LI synagogue lends hand to Nigerian Jews

Members of the Gihon Synagogue in Abuja Nigeria, Members of the Gihon Synagogue in Abuja Nigeria, 2006. Photo Credit: Jeff L. Lieberman

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Members of a Plainview synagogue are extending support to a group of Nigerians, estimated to number in the thousands, who have discovered what they believe are their ancient Jewish roots.

The decision by members of the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria to follow Judaism instead of Christianity is generating debate among rabbis and scholars about the authenticity of their Jewish roots and the converts' assertions that Jews lived in Africa's most populous nation before the Christian missionaries arrived with European colonizers around 1800.

But their little-known story is also stoking fascination and enthusiasm. A new documentary film is out and a book by a professor who grew up in West Hempstead goes on sale in November, while the Manetto Hill Jewish Center in Plainview is sending 700 High Holy Days prayer books to the Igbo Jews.

"They're an inspiring group of people," said Marilyn Morris, who organized the book-donation project. "To do something for them was great."

She recently invited the maker of "Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria" to show the film at her synagogue.

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Cultural similarities

About two decades ago, some Igbo started practicing Judaism after discovering -- partly through the Internet -- parallels between their longtime cultural practices and the Jewish faith, said filmmaker Jeff Lieberman. The Igbo, for instance, circumcise their sons on the eighth day after their birth, slaughter animals in ritualistic ways and do not eat nonkosher types of meat such as pork, or fish without scales.

"The coincidental cultural practices really are striking," said William Miles, a political science professor at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming "Jews of Nigeria: An Afro-Judaic Odyssey."

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He estimates there are several thousand Igbo Jews today and about 25 synagogues, mainly in the southern and eastern parts of Nigeria. The Igbos' embrace of Judaism recalls similar phenomena by ethnic groups in Uganda and Ethiopia.

Muslims are the largest religious group in Nigeria, and the Igbos, 30 million strong, have lived as Christians for centuries. The Jewish converts often are ostracized or cast off by their own families.

Questions about ancestry

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One Igbo featured in the film, Shmuel Tikzah, 37, said in the film that his father has accepted his conversion from Catholicism to Judaism, but his mother cried and thinks he has joined a cult. "My father tried to convince her that Judaism is a pure religion," he said, "but she couldn't listen."

"It is an anguished and soul-wrenching discovery," Lieberman said, for them to leave Christian religion that had been "a deep part of their lives."

Rabbi Howard Gorin of Rockville, Md., who has ministered to the Igbo Jews on three trips, said there are also tens of thousands of Igbos who fall into a more nebulous category, including those who practice Judaism but also still believe in Jesus Christ, and others who don't practice Judaism but consider themselves "Jewish."

Gorin said he does not believe the Igbo had Jewish ancestors. "I don't think they are re-emerging because I don't believe there ever was an historic Jewish community in Nigeria," he said. "There is totally no evidence for that."

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He said they adopted customs that parallel Judaism simply by reading the Bibles brought by Christian missionaries. Lieberman said that while the jury is still out on whether Jews lived in Nigeria centuries ago, the fact is today many are proclaiming themselves Jewish.

'Matter of the heart'

"In the final analysis," said David Senter, rabbi of the Manetto Hill Jewish Center, "Judaism is a matter of the heart."

Morris said her synagogue recently replaced its High Holy Days prayer books with new ones, so the synagogue decided to send the old ones, still in good condition, to the Igbo Jews. The timing was also good because the holy days of Rosh Hashanah when Jews are encouraged to perform acts of charity were approaching.

In late August she and her husband, Elliot, a pediatrician, drove the books to a shipping company in Maryland to send to Nigeria. "It's nice to be able to pass down a piece of our heritage," she said. "It was such a feel-good feeling when we drove down. We were just giddy almost."

Mitchell Nesenoff, a businessman from Dix Hills who travels often to Nigeria, said he will help distribute the books to synagogues there.

Tikzah said in a phone interview that the Igbo Jews will be grateful for the books.

"I'm very happy and excited about it," said Tikzah, who dreams of studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan to become a rabbi if he can get a student visa.

JEWISH HIGH HOLY DAYS

Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown, marking the start of the year 5773 on the Hebrew calendar and the opening of the Jewish High Holy Days.

Services tonight will last at least an hour at most synagogues, followed by longer services -- some up to six hours -- Monday and Tuesday. Those services will begin with the blowing of the shofar, a trumpet made from a ram's horn. The sound is meant to awaken the faithful symbolically from their "slumber" in preparation for the coming judgment.

The two days of Rosh Hashanah, ending at sundown on Tuesday, are a time of intense introspection for practicing Jews when they think about how they have acted, seek forgiveness from those they have wronged and dedicate themselves to living a better life, said Rabbi Steven Moss, head of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.

The High Holy Days will culminate with Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown Sept. 25 and ends at sunset Sept. 26. That day is the most solemn and important on the Jewish calendar, when many of the faithful fast for 24 hours and engage in intense prayer.

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