‘It’s a growing community’

‘It’s a growing community’

Rutgers’ Bildner talk about young woman’s growing ties to Nigerian Jews to be online next week

After they were converted, 11 Igbo couples were remarried in Jewish ceremonies. The chuppot they used are behind them.
After they were converted, 11 Igbo couples were remarried in Jewish ceremonies. The chuppot they used are behind them.

You might say that working her job from home the last two pandemic years changed Eliana Saks’ life. It gave her enough time to develop relationships both with a man on the other side of the world — and with his community. She’ll talk about that dramatic change in her life on Zoom on Sunday, February 6. (See below.)

Ms. Saks already lived through much personal change. She was born 27 years ago in Bensalem, a suburb of Philadelphia, moved to Calgary, Alberta, when she was 2, and then to Ohio when she was 12. She went to high school in Toledo, Ohio, and then moved on to the University of Scranton, where she got a degree in journalism and electronic media.

During the pandemic, living back in the Philadelphia area, she had a lot of time to surf the internet.

One day, taking a break from work as a production editor at Taylor and Francis, a publisher of books and academic journals, she got a message from her brother-in-law, Oren Pollak, that included a link to a Facebook profile of a young Nigerian leader, Moshe Hezekiah Nwafor. Mr. Nwafor is Jewish, and he had gone to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. Ms. Saks had been a camper at Ramah in the Poconos. She comes from a serious Ramah family, so that camp connection was important to her.

That was how it started.

Ms. Saks wanted to learn more about the Nigerian Jewish community. “Like a lot of Americans, who are not aware of Jewish communities other than in America, Israel, and Europe, I was curious, especially because he seemed very passionate about Judaism,” she said.

From that message on Facebook, a relationship began to build. First, she followed Mr. Nwafor. Then he sent her a friend request, and they began to message back and forth. Those messages graduated to phone calls, and then to Facetime sessions, eventually every day. The “romantic relationship” kept growing. The more she learned about Moshe, and the more she learned about Nigeria and Moshe’s Jewish community there, the more she wanted to meet him in person.

Eliana Saks and Moshe Nwafor in Nigeria.

So, in November, 2020, she took an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Togo, and then got on a connector flight to Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. That’s where Moshe lives. That was the first of two five-week-long trips she took to Nigeria; there was another five-week-long trip to Rwanda, where the two vacationed together.

Now, Moshe Nwafor and Eliana Saks are engaged to be married. She’ll talk about it for Kol Rina.

She’s learned more about the background of the Jewish community in Nigeria. The country, with approximately 200 million residents, is approximately half Christian and half Muslim, and made up of three main tribes. “The Hausa are predominately Muslim, the Yoruba are predominately Christian, and the Igbo also predominately Christian,” she said. The Nigerian Jewish community mainly come from the Igbo — the letter G in Igbo is silent, she added.

“Moshe’s father was one of the first in Nigeria to discover Judaism,” Ms. Saks said. “He began to practice Judaism in the 1980s. That means Moshe, who is 23, has grown up living a Jewish life.”

The Igbo and the Yoruba were converted to Christianity by missionaries who swarmed over central Africa during the 19th century, Ms. Saks said; “the interest in Judaism started when some members of the Igbo felt they connected more with the Old Testament than the New Testament.” They also found connections between the traditional pre-Christian Igbo religion and Judaism. For example, according to tradition, the Igbo circumcise their sons eight days after birth. They use a lunar calendar, and follow some dietary restrictions that are similar to kashrut. “It’s really a complicated story,” Ms. Saks said, laughing. “The Jews of Nigeria consider themselves to be descendants of the lost tribe of Gad, who is supposed to have traveled to Nigeria, where he had a son, Eri. There is a King Eri in the Igbo tradition.” In the end, for the new Jews of Nigeria, Judaism resonated more than the Christianity the missionaries had offered them.

“There are 50 to 75 people who are part of the Jewish community around Kubwa, the village outside Abuja where Moshe comes from,” Ms. Saks said. “I’ve never seen such dedicated Jews. They try so hard, they do everything they can. They make it a priority to come to shul to daven together.

“It’s a growing community,” she continued. “People come from all around, some traveling on bus — few own cars — to attend Shabbat services at Tikvat Israel, the synagogue Moshe’s father, Sar Habbakuk Nwafor, founded in Kubwa.

Moshe Nwafor teaches a bar mitzvah boy to read from a sefer Torah.

“It’s a relatively new community. They started practicing in the 1980s and 1990s. They learned based upon what they could find online and didn’t start to get Jewish materials until the early 2000s. Because they’ve now studied the Torah and Talmud so much, they know halachically they’re not considered Jews because they can’t trace back their lineage.”

Because they wanted to become Jewish officially, the community wanted to be converted.

