigali where I will spend 2 days. Founded by South African Anne Heyman and the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, a US-based philanthropic Jewish organization that fulfills educational, medical, and cultural objectives (among others), the ASYV will be a small but important aspect of Jewish influence in Africa to incorporate in my project. The mission of ASYV, as stated on their official website, is –

“To enable orphaned and vulnerable youth to realize their maximum potential by providing them with a safe and secure living environment, health care, education and necessary life skills. Education and service are used to model and create socially responsible citizens in Rwanda and around the world.”

Both the KMC and the ASYV have obvious connections between the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.

With the completion of leg #4 (of an estimated 8), I’ll be at the halfway point of my Jewish Africa photo survey project, with 14 of the projected 30 countries I hope to visit already in the record books. Rwanda, by the way, will be the 99th country/territory in my Jewish photo archives. By the time I am done with all of that traveling and the intensity of the experiences, I’ll be ready for that relaxing train journey to Cape Town. My Cape Town Jewish schedule is pretty busy, however. Just the way I like it.

IN MEMORIAM: Anne Heyman, native South African and founder of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in Rwanda, died on February 1, 2014 following a horse riding accident in Florida, USA. It was only in October 2013 that I established an email relationship with her and she secured permission and arrangements for my impending visit to ASYV in March for inclusion in my Jewish Africa photo survey project. “There will absolutely be someone who can facilitate your visit,” she wrote on October 30. “As far as Jewish aspects to the village goes, I believe you will see that the connection to Judaism/Israel is strong, with support from foundations like Safra being only a small part of our Jewish story.” RIP, Anne. For more about ASYV, please visit their website: http://www.asyv.org/. Watch an interview with Anne about ASYV: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6V-PfoexWY

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

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ABAYUDAYA: The Jews of Uganda

NABUGOYE VILLAGE, Mbale District, Uganda — I sat in Moses Synagogue during Kabbalat Shabbat service, the only visitor and the only white face (perhaps for miles), inside pale white-washed walls lined with bookshelves bowed under stacks of old prayer books.

Moses Synagogue. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Moses Synagogue. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

My lips curved upwards too as the soft, harmonious voices of the buoyant congregation welcomed the lighting of the Sabbath stars and set my feet and fingers into involuntary movements, for the psalms and drum resonated with a distinctly African rhythm. I considered just how special this last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) was. I felt lucky to be there.

Moses Synagogue. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Moses Synagogue. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Four hours later, I lay in Ohel Mosquito (Tent of Mosquito), my bed in the Abayudaya guest house, reviewing and organizing both photographs and mental images from an extraordinary day. The pale blue netting hung around me like the embrace of the community itself.

Guest House. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Guest House. Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Outside, in the near distance, an incessant thumping drone from a bass-heavy all-night wedding party mimicked my heartbeat and interrupted my slumber. I couldn’t help but wonder when the party would end (it did — two days later).

I wasn’t the only one taking stock. With Rosh Hashanah just days away, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu asked his congregation what they had learned this year.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Nabugoye Synagogue, Mbale, Uganda

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Moses Synagogue, Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

“I learned that there are more blessings than curses,” one voice offered

“And I have learned that only I am holding myself back from doing whatever it is I want to do,” said another.

Rabbi Sizomu underscored his sermon by emphasizing that with the impending new year, one must “begin” something, no matter how small, to make a dream come true.

“Chazzan Keki began his coffee farm with 500 trees,” he told the congregation. “And how many does he have today? He cannot count.”

“About 100,000,” the Chazzan noted to a few giggles and gasps. I was impressed.

Earlier in the day, I met Chazzan Yoav Yonadav J.J. Keki at his home. I went there to visit the grave of his father which abuts the house.

