Another isolated Jewish Community - this one in Ghana
Isolation and distance are very much on our minds and in our mouths these days – and no doubt, leaving their marks on our hearts as well. As part of this series loosely related to the pandemic, I’ll be looking at some isolated communities.
Almost as remote as the Jews in Iquitos, Perus, (the subject of last week's blog) but a continent away, is the community of Sefwi Wiawso in Ghana. People had been keeping Kosher, circumcising their children, following family purity laws, and resting on Saturdays for generations. Nobody is sure when they arrived, or how. A tradition holds that the local river held their traditions. The elders suggest that they fled from Arab countries to flee wars, and here’s also speculation that they were Sephardi Jews fleeing persecution in Morocco around the time of the Inquisition.
At any rate, they didn’t call themselves Jews, and had converted to Catholicism or Islam in the 1950’s in order to accommodate and assimilate with an influx of outsiders, while still maintaining some of their older traditions. In 1977, one of their members, by the name of Aaron, had a vision that they were part of a lost tribe that had gone astray, and began sharing the “Old Testament”, which the elders noted had similarities to their traditional practices.
In the 1980’s, they made contact with the wider Jewish world, and some representatives introduced them to more “mainstream” Judaism. Their leader at the time had a Conservative conversion, and is trying to educate the rest of his community to the point where they can also convert.
You can watch a documentary made by a Jewish woman who stumbled across them while doing other work in Ghana here https://www.visiontv.ca/videos/jewish-story-ghana. There’s also an interactive map of the community here: http://www.fourcornersinteractive.com/. Unfortunately, some of it requires Flash, and some of the links are broken, but what you can access is interesting.
As we pray in our homes, distanced from our larger Jewish community, what can we learn from these communities that have lived in perpetual isolation?
I’m struck by how durable Judaism is. Cut off from the rest of the world, these Jews survived as Jews – even if they didn’t call it Judaism. We are also surviving as Jews, even in our isolation.
We often say that Judaism is a home-based religion. And it is. But we need community as well. These isolated Jews, both in Peru and in Ghana, were so happy to be able to connect with a wider Jewish community, they were willing to convert to be accepted as legitimate within the wider Jewish family. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Something about that feels wrong to me. But it does remind us that we crave community and connection and acceptance.
These communities are held together by strong leaders with a vision. They give up space and time so the congregation can flourish. It takes time and effort to maintain connection, and that holds true whatever form our isolation takes.