The race is on to reach a “Lost Tribe of Israel” in West Africa.
The Igbo of Nigeria have long believed themselves to be descended from the Israelites of the bible, an oral history passed on for generations. And now there is a competition brewing between Messianic Jews, who teach Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and other Jewish groups, who may want to bring the Igbo into the fold of mainstream Judaism.
“It creates a kind of competition,” said Daniel Lis, a professor of Jewish studies and the author of “Jewish Identity among the Igbo of Nigeria.” “This may create a certain kind of race. The appearance of Messianic groups creates the stimulus for a counter-mission.”
Jewish Voice Ministries International, which seeks to “share the Messiah with the Jewish People” and conducts medical outreaches specifically to “Lost Tribes of Israel” in South Africa and Ethiopia, among other countries, has travelled twice to Nigeria this year.
And Shavei Israel, a Zionist organization that seeks “lost” and “hidden” Jews worldwide, often assisting with their conversion to Orthodox Judaism and immigration to Israel, began sending emissaries to Nigeria this year. A smaller American Jewish organization called Kulanu has also been providing rabbinic Jewish resources to grassroots groups for over a decade.
All three groups say they became involved in Nigeria in response to calls from Igbo on the ground.
The growing tensions in West Africa illustrate the strange dynamics at play in Africa and elsewhere as so-called Lost Tribe or new Jewish groups seek to establish themselves and international organizations, each with their own agenda, enter the scene.
Jewish Voice Ministries International adheres to an eschatological belief held by some Christians that the “ingathering” of Lost Tribes is a sign that the biblical Messiah is returning. Both Kulanu and Shavei Israel have roots in Religious Zionism, which see the establishment of the State of Israel — and the ingathering of the Jewish people — as part of a divine plan.
This summer, Jewish Voice Ministries International held a meeting in the small town of Nnewe, attended by Igbo leaders. Onwukwe Alaezi, a well-known Nigerian author who writes almost exclusively on the Lost Tribe origin story of the Igbo, presented his work to leaders from the missionary group.
In an interview with the Forward, Alaezi said he thought Jewish Voice could be a great ally for the Igbo. Jewish Voice wants to find “Lost Tribes” — and many Igbo want to be recognized as such.
“I am convinced that they are working towards identifying the Lost Tribes,” said Alaezi, “maybe finding a way to reconnect them to world Jewry.”
Alaezi is right — Jewish Voice Ministries International is indeed on a “Lost Tribe” search.
But his hope that Jewish Voice Ministries International could connect his organization with “world Jewry” could be complicated by the uneasy relationship between mainstream Jewish groups and Messianic Jewish groups, many of which — like Jews for Jesus — make it their express mission to urge Jews to accept Jesus Christ.
Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, said that he was unaware of Jewish Voice’s work in Nigeria, but was familiar with the group, which he called a “threat” to the types of emerging Jewish groups that he himself seeks out.
Freund charged that members were “misrepresenting themselves” as Jews. “They are, based on everything I’ve heard, a group that aims to convert people to Christianity while calling themselves Jewish.”
In the eyes of Jewish Voice Ministries head Jonathan Bernis, who identifies as a Jew who follows Jesus, the group is very up-front about what they believe. “There is no question that we believe in the Messiah-ship of Yeshua,” he said, using a Hebrew rendering of Jesus’ name.
“We are motivated to go to locations where the are Lost Tribes and scattered communities,” Bernis said.
His group gives medical assistance — eye surgery and dental care, for example. While Bernis insists that there are “no theological strings attached,” every patient is given “the opportunity to receive prayer and hear the Good News of Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah.”
At some 30 million, the Igbo are among Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups. While the Igbo are primarily Christians, many identify as descendants of a “Lost Tribe of Israel,” some espousing a lineage to the tribe of Gad. In the 1960s, the Igbo fought a bloody war for independence; more than a million were killed in the war and some Igbo see this as an attempted genocide by the state, their own Holocaust.
And in more recent years, thousands of Igbo have begun interpolating Hebraic or Jewish practices into religious observances. An even smaller number have stripped all Christian elements out of practice — and, with some support of Kulanu and Shavei — are practicing a rabbinic Judaism that would be recognizable to any American Jew.
Shavei and Kulanu, though they sometimes collaborate, also have their differences. Shavei is an explicitly Orthodox and Zionist project while Kulanu is non-denominational and does not encourage groups they work with to immigrate to Israel; instead Kulanu members see themselves as building, or re-building, the Jewish Diaspora in the wake of the Holocaust.
And now, to further complicate the picture — enter Jewish Voice Ministries.
Jewish Voice Ministries traces its roots to the 1960s and the healing evangelist Louis Kaplan, a Jewish convert to Christianity. Jonathan Bernis, raised a Reform Jew, took over Kaplan’s ministry in 1998, folding in his own separate Messianic Jewish ministry and taking on the name Jewish Voice Ministries International in 2001.
Bernis’ organization aims to spread the “gospel to the Jew first, and also to the nations.” The group also affirms the “Hebraic Roots of Christianity.”
Bernis said that his organization set up medical clinics in Ethiopia in 1999 to serve Ethiopians who claim Israelite ancestry; in 2012, they organized clinics to serve Zimbabwe’s Lemba community, another group in Africa which claims Israelite ancestry.
Bernis admitted there were tensions between his group and other Jewish groups working with emerging Jewish communities. “Kulanu considers themselves in competition with us,” said Bernis. “They’ve sort of followed us around and said, ‘Don’t work with those people because of what they believe.’”
“Yes, there is competition,” said Bonita Sussman, vice president of Kulanu. “If I found out one of my communities was taken over by a Messianic group I would withdraw. I would say ‘Ok, I lost that one.’ Because there is a lot of work to be done… and we don’t have the financial capabilities to compete with these international Messianic groups.”
While Kulanu is entirely volunteer-run, Jewish Voice Ministries has more than 40 employees and spends more than $2 million on their medical outreach efforts. For its part, Shavei Israel employed more than 80 people and spent $3 million on its main groups of focus in 2014, according to financial documents.
For Jewish Voice Ministries, the End Times may be here. In a post detailing “signs” to prove this, Bernis cites the fact that “God is regathering” remnants of Israel from all over the world, including Africa.
In Nigeria, Messianic Jews Join Contest for Souls of ‘Lost Tribe’
Though there is clear and evident overlap between the work Jewish and Messianic groups, Freund is eager to draw a distinction between his work and the work of Jewish Voice Ministries: they are missionaries; he is not. “Our goal is not to go around the world and put a yarmulke on everybody’s head,” he said.
Shavei Israel’s goal instead, Freund said, is to “strengthen the connection” between descendants of Jews and modern-day Jews and Israel.
So Shavei must first establish whether the Igbo are “really” Israelites. “I think the jury is still at out as to whether in fact it is possible to prove any sort of Israelite ancestry or historical Jewish connection for the Igbo,” he said. Similarly, Bernis said he would be doing more research to “determine” if the Igbo have links to Israel before their group dives in fully and sets up medical centers.
If Freund became convinced that the Igbo did have Jewish roots — if they could be considered “Zera Yisrael,” or “roots of Israel” — he said he would feel an obligation to reach them before they were “seduced” by other missionary groups.
And while Freund and Bernis may feel like there is a lot at stake, for those Igbo who identify with the Lost Tribes of Israel — like the author Alaezi — the attention of such seekers bolsters their beliefs, no matter the religious orientation.
Alaezi is a senior member of a research group made up of professors in Nigeria. He said over the phone that his group is working to collect evidence and form theories about his people, the Igbo. He said he welcomes foreign groups. “The important thing is for them to see what we are doing.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.