The African Jews of Yeoville

For decades Yeoville was seen as “a Jewish suburb” until 1994 when many Jewish residents left the area. Now a new Jewish community is emerging. Rabbi Sylvester Obiekwe and his community are Nigerian Jews from the Igbo tribe. Their customs, traditions and beliefs have been passed down for hundreds of generations. But they are not recognised by the orthodox Jewish world for lack of evidence.

For over a century the Star of David was a vibrant sign of Jewish life in Yeoville.  In the past 20 years this star has waned as many Jewish residents left the Johannesburg suburb.

Recently it has returned.

In a simple,brick-walled home on Regent Street, a blue and white Star of David is painted on the outer wall. It is a synagogue which houses a small group of Nigerian Jews who now call Yeoville home.

The Beth-El Messianic Assembly is a group of black Jews who come from the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. Igbo Jews believe they are direct descendants of the biblical character Gad, a son of Jacob, and that their ancestors moved to West Africa after being exiled during the destruction of the first biblical temple. They believe the entire Igbo tribe originates from these roots, although not all Igbo are Jewish.

Rabbi Sylvester Obiekwe, spiritual leader of the congregation, says most of the diasporic Jews assimilated into Christianity over centuries. The influence of colonialism and Christianity grew stronger in Nigeria and some Igbo Jewish sects conjoined Judaic law with Christian law. These were the founding roots of messianic Judaism in southern Nigeria.

COME IN: Leader of the congregation, Rabbi Sylvester Obiekwe welcomes us to his synagogue and to meet his community. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

Controversy of recognition

The Igbo Jews living in Yeoville belong to the messianic Jewish sect and abide by most orthodox Jewish laws but incorporate the belief that Jesus, or Yeshua as they call him, is the messiah. The Igbo Jews are not recognised by the orthodox Jewish community because they recognise Jesus as the Messiah.

Beth-El congregant Tony Anuluoye says he has met a number of Jews who question his Jewish heritage. “They look at me like I’m crazy,” he says, “They don’t always believe me. They say: ‘But your skin colour, you are black, how can you be Jewish?’”

Obiekwe says he believes that, when people migrate to a country, they take on the features of that country with time.

“You cannot live in a hot country like Nigeria with light skin. You will not be able to survive long. When my ancestors came here their children and children’s children had to adapt to the climate. The skin, the colour and the features all change with every generation that was born until we looked like ethnic Nigerians.”

“They look at me like I’m crazy,” he says, “They don’t always believe me. They say: ‘But your skin colour, you are black, how can you be Jewish?’”

He believes that assimilation played a role as well: “Some of my ancestors married local Nigerian men or women who converted to Judaism. When they had children together, the children carried Nigerian features handed to them by the parent.”

Orthodox Judaism has recognised black Ethiopian Jews based on written evidence.

But Israel’s orthodox rabbinical court has questioned the Igbos Jewish roots because of the lack of physical and historical evidence and has encouraged them to convert. The Igbos’ evidence lies in the traditions and beliefs which have been passed down orally for thousands of years.

Anuluoye says that being a Jew is everything to him, “I understand that I come from the land of Israel and the people of Israel. It’s an inborn thing that cannot be learned. It is my life and I would never be able to live in any other way.”

Sunday Sgbo, another Beth-El congregant, grew up as a religious Jew in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. He was part of an orthodox sect of Jews who lived in the area before he moved to Johannesburg in 2009.

LEADING LADY: One of the leading women in the community, Charity Nnonyeli, says a prayer of thanks for safe travel. Part of the prayer includes prostrating herself in front of God as a sign of her loyalty and dedication. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

“I grew up learning and practising the laws of Judaism from my parents who learned from their ancestors and I will always practise these laws. We are special people who were specially chosen by God.”

Sgbo admits that he was a bit rebellious during his teenage years and “strayed from the path” for a time.

“But I was brought back by my parents, my Judaic teachers and by God. I’m blessed to be a part of the Jews and blessed to be able to follow the laws and conditions given to my family and my people by God.”

As in orthodox Judaism, the messianic Igbos observe the laws of keeping kosher, family purity and the strict observance of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

“Our children also celebrate the coming of age just as the Jewish tradition stipulates. Boys have their Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and girls, their Bat Mitzvah at age 12,” Obiekwe says, “We keep all the laws given to the Jewish [people] by God and that is why we named the congregation Beth-El, meaning house of God.”