Cemetery of Yonadav Keki at home of Yoav Yonadav (J.J.) Keki, half-brother of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Nangolo Village, Namanyoni Sub-county, Mbale, Uganda

Cemetery of Yonadav Keki at home of Yoav Yonadav (J.J.) Keki, half-brother of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Nangolo Village, Namanyoni Sub-county, Mbale, Uganda

In front of his house lay two mats covered with coffee beans basking in the morning sun. I didn’t learn J.J. was the Chazzan till he started singing at the evening service. Nor did I know the half-brother of Rabbi Sizomu is also a partner in the Peace Kawomera Growers Coop Society which brings farmers of various faiths together and provides them an opportunity to sell their goods. All day, he just kept surprising me. Chazzan Keki also makes for a fine translator between English and Luganda (the main local language of Uganda), interpreting for his brother who held the service in English for my benefit (he does that when the village has visitors). What’s more, J.J. is a crocheter extraordinaire, knitting kippot for both the community and to sell to visitors. He’s an interesting and very friendly guy who never stops smiling!

Getting to the Abayudaya from Entebbe (where I stayed upon arrival in the country and again before departure) takes five hours on the main thoroughfare cutting north-south across the eastern side of the country, including through the heart of the drab, traffic-clogged capital of Kampala. The two-lane freeway is in respectable condition for it is heavily traveled by trucks ferrying goods, including petrol, from Mombasa port in Kenya up to Sudan. There are a number of ramshackle towns en route from where dusty red dirt lanes branch off to dirt poor villages. The main road winds its way through varied lush topography including velvety emerald tea farms, an indigenous forest, and across the Nile River. Yep, the Nile. I had forgotten that its source is in Uganda so I was chuffed when my driver informed me we were crossing over it. The tiring journey is well worth the effort, for the warmth in the community’s welcome and their easy spirit is a pot of gold at the end of that bumpy tether.

Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Abayudaya is Luganda for People of Judah or Jewish People. With a population of some 2,000 souls, they reside in nearly a dozen villages in eastern Uganda near the provincial city of Mbale. Though neither genetically nor historically related to other ethnic Jewish peoples, they are a deeply devout people recognized by both the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism. Only the members of Putti Village consider themselves Orthodox, but they have yet to be officially recognized as such.

Semei Kakungulu was the founding father of the Abayudaya. Converted to Christianity by British missionaries in the 1880s, he eventually found spiritual truth in the Old Testament, and later he accepted the tenets of the Five Books of Moses.

Tomb of Samei Lwakirenzi Kagungulu, Abayudaya founder. Kagungulu Hill, near Nabuguye Village, Uganda

Tomb of Samei Lwakirenzi Kagungulu, Abayudaya founder. Kagungulu Hill, near Nabuguye Village, Uganda

When his hopes of becoming king of the Bukedi and Bugisu territories were dashed by the British, he took further comfort in his newly found faith and eventually circumcised himself and his sons, and declared his community Jewish. In 1919, he settled in Gangama where he started a new sect called Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord).

The arrival of “Yosef”, the first known foreign Jew, in 1920, contributed greatly to the fledgling community’s knowledge of Jewish rituals and festivals such as Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Succot (Feast of Tabernacles). Yosef educated the community during his six-month stay, including lessons on kashrut (keeping kosher) and the introduction of a type of Yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish college). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abayudaya).

Under the rule and thumb of dictator Idi Amin (1971~1979), the Abayudaya were persecuted and forced into retreat and/or outright conversion to Christianity or Islam. He outlawed Judaism and destroyed synagogues though some 300 Abayudaya maintained their faith in secret.

As a follower of Islam, Amin was a sympathizer of the Palestinians. In July 1976, he heartily welcomed members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and German Revolutionary Cells who had hijacked an Air France plane with 248 passengers, some 100 of them being Israelis and Jews. The plane was hijacked after takeoff from Athens, Greece though the Paris-bound flight itself originated in Tel Aviv. With only the Jewish hostages remaining, a week-long standoff at Entebbe airport culminated in a dramatic and successful Israel Defence Force (IDF) commando rescue codenamed Operation Thunderbolt (aka Operation Entebbe). [Watch the movie, Operation Thunderbolt, Israeli production 1977.]

