On the Igbo, Teshuvah, and the Resiliency of the Jewish Spirit

This past summer, I received a profound lesson in the resilience of the Jewish spirit — and how it invariably manages to take root even in the most unexpected of places.

After participating in a congregational delegation to Africa this past spring, I had a profound desire to spend a longer period of time there on my summer sabbatical. As I searched for the best possible way to serve as a volunteer rabbi, I found my way to Kulanu, who informed that they had long been interested in sending a volunteer rabbi to Nigeria. Upon further conversation, I received an extensive education on the Igbo tribe — a large Nigerian tribe of 40 million whose clans trace their lineage to the lost tribes of Israel. For many years both Igbo and Western scholars have noted the striking similarities between native Igbo customs and Israelite tradition. Today, the Igbo are almost entirely Christian, having been thoroughly missionized, by the British — but they nonetheless retain a strong sense of kinship with the Jewish People.

As I traveled throughout this country so far removed from my own home, I was repeatedly received as a brother, as a member of the tribe, as it were.

Over the last decade or so, an astonishing phenomenon has developed: a Jewish “rebirth” of sorts occurring throughout the Igbo community. Synagogues have been forming spontaneously throughout Nigeria, along with the tentative growth of Hebrew and Torah study. Kulanu explained to me that they had developed a relationship with the Igbo Judaic communities, who were especially eager for a visit from a rabbi for an extended period of time.

After I said I would consider a visit to Nigeria, Kulanu put me in touch with their field representative there, an Igbo lawyer and scholar named Remy Ilona who would quickly become my dear friend and my new Igbo brother. Remy has done extensive research on the Israelite heritage of the Igbo and over the past few years he has become an important resource person for their new Judaic communities. As I corresponded with Remy, I was immediately taken by his intense passion and commitment to his heritage, to his people and to what he called the Igbo teshuvah — their “return” to reclaim their original birthright.

It is not an exaggeration to say that after just a few initial e-mail conversations, his passion and excitement won me over. And so, with Remy as my host, I spent an amazing month of July in Nigeria with the Igbo. I spent two weeks in the capital city of Abuja, and traveled for ten days throughout the Igbo state of Anambra, one of the many states in the south of Nigeria known as Igboland. During my stay, I met and dialogued with Igbo leaders, taught Torah study classes in Judaic Igbo communities, led Shabbat services in Igbo synagogues, joined in their communal meetings and celebrations, and was made an honorary member of various Igbo clans.

My first undeniable impression of the Igbo’s Judaic communities was their deep and palpable thirst for Jewish study and Jewish life. In truth, I cannot recall ever teaching students with such a profound yearning for Jewish learning and knowledge. Over the course of my visit, I came to realize that their thirst was a manifestation of a deeply felt desire to reconnect. To reclaim a heritage that has been denied them for so long.

We do not yet know enough about how many of these new Judaic Igbo communities exist in Nigeria. While much more research needs to be done, I think it is safe to say that the number of Igbo seeking to create a Jewish life in Nigeria is significant and growing. As I traveled throughout this country so far removed from my own home, I was repeatedly received as a brother, as a member of the tribe, as it were. Even among the larger population of Igbo that does not practice Judaism, I sensed an almost universal feeling of affinity to the Jewish people.

During the period I spent in Igboland, I had the opportunity to meet and address large gatherings of various Igbo clans. Invariably, I would receive the strongest, loudest and most emotional reaction whenever I mentioned that meeting them was like discovering long lost family members that I didn’t know I had. I was truly unprepared for the depth of their reaction to me, and I realized in large part they were reacting to what I represented to them: an authentic relationship to the outside Jewish world. I have no doubt that their feelings of connection to the Jewish people are real and heartfelt — and that it has been kept alive and nurtured by the Igbo people for centuries.

Perhaps this means we should spend less time and money prognosticating our decline and refocus our energies and resources creatively toward new areas of Jewish potential.

Are the Igbo, in fact, descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel? I don’t know that there will ever be any way to prove this conclusively one way or the other. My good friend Remy has been researching this issue extensively, and I do believe there is a compelling case to be made in this regard. But as I see it, whether or not they are actually lost Israelites is relatively moot in the face of the fact that the Igbo absolutely believe it to be true. And at the end of the day, can any Jew directly trace his/her lineage back to Biblical Israel? It seems to me that the true power of Jewish identity and survival lies not in the veracity of our historical claims, but in the survival of our spirit — in the unique staying power of our collective neshamah.

