My Visit to Cameroon
I returned earlier this week from ten days in Cameroon. There were multiple purposes to my visit and I hope I managed to achieve them all, and then some.
My first, and probably most important goal, was to meet the nascent Jewish community there. I have been in touch by email with Serge Etele, a leader of the community, for a little over two years. I have been answering their halakhic questions. In parallel I have been trying to procure a visa to bring Serge to Israel to study in the yeshiva; so far to little avail.
My correspondence with Serge commenced following our return from my first trip to the Abayudaya in Uganda in 2011. Briefly, the Abayudaya are a group who over ninety years ago "discovered" Judaism in a vacuum. Disgruntled with Christianity, their leader, Semei Kukungulu, turned to the religion of the Old Testament though without any knowledge of Judaism nor of the Jewish people. On our return home, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, whom I accompanied on that trip, encouraged me to contact other groups in Africa and Asia, who were interested in Judaism.
The Cameroonian community met Judaism in a similar fashion to the Abayudaya, in the town of Saa, some forty-five minute drive from the capital, Yaoundé. There, back in the nineties, a group of about one hundred Evangelical Christians would meet regularly for prayer and study. Serge's father, Nachman Etele, was their leader. As time progressed the group started questioning some of their fundamental beliefs. Like the Abayudaya leader, Kukungulu, before them, they retreated from their belief in the New Testament. They researched alternatives. The group eventually split into three: one subgroup remaining where they were, a second choosing messianic Judaism, and a third, led by Serge's father, adopting orthodox Judaism. To this end, they learnt as much as possible about practising Judaism including orthodox prayer, largely from the internet. Today there are three communities: Saa, Yaoundé and Douala. The refer to themselves as the Beth Yeshourun Community.
I arrived in Cameroon very early on a Friday morning, picked up at the airport by five members of the community. Over the whole time I was there, the hospitality they showed was beyond expectation. They never left my side; I wasn't allowed to carry my bags! They helped me in every way possible. And I am very thankful to them for their assistance.
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My first meeting with the whole community was that evening for Friday night prayers and dinner. When introducing me to the congregation, Serge related that while they were waiting for me at the airport, they were not certain what I looked like, but somehow they hoped we would recognise each other. However when someone with a white beard, tsitsith hanging out, a kipa on his head came around the corner, they knew they had found their man.
I pointed out to those I met during the day on Friday, on our long bus ride from Douala to Yaoundé, that, while I had been helping them increase their Jewish knowledge and practice and that this is why I was joining them for shabath, I am not a rabbi, have no ordination and am simply to all intents and purposes just a regular Jew. I'm not sure whether they believed me. When I arrived to their prayer services that evening -- a large room in someone's home -- everyone was already present, seated on chairs in a large circle. As I entered they all stood up. It was very embarrassing; I don't deserve this kind of honour. I quickly sat down on the seat they had set aside for me at the top of the room, between Serge and his father, so that everyone else too could sit.
The service commenced with the lighting of shabath candles on a large table in the centre of the room by one of the ladies reciting the blessings in a hauntingly beautiful tune. Then they began the Kabalath Shabath introductory psalms. They sang many sections of the prayers together, and also took turns to read aloud various passages. They said all the prayers, unrushed, not omitting any part of our traditional service. Not a word was spoken the whole time; everyone was absorbed in prayer. All the women, including the single girls, covered their heads with kerchiefs. Everyone, most noticeably the women, was exceptionally well dressed in honour of the shabath, men in buttoned shirts, some with jackets, and ladies in traditional colourful African style dresses.
Following t'fila, I gave a dvar torah. Based on the parsha, I spoke about the primacy and importance of shabath to the Jewish people. Partly as a result of preparing my words, partly because of the entire experience, I believe I came away from there with a new understanding of what haShem means by "resting" on shabath allowing us as Jews to sanctify Him in the world. I suddenly understood the meaning of the shabath prayers, prayers I have been saying for over fifty years, in a new light. I wondered if perhaps just for this lesson, my whole trip was worthwhile.
