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'Shabbat Shalom,' Ghana-Style
A 5-year-old was the first to reach me. He tugged on my pants to get my attention, then looked up and said in the sweetest voice, "Shabbat Shalom." This African child knew no Hebrew, yet was using a phrase known to all Jews. It was the last greeting I expected to receive here, in Sefwi Wiawso, an isolated rural village of 1,500 in the mountains of western Ghana.
Living here are 50 people from seven families who are Ghana's only known Jews.
I arrived during Saturday services, and most of the children (and a few adults) peeked up from their prayerbooks to sneak a look at me. Their synagogue was beautiful and impressive. I went to sit on the men's side and was handed a prayer shawl -- fluorescent yellow with a local African design.
Beyond the tiny glow of the single candle that approached me were the Armahs. Alex Armah is the community leader; he knows the most about Judaism, and so leads the services and teaches.
The Sefwi Wiawso Jews could be a newly converted community or an ancient one -- nobody knows for sure. Like Jews in Ethiopia and Uganda, they believe they are descendants of one of the 10 Lost Tribes, descended from the Kingdom of Israel and of the Israelite people, and driven from Israel in 722 BCE by the Assyrians. The oral histories of the Jews of Sefwo Wiawso suggest that they've lived in Ghana for 150 years and, before that, on the Ivory Coast and in Timbuktu.
With the introduction of Christianity to the region a few hundred years ago, changes took place for the Jews of Sefwo Wiawso. "The Christians used to beat us and told our ancestors to stop celebrating Shabbat," relayed Armah.
According to community lore, a chief, seeing how strong Christianity had become, had advised all to convert to it. And the Sefwi Wiawso Jews did.
Practice Lives on
But strains of Jewish practice persisted, with a few residents continuing to treat Friday as a day of observance and rest, and to celebrate some form of Passover.
At the Saturday service, Alex's brother, Joseph, walked up and down the aisle, leading congregants in song in the local language, Twi. There were similarities with services in the United States: the same prayerbooks (though the congregants read aloud in English) and prayers read in order from the Bible. The portion of the week was read from a Torah scroll, which Alex translated and commented on in Twi.
Judaism reappeared here in 1976, when a local Ghanaian Muslim had a vision in which he was called to convert the people of Sefwi Wiawso to Judaism. The man, Aaron Ahomtre-Toakyurufah, claimed to be of Jewish heritage.
But until the mid-1990s, the villagers had no contact with Western Jews. Then Ahomtre-Toakyurufah made contact with two Jews in the United States. Today, the community has ties to Kulanu, a Washington-based organization that finds and supports isolated Jewish communities. Kulanu has identified dozens of groups in such places as Kashmir, Afghanistan, China, Tibet, Somalia, Nigeria and Senegal.
Jews from around the world have donated books, presents, prayerbooks and the Torah scroll. Recently, Kulanu sent a rabbinical student as a teacher.
At first, Christians and Muslims were suspicious of neighbors they saw reviving an archaic and apparently defunct religion. In fact, village schools still require recitation of Christian prayers, and those who refuse to join in may be punished.
But all the foreign attention has raised the tiny Jewish community's standing.
Now the Sefwi Wiawso Jews raise money and awareness for their community by making challah covers, prayer shawls and bookmarks, which Kulanu then sells in the United States.
And as they learn more about Judaism, the Sefwi Wiawso Jews are assuming a fuller Jewish identity.
"It is my goal to one day be an Orthodox Jew," said one of the older boys, "with a long white beard."