Old Entebbe Airport terminal, site of the 1976 Israeli "Raid on Entebbe". Entebbe, Uganda

Old Entebbe Airport terminal, site of the 1976 Israeli “Raid on Entebbe”. Entebbe, Uganda

With the end of the Amin era, the Abayudaya openly came back to their Jewish faith. In 2002, some 400 members were officially converted by Conservative rabbis. The following year, Gershom Sizomu (with his family) went to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, California. He was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2008. Today, he is the only official Abayudaya rabbi though there are a number of highly proficient lay-readers who lead services and provide community leadership in the nine villages where the Abayudaya live.

Today, community life very much centers around Nabugoye Village where Rabbi Sizomu resides. In addition to Moses Synagogue, there is a yeshiva, a mikvah, and the Semei Kakungulu High School.

Semei Kakungulu High School, Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

Semei Kakungulu High School, Nabugoye Village, Mbale, Uganda

The Hadassah Primary School is walking distance between Nabugoye and Namanyonyi Villages, and the Tobin Medical Clinic is closer to Mbale town.

Hadassah Primary School, Namanyonyi Village, Mbale, Uganda

Hadassah Primary School, Namanyonyi Village, Mbale, Uganda

Nabugoye Village is relatively well off with (intermittent) electricity, (intermittent) wifi, (intermittent) running water which is (intermittently) hot-ish. Outlying villages of the Abayudaya, however, vary widely and many members live in abject poverty. Smiles, however, are free and easy in this part of the world.

The Abayudaya are very welcoming to visitors though I had to receive advanced official permission for photographing from the community’s Executive Council. With exception to Nabugoye village, I arrived unannounced, but that does not diminish the warmth of the welcomes. In fact, the added element of surprise creates a bit of a stir, perhaps even a diversion in their normal routine. Children, in particular, are eager to welcome visitors, especially one with a camera. They love to pose then see themselves on the screen guaranteeing a chorus of heartwarming giddy squeals. Even the smallest of the children say, “You are welcome [to our village].” It’s very sweet and very special.

My four-day visit was exhilarating. By the time it was over, I needed to decompress, take stock of all that had happened, and try to capture it all in words as well as the photographs. Perhaps the epitome of the experience was a visit to Namutumba Village.

Located quite far off the main drag down a bumpy thread of dirt road that seemed to get narrower and narrower as we bumped along, the vehicle stopped when the track came to an end. There, midst the dense surrounding bush and canopy of banana trees, I met Rabbi Eri Kaiduwa’s wife and children. Their house is a traditional round mud hut capped by a thatched roof with a separate hut for a kitchen.

Rabbi Eri Kaiduwa's wife and children. Namutumba Synagogue (aka The Perlman Synagogue), Namutumba District, Uganda

Rabbi Eri Kaiduwa’s wife and children. Namutumba Synagogue (aka The Perlman Synagogue), Namutumba District, Uganda

Their synagogue was something more substantial, built of brick but with a dirt floor and no panes in the spaces for windows. One day, they hope it will be completed. There was no Torah but there was a prayer book in the Aron Hakodesh and plenty more on rickety bookshelves.

Namutumba Synagogue (aka The Perlman Synagogue), Namutumba District, Uganda

Namutumba Synagogue (aka The Perlman Synagogue), Namutumba District, Uganda

Clearly, these people live in abject poverty, but the smiles on their faces were priceless. I was touched by their very warm welcome to a stranger with a camera that costs more than their home.

ABAYUDAYA video on YouTube.

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FURTHER INFORMATION ABOUT ME and MY JEWISH PHOTO WORK (see the following links): my website, HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library / ABOUT / MISSION / BIO / PUBLICATIONS, EXHIBITIONS, EVENTS / PRESS / STORE / VIDEOS MY JEWISH GEOGRAPHY APP QUIZ GAME iTUNES STORE / FACEBOOK / TWITTER / INSTAGRAM / SUPPORT / CONTACT.

FOLLOW THIS BLOG: Sign up for updates by email by joining the followers list. Return to the HOME page and enter your email address (followers’ names and email addresses are not revealed to me nor to other followers).