When I finished speaking, they asked me to bless the children. I said I thought it was the task of each parent to bless their own children, but they were insistent, saying that whenever they had a visitor amongst them -- quite rare -- he would bless the children. I know German Jews have a custom where children go to the rabbi who blesses them with the traditional blessing each father blesses his children on shabath. Again insisting I was no rabbi, nor had powers to bless more than any other man, I blessed at least twenty children, in groups of one, two and three, placing my hands on their heads, kissing each one.
We then recited kidush. Serge's father said it first without looking at a printed text, and I followed suit. The cups were passed around and everyone drank a little. It was a scarce treat for them as they rarely have access to Israeli or kosher wine. Someone then came around with a kettle full of water (I think drawn from a well -- in a city of four and half million people), a large bowl and a towel. Everyone washed their hands with the appropriate benediction, following which motsi was recited on two big home-baked halot. I had brought bread from Israel, which again as a treat, many wanted to partake. A warm, totally vegetarian meal, followed. The following day for lunch and seuda sh'lishith, all the food was cold and fish was also served. They would love to learn sh'hita so they can eat meat. Serge is trying to arrange to travel to Morocco to acquire this skill. When I asked why Morocco, his answer was, "well it's Africa" which I took to mean that it is much easier for him to travel to there than to Israel.
Amongst the group are a few professional musicians, so t'fila and the songs at the meals were wonderful to listen to. Their songs are a mixture of variations on tunes familiar to me, as well as music with a definite African rhythm. They love to sing. In between the z'miroth, people spoke to me, asking me many questions. Dinner ended with fruit, including the sweetest pineapple I have ever tasted.
The following morning I returned to the house just before 8 o'clock. Embarrassingly, everyone again stood as I entered. I quickly sat down so that they too would sit. The t'fila started from the very beginning of the prayer book, including korbanoth, the description of the daily sacrifices and incense offerings in the Temple, liturgy which unfortunately I find less congregations saying these days. Again every word was said or sung aloud, sometimes people taking turns to read sections, sometimes everyone together, verse by verse. Some prayers were said in French, but as the night before, most was in Hebrew, all be it that many were using a transliterated text. They have produced their own sidur, in Hebrew, French and transliteration. Amazingly this was all created using internet downloads. Serge is working on a new, expanded version containing more Hebrew. They read the Torah portion and haftara in French, though in a traditional chant. The reader recited the b'rakhoth before and after the whole reading, which unlike our current tradition, is the custom of the Talmud.
I thought how this shabath may be more fulfilling than the shabath I was missing at home; of the self-appointed rabbi in the synagogue, whose face shatters if a prayer leader has the audacity to sing a short section of prayer; how the Torah would be read so fast that the mouth's physiology can not keep pace. I thought about how some people would be talking about anything and everything, not caring that a nearby individual or two may be connecting to their Maker. I wondered whether prayer to many was now passeé; people becoming agitated when prayer soaked up daily Talmud study time, another a rushed, get it over with, experience. In my mind I compared this to what I was now experiencing. I wondered . . . I tried to learn from the experience what could be my connection to haShem.
I again spoke to the assembly basing myself on the weekly portion, expanding what I had said the previous evening about the virtues of shabath -- I thought this was an important message even given their excellent observance. I also emphasised lessons from the parsha re the importance of working together as a team and not stalling when called upon to perform a communal task. This was based on Rashi's comment that the tarrying of the tribal princes almost left them with nothing to donate towards the building the Sanctuary.
In the afternoon we met for afternoon prayer. I suggested that rather than giving another lesson, I would open up to a general discussion, allowing them to ask any questions they may have on Judaism. This session continued for quite a while, many questions being asked. As most of those present were francophones, everything I said was translated into French -- embarrassingly my six years of high school French was of only marginal use. Seuda shlishith followed and then evening prayers and havdala. We finished shabath an hour late because of the questions and the singing. No-one seemed pressured nor upset by this.
Overall I was very impressed with these people as a Jewish community. While no-one has had a formal conversion I felt that I was in company of Jews who had been sincerely practising Judaism for many years, if not their entire lives. The issue of conversion was raised numerous times in the many discussions we had during the ten days of my stay. I am extremely embarrassed. As much as I felt at home with them, and as much as I respect their conviction to haShem and His Torah, I know their path to orthodox conversion will be long and arduous. First there is no established community in Cameroon; this is often a prerequisite for conversion. I don't believe this should make much of a difference with these people. What they have managed to learn and are practising on their own, mainly using the internet as a resource, shows that they are able to function and grow without an existing, external community. Of course we should be coupling this with periodic visits from the outside, as well as bringing their members to Israel for further education and experience.
