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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