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Writer reflects on African Jews’ heritage
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Writer reflects on African Jews’ heritage

Writer and researcher Shai Afsai, center, visits with Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi, the first Israel-born Beta Israel priest, and his family in Carmiel.    
Writer and researcher Shai Afsai, center, visits with Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi, the first Israel-born Beta Israel priest, and his family in Carmiel.    

Shai Afsai says Jews from Africa’s Nigerian and Ethiopian-Israeli communities are eager to share their traditions with Americans. He would like to see Jews in the United States reciprocate, taking a more active role in supporting their religious and spiritual life.

As part of that mission, Afsai, a researcher and writer from Providence, RI, will share his knowledge of those communities during a scholar-in-residence weekend at Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan, Friday-Saturday, Jan. 16-17.

On Friday evening, he will talk about the Igbo Jews of Nigeria; on Saturday morning, his focus will be on “Beta Israel” (House of Israel), or the Jews from Ethiopia. (On Shabbat afternoon, he will take a totally different tack, and discuss Benjamin Franklin’s connection with the Jews of his day and his subsequent influence on Judaism’s mussar movement.)

Afsai’s short stories, photographs, and articles have been featured in The Forward, The Jerusalem Post, and numerous other publications. His photo-text exhibit “The Igbo Jews of Abuja,” featuring pictures and interviews from his three trips to Nigeria, opened at Brown University/Rhode Island School of Design Hillel last November. 

Afsai’s interest in the Jewish communities of Africa was fostered by his mother, Sandra Ben-Ari, who was an activist for Ethiopian Jewry in the early 1980s.

“As a child growing up in Providence,” he said, “I remember her giving slideshow presentations about Jews from Ethiopia, trying to raise awareness about the religious persecution they faced and of the dire situation of those who fled to Sudan and were languishing in refugee camps.” 

The focus of his Saturday morning talk will be on the unique religious traditions of Ethiopian Jewry, specifically the Sigd holiday, which the Israeli government designated a national holiday in 2008. 

“Discussions of Ethiopian Jewry often focus on the Israeli airlifts that brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudan, or on their subsequent cultural and economic integration into Israeli society,” Afsai said. “In contrast, I’m trying to focus on the religious heritage that the Beta Israel preserved and developed in Ethiopia over centuries — a Judaism without Hebrew, rabbis, or the Talmud — and on some of what has happened religiously since that form of Judaism came into contact with rabbinic Judaism in the 19th century.”

In 2013-14 he curated an exhibit in Rhode Island and elsewhere on the Sigd holiday that, he said, “was well attended by Jews and non-Jews. Last year my friend Qes Efraim Zion-Lawi, the first-Israeli-born traditional Beta Israel religious leader, came to visit me in Rhode Island for one week. The Orthodox Jewish community of Rhode Island was excited about this happening, and there were a number of wonderful programs around his visit.”

On the other hand, he added, “relatively few people outside of the Orthodox community took advantage of this very rare visit.” The Beta Israel religious leadership, he said, “has much to offer world Jewry and is eager to share its heritage with the wider Jewish world. But American Jewry, which has stepped up to help Ethiopian Jewry physically and materially, has by and large not demonstrated similar activism when it comes to spiritual and religious matters connected to the Beta Israel, which I think is unfortunate.”

Afsai’s mother also told him about the Nigerians who practice Judaism. He has visited Nigeria three times, getting to know people from the Igbo community, the country’s third-largest ethnic group. “There is a widespread belief among the Igbo that they are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel,” he said. Though not in a position to confirm or deny the validity of that belief, he said those Igbo Jews he has met are clearly “sincere in their desire to practice Judaism and to be an integral part of the Jewish people. And that, I believe, is at least as important as genealogy.”

About 2,000-5,000 Igbo are now practicing rabbinic Judaism. In the capital, Abuja, there are four mostly Igbo synagogues, and though they have had little rabbinic leadership in recent years, Afsai said, “Any Orthodox Jew who visited the community would find its Judaism familiar.”

He said his home community has been responsive with regard to the Igbo Jews. “After my first trip to Abuja, two Igbo Jewish elders from Abuja reciprocated with a 12-day visit to Rhode Island, which was nothing short of historic. On my most recent trip to Abuja, I met up with the rabbi of my synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom — Rabbi Barry Dolinger — and his wife, Naomi Baine, who decided to travel there to teach after meeting the elders. Still, there is much more to be done.”

Afsai’s connection to Sons of Israel also came about through his mother. Ben-Ari is related by marriage to the congregation’s Rabbi Robert Pilavin, who, during a family visit to Rhode Island last Thanksgiving, got into conversation with Afsai. “In the course of the conversation we became aware of his special areas of interest and expertise and the wheels started turning from there,” said Pilavin. “Four couples in our synagogue agreed to cosponsor the scholar-in-residence weekend and — voila!”

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