For Judaism, a religion in its 5783rd year, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In a congregation in Abuja, Nigeria, the country’s capital and eighth most populous city, the Jewish practices share significant similarities to thousands of synagogues elsewhere: Torah readers don a tallit and read from the holy scrolls with a yad; Jews light Chanukah candles and celebrate coming of age with b’nai mitzvah.
They are practices that unite Jews across the globe.
But there’s one part of Abuja’s Tikvat Yisrael Synagogue’s ritual practices that separate it from almost every other synagogue in the world: its Torah chanting. Created specifically by its leader Moshe Hezekiah, the Hebrew cantillations are distinct, blending the words of Torah with sounds and intonations from the Igbo language, spoken by 18 million people in Nigeria.
Over the summer, a second synagogue adopted the Igbo-influenced chanting: Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. In June, Abuja synagogue leader Hezekiah moved to Philadelphia and became the baal koreh, or Torah reader, at the Conservative synagogue.
“It feels very moving to me when I listen to him chant,” Beth Sholom Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin said. “It makes me feel a sense of awe and wonder about Jewish people, that we could be in all these different parts of the world, have this common language of Torah and Hebrew that unites us, and yet have these very different backgrounds and cultures that gave birth to this part of the Jewish people.”
The synagogue began its search for a baal koreh over the summer. Unlike some other synagogues, Beth Sholom reads Torah in a triennial, three-year cycle. Glanzberg-Krainin and Cantor Jacob Agar believe that, while congregant volunteers can and should chant Torah, a baal koreh, with a deep fluency of Hebrew, can transport a congregation spiritually.
Hezekiah, who recently married Philadelphian Eliana Maya Nwafor and relocated to the U.S., responded to a Facebook post about the position enthusiastically. He trial-read the Torah in front of the Beth Sholom clergy, who were struck by his leyning style.
“For me as a cantor, one of the most important things is beauty and making the experience beautiful and, through the beauty, transcendental,” Agar said. “His style brings a sort of sacredness to it, holiness to it, which isn’t often heard.”
Hezekiah’s fluency with Torah reading comes from years of study. At age 9, the now-25-year-old became the leader of his Abuja Jewish community at Tikvat Yisrael Synagogue. Though not a rabbi, he conducted b’nai mitzvah training, brit milot and other life cycle events.
In 2014, Hezekiah received the Kulanu Global Teaching Fellowship, and he completed a two-month-long trip to East Africa and studied with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu in the Abayudaya Jewish community there. It was during his fellowship that Hezekiah noticed other Jewish communities incorporating their spoken languages with their Torah cantillations.
Hezekiah’s goal was ultimately to return to his Abuja community with more knowledge to pass on to the young Jewish generation.
“I want to go around and teach people about Judaism in Nigeria. … We’ve had to spread knowledge to each other,” he said. “Because not everyone has smartphones, not everyone has access to Jewish texts, not everyone has access to chumashim, not everyone has access to Talmud, mishnah.”
Judaism in Nigeria has faltered in the past half century, largely because of the growth of Christianity in the region, Hezekiah believes. Hezekiah’s father was born Christian and found his way back to Judaism after realizing that many of his rituals and traditions were rooted in the faith; his grandfather, who keeps shomer Shabbos, has never heard of Christianity.
Nigeria is home to 3,000 Jews, according to a Harvard University Divinity School study, about 85% of whom are Igbo, and the Jewish practices of the Igbo ethnic group can be traced thousands of years, Hezekiah said. But because of the generational divide and Christian proselytism in the area, Hezekiah feels an urgency to keep Judaism alive among the Igbo people.
Hezekiah’s role as baal koreh, as well as his day job at Makom Community, means that he plans on staying in the U.S. with his wife in the long run. However, he hopes his time in Philadelphia can help aid his community back home. He still conducts lectures and b’nai mitzvah trainings over Zoom.
“Being in the U.S. doesn’t mean I’m not connected to my community,” he said.
Hezekiah created a GoFundMe to raise money to help support families and bring rabbis from the U.S. for the next conversion in Nigeria, which he hopes will take place in August 2023.
A Conservative Jew — a minority among the 75% Orthodox population in Nigeria — Hekeziah believes he holds a “progressive” view of Judaism that guides his work in both building Jewish community in Abuja and finding new roots in Philadelphia: “We need to be able to fit Judaism in our everyday, day-to-day life.”