“However, if you want to convert, you need a beit din made up of three rabbis — or if not, one rabbi and two other Jews.”

The two other Jews weren’t a problem. “Moshe—who studied at Godfrey Okoye University in Enugu State, Nigeria — and one other, a man named Shlomo, who came from another synagogue and converted in 2014.”

Moshe and Shlomo — whose last name Ms. Saks does not know — had gone to Mbale, Uganda to study at Rabbi Gershom Sizomu’s yeshiva, and Rabbi Sizomu had converted them there. Rabbi Sizomu—the only rabbi in Africa of African descent, and a member of the Ugandan Abayudaya tribe—was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

And that’s where Eliana’s family came into the picture. “There are six members of my family, past and present, who are or were rabbis,” she said. “That includes my dad, Rabbi Moshe Saks; my brother, Rabbi Ari Saks; my brother-in-law, Rabbi Daniel Utley; and my uncles, Rabbi David Ackerman and Rabbi Allen Saks.” Her grandfather, Alexander Shapiro, also had been a rabbi. Most of those family members are Conservative, but Allen Saks is Orthodox and Daniel Utley is Reform. “I was able to help with the conversions in Nigeria, because of all these connections to so many rabbis.”

She convinced her father to travel to Nigeria with her and become part of a beit din. “Moshe had told him it was his dream to convert as many members of the community as possible and so my dad made it his mission to make it happen,” Ms. Saks said.

Eliana Saks, left, Moshe Nwafor, right, and another couple are at Mr. Nwafor’s sister’s wedding.

The conversion of 93 members of the Kubwa Jewish community took place one weekend in August 2021. Rabbi Sizomu headed the beit din. The other two members of the beit din were her father, who heads the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Flushing, Queens, and Rabbi Gerald Sussman of Temple Emanu-El on Staten Island.

“Moshe and I worked hard to make this happen,” Ms. Saks said. “We did a lot of fund-raising, to pay for as many people as we could who wanted to come. Nigeria is a very poor country and people don’t have a lot. We paid for bus tickets and accommodations and meals and they came from all over the country.” Their fund-raising also included paying for Rabbi Sizomu’ flight to Nigeria, and for his accommodations there; he didn’t have the resources to pay for his own travel. The two other rabbis were able to pay for their own trips, however, with help from their synagogues.

“We were able to convert 93 people, though we wished we could have converted more,” Ms. Saks said. “The rabbis wanted to interview everyone to make sure they were serious and all living a Jewish lifestyle according to halacha, and had completed their studies. That took time.” Ms. Saks thinks that most of the few thousands of Nigerians who practice Judaism want to be converted. “The hope is in the future that there will be another conversion,” she said.

Still, not everyone in the Nigerian Jewish community will want to be converted by a rabbi from the Conservative movement, though. “Many people in these communities practice traditional Judaism” — by which she means, among other things, that it is not egalitarian. But the Orthodox rabbinate doesn’t recognize them after conversion as Jews,” she said. “Because they consider themselves Orthodox, they don’t want a Conservative conversion. I’m not sure how that will change in the future.”

She elaborated further in an email.

“The subject of Orthodoxy in Nigeria and in third world countries around the world is very complex and tied into not only traditional cultural values, but infrastructure, knowledge, access to education, and cultural growth,” she wrote. “It can be a difficult thing for American Jews to wrap their brains around, especially when they also have an arms-length knowledge of the overall culture of countries like Nigeria. It’s unfortunately not a black-and-white issue and a lot can be said about it.

When Ms. Saks speaks at Kol Rina, she will talk about all of this — the history of the community, the conversion, and the future.

And then there’s her love story. As is the case in so many love stories, there’s a villain. In this case it’s the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Mr. Nwafor applied for a fiancé visa — formally known as a K-1 visa — more than a year ago. But because of covid, neither he nor Ms. Saks will be surprised if it takes another two to three years to go through. In the meantime, Mr. Nwafor is working as an IT professional and a ride share driver in Abuja. And while he’s not the leader of the community — his father is — he does teach all the bar mitzvah students— there are no bat mitzvahs—and because he has more Jewish knowledge and training than his father, he functions as the rabbi of the community.

Ms. Saks and Mr. Nwafor can’t get married until they get that K-1 visa, and he gets to the United States. The plan is that soon after that happens, they’ll stand under a chuppah, surrounded by family — and that once they’re married, they’ll work together for the benefit of the Nigerian Jewish community.

Who: Eliana Saks

What: Will be the guest speaker for an online Brunch and Learn session at Kol Rina Independent Minyan in South Orange; her talk is called “Finding Love and Jewish Community in Nigeria”

When: On Sunday, February 6, at 10:30 a.m.

How: Email kolrinanjwelcome@gmail.com for the link.

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