The second and major problem is the what can only be described as a racist attitude by Israeli government officials. The proposed changes in the conversion law are supposed to make conversion easier; but will this effect our situation? When senior officials can say, "we're racist, but you know that these people have many relatives", and "we'll give you a visa for your person to come to study, on condition that you do not convert him", then I believe there is a problem. Or "use the new conversion law to convert people who will be of benefit to Israeli society", the implication being obvious, I can only feel great shame being Israeli. When a proven cultist, a so-called kabala, institute can procure visas almost at will for Africans, I know that I am suffering religious persecution in my own country. When flights to and from Africa are full of Africans, who are obviously not all members of diplomatic missions, I feel demeaned.
On Sunday morning, I visited the "Beit Midrash" of the Douala community. Similar to the place of prayer I attended in Yaoundé, it is the lounge room of one of the members, the Ambomo family. Here the community meets regularly for prayer and to study Torah together. A number of the local members were present. As well as some more interesting discussions, we affixed a new mezuza to the door.
From there we drove to the Saa community -- over 300 kilometres away. My arrival was extremely emotional. It was already dark by the time the car pulled up to the house. I noticed a crowd of fifteen to twenty women standing outside, accompanied by some children. I was a little slow to understand what was happening -- I had driven nearly 600 kilometres since the end of shabath. As I got out of the car, the women started making noises similar to that made by Moroccan Jewish women at weddings and other happy occasions, only this was far louder. I quickly realised that this was my welcome. As I moved away from the car, the women parted, allowing a perhaps seven year boy to step forward. In near perfect, though accented Hebrew, he welcomed me to the village (population 100,000) and presented me with a big red flower. They ushered me inside, to the large front room of Serge's parent's house. Unlike the other two houses I had thus far visited, here there are signs that the space is used as a synagogue, including a reading desk at the front of the room with a cover embroidered with the four letter name of haShem, a few Jewish books, plus more of the home produced sidurim. Again everyone was standing as I entered. They escorted me to the head of the room. We all sat. One gentleman came forward to tell me they had a special performance which they only put on for special visitors. They would now like to present it to me. A choir of children and teenagers proceeded to sing and dance a number of songs, each based on different Biblical verses of prophesy. The movements and the music had a strong African influence; the words were all Biblical Hebrew. Towards the end the whole room, including me, were on their feet dancing.
Dinner was served. I mused to myself that perhaps there is something very Jewish about these people. Each time they get together as a group, they do it around a meal. However these people make no claim of Jewish descent, a common phenomenon in Africa today. They have not been influenced in any way by missionaries nor the colonial experience to search for non-existent Israelite roots. Missionary activity brought them Christianity. Their own thinking brought them to the service of the God of Israel. I recently learnt in the Rambam that a non-Jew who keeps the commandments of the Torah because he seeks God's bounty, is rewarded as much as if he were Jewish. Surely those who practise in order to fulfil the word of haShem without thinking about reward are at an even higher level.
I thanked them for their warm welcome and hospitality. I told them that I did not merit their honours; that I understood it was not directed at me personally, a simple Jew, but to the holy land from which I came and to my rabbis and teachers, who had taught me all I know, and things that I hoped I was able to share with them.
In Saa I met a man named Pascal. He had come in from the neighbouring francophone country of Gabon to meet me. He was a leader of a group who in 2006 decided that they should observe the shabath in the way haShem desired, viz as a Jewish day of rest. The too have no claim to Jewish descent. Presently, as far as I could ascertain, they have not adopted other Jewish customs nor do they call themselves Jews as do my friends in Cameroon. Until a few months ago, they kept shabath as they understood it should. I assume this was based on literal understanding of the texts, in what may best be described as Karaitic. It is worth noting that Kukungulu also started his journey into Judaism with the observance of shabath and circumcision. It was not until he met the almost mystical Yosef a couple of years later that he and his followers were able to understand how Jews keep the shabath. Pascal's group has now learnt this from their new connection, starting a few months ago, with Serge and his fellows. Now they follow the practice I experienced the day before. They have two communities in Gabon and continue to attract new membership. Pascal and I agreed to stay in email contact, with me providing him information and help where possible.