Circumcision is also performed on baby boys when they are eight days old in accordance with Jewish law. “Whether sick or well, a baby boy who is born is always circumcised at the age of eight days in our community.”

The ritual is performed by the rabbi or spiritual leader who is usually trained by older leaders in the community to do circumcision once ordained as a leader.

“When a child is born, we also give them a Hebrew name to go with their English name. A girl is named on the first opportunity that the Torah is read. A boy is named when he is circumcised. My Hebrew name is Natan meaning gift from God.”

Arrival in South Africa

Obiekwe moved to South Africa from Eastern Nigeria in 2006 after “having a dream” about the country. In his dream Obiekwe saw South Africa as a “hellish place that needed guidance”.

“It was God’s way of bringing me here. He knew that the Igbo Jews who had come here from Nigeria before I arrived were lacking leadership. He sent me a message.”

He was ordained as a Jewish teacher at age 21 and by the age of 25 had been named a spiritual leader in the Igbo Jewish community.

“According to my family tradition and the tradition of my forefathers, the first son of an ordained spiritual leader who is from the tribe of Levi is always trained and taught to take over from his father. This has been happening in my family since [we] migrated to Nigeria.”

When Obiekwe arrived in South Africa, he joined Temple Israel, a reform Jewish synagogue in Hillbrow, and prayed there for three years. At the beginning of 2009 he moved to Yeoville.

“It was God’s way of bringing me here. He knew that the Igbo Jews who had come here from Nigeria before I arrived were lacking leadership. He sent me a message.”

“I had heard there were Igbos in the area and I used my time in Hillbrow to come here and look for them. It took years to find them because some had lost their tradition and faith. The process to create and connect the community was slow. We are still growing.”

His community refer to him as “Prophet Sylvester” but to others Obiekwe is called “Rabbi” because of his status as a spiritual leader.

The Beth-El congregation has just over 100 members and according to Obiekwe’s assistant, Israel Akpodol, it’s growing by the day.

Parts of the original Jewish community who remain in Yeoville continue to receive kosher meals via delivery. By: Ilanit Chernick

The synagogue

Although it’s small, the synagogue is a homely but holy place for the congregants to meet and pray. It stands as a temporary structure made from wood and tin.

“The walls are painted blue and white to symbolise the community’s dedication to the land of Israel,” says Obiekwe, “It is our home and we will always support it.”

Until January this year, the congregational gatherings took place in a tent on the premises of the rabbi’s rented home. When the Jewish owner of the home passed away, the congregation was able to buy the house and build a stronger structure.

The Beth-El Assembly was established in 2009 and a permanent synagogue is in the process of being built in Regent Street.

“Prophet decided it was time to renovate his house and make it into the synagogue because the tent was becoming too small because the community is getting bigger. We keep running out of funds because the money to fix things in the house is coming slowly, so it will take time,” says Akpodol.

Before entering the synagogue, a purification ritual is practised by all members of the congregation. A tub of collected river and rain water that has been blessed sits on a chair with special wheat straws next to it. When a congregant arrives he or she is required to dip the wheat straws into the water and shake the wet straws over his or her body and hands.

“This ground in and around the synagogue is holy. You cannot come here or pray unless you have done this purification process. It cleanses the soul and body of any impurities that you may have come into contact with outside of the synagogue,” says Anuluoye.

Akpodol explains that men and women are required to take off their shoes when entering the prayer area. They pray without shoes because the area “is holy ground”. For some parts of the service congregants go onto their knees and pray as a “symbol of their humility and servitude to Hashem [God]”.

“We are tied to Hashem. We are dedicated and will always serve Him in the best way possible. Hashem is good and we need to acknowledge this and show we are committed to him fully,” says Obiekwe.

A platform with three levels stands in front. Upon the top platform is a table which holds olive oil, a menorah, a ram’s horn, prayer books and biblical texts. Obiekwe prays and gives sermons from the platform but will not go on to it during the ordinary days of the week because it is the holiest place in the synagogue.

START AT THE BEGINNING: As the morning prayers commence, Israel Akpodol, Sunday Sgbo and Tony Anuluoyne ready themselves to dedicate their morning to serving God. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

The Torah scrolls are kept in a holy place in the rabbi’s home to protect them from getting damaged. “We do not bring them out unless it is Sabbath or Jewish Holidays. They are too sacred,” says Akpodol.

