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.”


“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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