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Ghanaians connect to the Jewish world through smartphones

The 50 people of Sefwi Wiawso, who consider themselves Jewish and who call themselves Tiferet Israel, with their 22 new smartphones.

The people of Sefwi Wiawso may be living in a remote, rural part of western Ghana, but thanks to the efforts of a Canadian support group, the community is accessing the Internet and increasing their knowledge of modern Judaism.

In early November, the 50 people of Sefwi Wiawso who consider themselves Jewish and who call themselves Tiferet Israel received 22 smartphones, thanks to a fundraising campaign put on by Kulanu Canada, an organization that supports isolated and tiny Jewish communities around the world.

The Tiferet Israel people have been following many Jewish customs for generations, but had no idea they were part of an organized religion called Judaism until 1976. Whether their people originally came from the Land of Israel is unknown.

The phones were distributed to various households and will serve as their main source of information about the Jewish world, said Michael Owusu Ansah, a spokesperson for the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso.

The group is using WhatsApp to share information, while “the main goal is to be taught about Judaism online,” he said.

In the absence of a local rabbi to teach them, the phones have become the community’s best avenue for increasing their knowledge of Judaism. The technology has already helped him enhance his knowledge of Hebrew, Ansah said on the telephone from Ghana.

“Hebrew is the language that every Jew should be able to speak and write,” Ansah said.

The absence of a local religious teacher makes the full adoption of Jewish practices difficult, but the community itself would welcome the presence of a rabbi to instruct them, he added.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, Andria Spindel, the founder of Kulanu Canada, explained how the Canadian effort to support the Ghanaians evolved.

The American branch of Kulanu has been in touch with the Ghanaians for about 20 years and has supported the community by selling their challah covers. Funds from the sales were sent back to Ghana.

Kulanu Canada adopted that idea, raising more than $3,100 from the sale of challah covers, as well as through a fundraising website, Spindel said.

That money was sent back to Ghana, where it was used to acquire the smartphones, along with one month of Internet access. The hope is that further fundraising will continue to support the project into the future.

“This was much cheaper than computers and will facilitate communication, study groups, individual learning and more. The idea came from a similar project initiated by Jews in Nigeria,” Spindel said.

Adding to the significance of the contribution was that “Kulanu Canada sent these funds in tribute to, and memory of, Yaacov Gladstone, a longtime member of Kulanu U.S., a much revered teacher who passed away a few months ago in Toronto, where he had lived for several years at Baycrest,” Spindel said.

Tiferet Israel is one of the smaller communities in Africa who identify with Judaism, but they’re far from the only ones, Spindel continued.

The Lemba of Zimbabwe and South Africa are perhaps the best known. The men have had their DNA tested for the genetic markers that have identified them as descendants of the priests of ancient Israel. Most now practice Christianity, but several Lemba communities have returned to Judaism.

“The Ibo or Igbo of Nigeria have more recently been studied and written about and are described as pre-Hanukkah Jews, or Israelites who migrated from Israel and kept dozens of practices, such as circumcision on the eighth day, certain dietary laws, certain festivals and Shabbat,” Spindel said.

The Ibo “converted to Christianity, but hundreds have come back and there are over 22 small Judaic communities in Nigeria now,” she continued.

“The Jews of Uganda are called the Abayudaya. Their rabbi studied for six years in a Conservative yeshivah in Los Angeles, but on return, he entered politics and is a member of Parliament in Kampala. His community is made up of subsistence farmers, and there are five or six villages.…

“There are over 100,000 Ethiopians in Kachene, a district of Addis Ababa, who did not get rescued by Israel during operation Moses or Solomon. They stayed under the radar, generally passing as Christians for hundreds of years, living secretly as Jews. They call themselves Beta Avraham.”

Spindel said there are also newer communities of Jews by choice in the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

How all these Jews got to Africa is unclear, but “it may be that the African Jews all descended from herdsmen who traveled ever further south from Israel, through Yemen, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, etc., and Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe,” she said.

A conference of African Jews will gather in the Ivory Coast in a few months  and Kulanu Canada hopes to contribute to its success.

“We hope to raise funds to send one or two people, possibly from Ghana or the new east African communities,” Spindel said.