Certain prayers are said in Hebrew but most are recited in English because some members of the congregation cannot read Hebrew.

Beth-El member Ovad Agu says that not all Jews in the community are able to read Hebrew but some went to Israel to learn the language so they would be able to speak and read it fluently.

“A lot of Igbo Jews go to Israel because they know it is their home. They want to learn the language properly. [In Nigeria] We were taught to read it by our parents so we could pray but we never learned it as a language.”

The men and women sit separately during prayer times and a cloth separates the two. The men sit in the front and the women in the back. Women are also expected to cover their hair, wear long dresses and have sleeves that cover their elbows.

“A lot of Igbo Jews go to Israel because they know it is their home. They want to learn the language properly. [In Nigeria] We were taught to read it by our parents so we could pray but we never learned it as a language.”

“Women mostly dress as the religious Jews would in Nigeria, in colourful but modest clothing with head coverings,” says Charity Nnonyeli. “The men wear white and also pray with their prayer shawls on. You have to be dressed properly because we are in the presence of God.”

Nnonyeli, a religious woman in the Beth-El congregation, says her role as a Jewish wife and mother is to “raise a family who understand the laws of God”. She explains that, according to Jewish tradition and the Bible, the woman was created “from her husband”, Adam.

She came to South Africa because her husband moved to Johannesburg from Nigeria in 2012 to find “greener pastures”.

“According to our laws you cannot be separated from your husband. Wherever your husband goes, you must always follow. It is always important to respect your husband in the best way possible.”

On the Sabbath and Jewish Holidays, the congregation spends the entire day together. Part of celebrating includes eating the festive meals together, praying and studying the Jewish scriptures.

Over this year’s high holy days, more than 200 people joined the prayer services and sermons. “Some were people who are interested in converting, others are Igbos who have recently moved to Yeoville from Nigeria and decided to join us this year,” says Obiekwe.

“We are a family. We celebrate everything together and spend time teaching each other and learning,” says Nnonyeli.

Community Funding and Israel’s story

CONCENTRATE: Israel Akpodol focusing on the words and their meaning as he prays. Photo: Ilanit Chernick

Akpodol says the funding for their community comes from leaders and members of the Igbo Jewish community in Nigeria and individual donors in South Africa. The Igbo Jews living in Nigeria also receive donations from Jews in Israel and America who have discovered their existence and “want to help strengthen their connection to God and Judaism”.

Akpodol, who is also from Eastern Nigeria, says he converted to messianic Judaism in 2012 after falling on hard times while living in Yeoville.

“I had a stall in the market but things became too expensive and I lost everything. I lived on the streets and became a drunk. One day I drank too much and got sick. I knew I needed God and that’s when my Jewish friends brought me to Prophet Sylvester.”

After meeting with Obiekwe, Akpodol was given a job to assist Obiekwe while converting. After his conversion was finalised last year, Obiekwe made the job permanent for Akpodol, who now helps to run synagogue services and assist the rabbi with daily tasks and errands.

Ovad Agu went to Israel in 2010 with members of the community to do an official conversion to Messianic Judaism. According to traditional Jewish law, however, his conversion is only recognised by the messianic Jews.

As the Beth-El community accept more converts into their community, more personal issues have begun to arise. Obiekwe has realised it is important to create a rabbinical body his community can approach. The need to teach the community about Jewish law and scriptures has also prompted the need for more spiritual leaders. Once the community is more established, he hopes to train more Jewish leaders and ultimately form his own rabbinical court (Beth Din).

Obiekwe says he needs a way of dealing with personal issues within his community but is not able to get advice on these matters from the local rabbinical court.

“I have a good relationship with some of the Johannesburg rabbis but the Igbos are not properly recognised as Jews here because our beliefs differ from the orthodox [Jews]. They want me to convert but how can I convert to a religion that I already belong to? It doesn’t make sense.”

Despite this, Obiekwe’s community still keep to the local Beth Din’s standard of kosher food and abide by their judicial code of law.

Obiekwe has not allowed the questions surrounding their authenticity to discourage their traditions or beliefs.

“We are all servants of God. God chose us as his people and we will continue to abide by His laws no matter if we are accepted by the orthodox community or not.”

FEATURED IMAGE: As the morning prayers commence, Israel Akpodol, Sunday Sgbo and Tony Anuluoyne ready themselves to dedicate their morning to serving God. Photo: Ilanit Chernick