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Becoming Jewish: How a Nice Jewish Boy Became a Chief Rabbi in Nigeria


Joanne Palmer, The United Synagogue Review, May 30, 2006
When Rabbi Howard Gorin graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1976, he wouldn't have been surprised to learn that one day he'd be the religious leader of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland.

It would have astonished him, however, if he could have known then that at the same time he'd also be a chief rabbi in Nigeria.

Like many of life's most interesting paths, this one has many bends. After one twist in the road Rabbi Gorin found himself in Uganda, heading the Conservative beit din that converted some of the Abayudaya tribe to Judaism. The Abayudaya have been practicing Judaism since 1919, when one of their leaders chose to take it on; they do not claim to have descended from Jews sometime in the foggy past. The halachic conversion in which Rabbi Gorin took part in 2002 was both straightforward and deeply moving, he said. Soon afterward, a friend forwarded Rabbi Gorin an email from a Nigerian man who was interested in Judaism, and the correspondence that followed led eventually to an invitation to Nigeria. In 2004, he took his first trip there.

Although very few Nigerians would be considered Jewish according to the Conservative movement - they were not born to Jewish mothers and have not converted according to halacha and with the permission of a beit din, a religious court -many Nigerians believe themselves to be Jews, Rabbi Gorin learned. One of Nigeria's tribes, the Ibo (or Igbo) "believe they're descended from the Israelites," he said. "They have customs and practices that they believe can be explained only by some ancient connection to Israelite religions. They were practicing such things as circumcision on the eighth day long before they were exposed to the Bible by traders and missionaries.

"A Nigerian told me that his father stayed away from his mother's hut two weeks out of the month, and when his uncle died his aunt sat on the floor for a week. The way they sound the ram's horn is similar if not identical to the way we sound the shofar. Therefore they are Israelites, they say, and therefore they claim to be Jews."

(Nigeria's official language is English, so although there were many cultural barriers between Rabbi Gorin and the people he met they could talk to each other.)

This, he added, is a widespread if not universal belief among the Ibos, a huge group of somewhere between 25 and 40 million people.

Ibos are treated as Jews traditionally have been treated in the Diaspora, Rabbi Gorin continued. "People say 'Watch out for them; they'll find a way to get your money.' On the other hand, people respect them, and say they respect family and education. The stereotypes are the same."

Most Ibos are Roman Catholic, but "what happens is that an Ibo man will practice Catholicism and then he'll get an awakening, realize that his roots are not Catholic but Israelite."

No matter where they believe their tribe's origins lay, not all Ibos are interested in becoming Jews, and not all Nigerians who wish to become Jews are Ibos.

Many Nigerians who identify themselves as Jewish belong to messianic congregations, Rabbi Gorin said. It is their way in toward Judaism; often they will give up their belief in Jesus as they learn more. "A lot of people call themselves Jews who we would call messianic Jews," he said.

Moreover, sometimes Nigerians are attracted to Judaism because they are attracted to the purity of what they see as the biblical way of life. They have not been exposed to the idea of Torah she'baal peh, of rabbinic Judaism, of anything post-biblical, and they are to some extent culturally resistant to its fluidity. Some of those people leave Catholicism because they see it as having strayed from the purity of its origins; Rabbi Gorin thinks that once those putative Jews understand that Judaism is as much rabbinic as it is biblical many will lose interest.

Rabbi Gorin sees his role as teaching would-be Jews about what Judaism really is, helping provide them with the infrastructure that would help them lead Jewish lives, and working toward their conversion should that be their goal.

Because Nigerian society is tribal, Nigerians look for leaders, he said. There is a group that claims him as their chief rabbi. "I want to help them build schools. They want to take me to governors, to be their ambassador. A community without a chief is nothing, and I'm their chief. They take this seriously."

Many Nigerians are very strict about their practice of Judaism. "Some of the country's streets are cluttered with garbage, so it's a civic duty for all Nigerians to go out to the streets in their neighborhoods to gather the trash on Saturday. The people I visit would not do it because it's Shabbat. They were adamant. The local municipality threatened to fine them, so they appealed to a magistrate. It so happened that I was there the day they went to court. So I can't tell you for sure that it would ended any differently, but they brought their chief to court with them. I had my chief's staff and my chief's hat, and the magistrate said that in the end we'll find a way to work this out. That says a lot about the community and its commitment to Shabbat - and that going in with a chief doesn't hurt either.

"I'm a figurehead," he added. "I don't want to be that, but right now they need a figurehead as much as they need a teacher."

Many of the Nigerians with whom he works identify strongly with Israel, Rabbi Gorin continued. "We were driving late one night; I was in the back of the car. There were three cars in a convoy - and I found out later that they all were armed - and my driver was listening to the news. When he heard news about Israel he just automatically leaned over and turned up the radio volume so he could hear it better. He did it just as we would do it. This was instinctive. It wasn't 'Rabbi, do you want me to turn it up?' This was for him." They follow many Jewish practices; "they follow the Sephardic tradition that you don't only say Tefillat haDerech - the traveler's prayer - when you leave your community. We'd leave, drive out a certain distance, stop the car, and then say Tefillat haDerech there. When we'd got there we'd do netilat yadayim - ritual handwashing. Purity is very big there.

"What they showed me was pure Judaism, and underlying that practice is an African mentality. A woman wrote me an email recently asking me to bring her an 'effective siddur.' It's very important that they do it right. That means that when they davven, they don't skip a page"

As many as 10,000 people might be interested in a halachic conversion, depending on how it is explained to them, Rabbi Gorin said.

One young Nigerian man asked Rabbi Gorin if he thought the people with whom he works are Jewish - a question the rabbi had hoped not to have to confront. Rabbi Gorin recalls his response: "'First of all, we have to talk about whether we're brothers and sisters, because if we are we have to negotiate definitions, and if we're not we have nothing to talk about. So, I asked him, 'Do you believe in one God?' He said yes. I said, 'Do you believe in a power that is alongside of God?' He said no. Then I asked 'Do you believe that the mitzvot in the Torah are incumbent on us today?' He said yes. And then I said 'Okay. In my mind I know we're brothers and sisters.

"'How many of you grew up in households that practiced Judaism? How many of you had grandparents who practiced Judaism?' He said none of us. So I said, 'You'll have to go through a ceremony of return. You've been separated from your roots.' Then he and the other young men there talked to each other in Ibo, and then one said, 'Tell us what to do, and we'll do it.'"

One of those men, Samuel Chukwuma, has learned a great deal about Judaism; he even taught himself how to read and understand Hebrew. Rabbi Gorin considers Mr. Chukwuma a rising star in the younger generation of Nigerian Jewish activists. "He may even appear at the seminary one day," the rabbi said.

Because of the Nigerian community's need to learn about what it is to be Jewish, Rabbi Gorin is collecting books to take to Nigeria. On his website, he writes about what he has seen in Nigeria, what he hopes to do there, and how the Jewish community in North America can help.

Although members of his congregation tease him about being chief rabbi - they certainly don't want it to go to his ornately hatted head - for the most part they've been supportive and proud of the work he's done, and Rabbi Gorin feels embraced by that support in his unlikely new role.
(Tags: Nigeria, Jews)