It is worth noting that circumcision is universally practised in Cameroon and Gabon, so when conversions do take place, the circumcision requirement will be easy, a big plus when dealing with adults. A couple of years ago Serge had a son. At the time he asked me some questions about various rites, including pidyon haben. He informed me that they use a doctor, as there is no other choice, to circumcise their babies at eight days, but the father and the community say all the brakhoth and prayers that we do at a brith.
We set out the next morning to the mountains in the west of Cameroon, about 300 kilometres away. We were headed towards Bafoussan, Cameroon's third largest city. Here we would meet elders of the Baleng people, a group of tribes claiming to be descended from Jews who left Israel during the difficult conditions prevailing following the Moslem conquest. Leaving the Holy Land, they travelled south to Egypt and Sudan, all the time encountering more Moslems. (It is interesting the numerous African Jewish/Israelite legends commence in Egypt. This is in addition to Jews we know for a fact lived in Egypt from the Babylonian and Persian periods on.) The Baleng ancestors turned westward, stopping in this mountain region. They terminated their journey before reaching Nigeria not far to the west, as by this time Nigeria was already under Moslem rule. I am writing details of the Baleng narrative and customs in an accompanying paper.
Later in the week I met the Bassa tribe. They claim to have been part of the twelve tribes of Israel who did not leave with Moses, choosing instead to remain in Egypt. They too eventually travelled southwards, turning westward in Sudan. Their journey ended in another area of today's Cameroon. I am also writing a separate paper on their history and customs.
The following day we visited the primate park in the Mefou National Park. This may have been the only "touristy" thing I did, though for me it was an educational experience. The park was set up by an Israeli colonel and his wife, Avi and Talila Sivan; it was strange and emboldening at the same time to suddenly arrive at a location in the jungle and be greeted by Cameroonian and Israeli flags flying side by side.
We returned to Yaoundé from the park as the first rains of the season began. By the time we reached the city, the rain was torrential. I think the only time I have seen so much water fall from the heavens was during a monsoon in Singapore. I couldn't help but think about the drought conditions back home.
Our destination was the house of Fredrique, a Bassa man who has joined the Yaoundé Jews in order to "return" to his roots. I was here to meet a recent African phenomenon, a group of people, some of them church leaders, who refer to themselves as Noahides, people believing in the one God of Israel and accepting that the Torah only requires of non-Jewish believers the observance of the seven commandments given to Noah after the flood. This "movement", though concept is perhaps a better term, is growing in many places around the world, particularly in Texas and the U.S. South. This group meets weekly with Serge and other members of the Yaoundé Jewish community to learn about Judaism and the Noahide commandments. I held a three hour session with them, fielding questions on diverse aspects of Judaism and the seven commandments.
In addition to the two "lost" tribes with whom I met, there are tribes all over Africa claiming Israelite or Jewish descent. Some of them have interesting narratives. Many researchers today, lead by Prof. Tudor Parfitt, believe that in most instances, the idea of Jewish descent was sown by colonial era missionaries. The missionaries "needed" to locate the ten lost tribes of Israel in order aid in their return home to Israel. They saw this resettlement as a prerequisite for the second coming. Unfortunately they had little or no idea what the ten tribes would now look like, both physically and in their traditions. Seemingly whenever they met a tribe whose customs varied from others in their environs, they labelled them as candidates for a lost tribe. These "selected" tribes came to believe the narratives allotted them, building upon them, creating a new momentum. This allowed these tribes a level of superiority above other "regular" Africans as they had been "chosen" by the invaders. They continued to develop and build on the missionaries' initial narrative, eventually themselves believing the enhanced version.
The Jewish communities I met in Saa, Yaoundé and Douala make no claim to Jewish descent. Neither do the Abayudaya nor Pascal's people. They claim to see in Judaism the way to worship the true God of Israel, understanding that this is the will of God, haShem. I see no ulterior motives, economic or otherwise, other than the fulfilment of this desire.
Please come and meet my friends in Cameroon in photographs.
Menachem Kuchar, 6th March, 2014
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