African Jews

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Member of an African Synagogue

Growing up in a predominately white Jewish community I often had friends ask me if there were ‘black’ Jews and my response was always Yes, just not many here in Danville, CA. There were a small handful of African families that attended the temple in my hometown as well as a local synagogue in San Luis Obispo where I worked. Yet, people in the United States do not always associate Africans with practicing Judaism, however, African Jews do exist and there are communities all over Africa that practice traditional Jewish customs.

Jewish communities in Africa date back more than 2700 years. They are some of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. African Jewish communities also have ethnic and religious diversity which contributes to the richness of the groups.

Some African groups have not maintained contact with the global Jewish community but rather descent from ancient Israel. The Beta Israel of Ethiopia is recognized as historically Jewish. Not all African Jews practice traditional Jewish customs but many of their practices are similar to Orthodox Jewish customs. The Jewish population in South Africa is run by many organizations. The United Communal Fund-Israel United Appear is a major fundraising body for the group. The Union of Orthodox Synagogues maintains the orthodox community and there are Reform and Zionist organizations involved as well. A Jewish educational system is in place and over 80 percent of Jewish children are enrolled in the Jewish day school. The Jewish day schools provide a similar structure as the Jewish day schools in the states.

African Jewish communities look different than the Jewish communities within Europe and North America. They use different languages, different music, and enjoy different traditional foods. However, Jewish communities all over the world share many of the traditional Jewish religious practices. The pray service itself is very similar, the language of prayer is similar, and the traditional clothing attire is the same as well (head covers, prayer shawls) in synagogues all over the world.

I have only been in London for one week yet have already been impressed by not only the size of the Jewish population but also the diversity. As I was leaving the airport I saw one family on the tube wearing traditional Hassid Jewish attire. The father was wearing a tallit and his tzit tzit were showing, all the boys were wearing kippot and the mother had her shoulders and knees covered. The 2001 UK Census 9% of the South African population in London is Jewish, only 2% of total Londoners associate with the Jewish faith. It was refreshing to see this diversity; the world is such a diverse place and it is easy for people to forget that, to become trapped in their own little world, afraid to venture out and experience how other ethnic groups and religions experience life.

After researching African Jews I came across the following article on The Jewish Federations of North America. The article written by Donna Halper discusses the complexity of being black and Jewish. There is so much bigotry involved. People are intolerant and ignorant towards African Jews. Being in one minority group can be challenging, let alone two.

I can relate to being a part of two minority groups; being a Jewish female. Although society has come a long way, females still face forms of discrimination. Between athletics and job opportunities, boys are still thought of to be better than girls.

Hopefully with more time and education, individuals will stop being afraid of people who are different.

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