A Nice Jewish Boy Became A Chief Rabbi In Nigeria
By Joanne Palmer
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,
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.
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 2002was 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.
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.
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."
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.)
he added, is a widespread if not universal belief among the Ibos,
a huge group of somewhere between 25 and 40 million people.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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
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
many as 10,000 people might be interested in a halachic conversion,
depending on how it is explained to them, Rabbi Gorin said.
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.
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.'"
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.
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, http://rabbihowardgorin.org/Books4Nigeria.htm, 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.
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.