In the end, I returned from my sojourn in Nigeria with a renewed Jewish optimism. I use the word “renewed,” because it is impossible in the Western Jewish community these days to avoid the profound angst about the future of our people. The official Jewish community commissions study after study invariably informing us that our numbers are shrinking, that assimilation is on the rise, that Jewish affiliation is on the decline. Doom and gloom prognosticating has become such a hallmark of our communal life that it is a major Jewish industry in its own right. But my experiences with the Igbo of Nigeria have helped me to understand that perhaps the rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the resilience of the Jewish spirit is greater than we generally give it credit. Maybe we’re just looking in the wrong places.

In the end, I believe our attitudes about our Jewish future are intimately tied up with our vision of who we are. As I am coming to realize, much of the traditional Jewish self-image has been marked by a decidedly white, Euro-centric bias. In truth, however, from the very beginning of our existence, we Jews have always been an ethnically diverse people. In the book of Exodus, we are told that an erev rav — a mixed multitude of Israelites — went up out of Egypt. Since that time, Jews have lived amidst widely ranging cultures and nationalities, and our communities have always reflected this diversity.

The reality of these dispersed Jewish communities, however, sheds a profound new light on our status as a global people. As important organizations such as Kulanu help to demonstrate, it may well be that our global diversity transcends boundaries to a greater extent than we have ever imagined.

What should we make of this? Perhaps it means we should spend less time and money prognosticating our decline and refocus our energies and resources creatively toward new areas of Jewish potential. This might well include globally dispersed communities such as the Igbo: passionate, committed neshamas who seek greater connection with Jewish life and the Jewish world.

I have every expectation that embracing our diversity will present its own set of challenges. Among other things, diversity challenges our very notion of who is a Jew, of our communal boundaries, of what kinds of Jewish behaviors and beliefs are considered “acceptable” and what are “beyond the pale.” I realize, for instance, that the Igbo would not be considered Jewish according to traditional halachic standards, but on the other hand, I can personally attest to their Jewish passion, their sense of Jewish belonging, their innate Jewish spirit.

While I realize these categories are not exactly quantifiable, I do believe we dismiss them at our peril. A community that chronically bemoans its shrinking numbers should, at the very least, take note of a tribe of 40 million individuals that feels such a powerful sense of affinity with the Jewish People and Jewish life. It would also behoove us to forge greater connections with the numerous other lost Jewish communities around the world who crave a greater connection with their Jewish brothers and sisters. We have only to challenge our biases and rethink our assumptions to see that there may well be potential for Jewish rebirth in the most unexpected of places.

I return to my original lesson: the profound resilience of the neshama and how it invariably manages to take root even in the most unexpected of places.

This is not only a global issue — it has ramifications for us right here in America as well. Currently, the number of Jews of color in our country is growing considerably, due to increasing intermarriage, conversion and adoption in the Jewish community. This is certainly the case in our own congregation as well. I am proud indeed that my congregation, JRC, increasingly includes members who are African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and mixed race.

But I would also suggest we could and should be doing more to encourage diversity in our community. According to the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, at least 20 percent of the American Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse. Their research also shows, however, while Jews of color often feel a strong affinity for Judaism and the Jewish people, they generally feel alienated from Jewish institutions.

Given the conventional Jewish community wisdom that Jewish = White, I have little difficulty understanding why this is so. But if to be American ultimately means to embrace diversity as a source of strength, and if we truly believe that Jewish life has always been enriched by the cultures in which Jews happen to live, then encouraging the diversity of our Jewish community may well be the key to our Jewish future.

Being Jewish has always defied easy definitions. The experience of being Jewish transcends ethnicity, race, nationality, behavior and belief. As complicated as all that sounds, the reality is rather straightforward: we are, quite simply, a people. As I often like to put it, to be Jewish means to be part of an extended family — a diverse, often cantankerous family, but family nonetheless. To be a family does not mean that we look alike, behave the same way, or believe the same things — but it does mean that we are bound together by the common experience of belonging to the group.

My experiences in Africa gave me a new faith in the power of belonging. In a rural Ugandan village, so far away from home, we discovered a home after all. During my sojourn in Nigeria, I rediscovered long lost family members I didn’t even know I had. It is, perhaps, the most quintessential of Jewish experiences. To quote from one of my favorite movies: “No matter where you go, there you are.”

And so I return to my original lesson: the profound resilience of the neshama — and how it invariably manages to take root even in the most unexpected of places. This is, in the end, a profoundly Jewish lesson. Though we Jews tend to have chronic angst about the prospects of our survival, we would do well to remind ourselves that our spirit is often much deeper and stronger than we realize. We would do well to remind ourselves that despite the myriad of challenges we have faced from time immemorial, we continue to affirm Am Yisrael Chai — the People Israel yet live.