JDC Receives the Presidential Award in the Philippines

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There’s a particular kind of surrealism when you look back at moments in life and almost can’t quite believe the particular event was real. Sometimes though, this occurrence happens during the moment itself.

On Friday afternoon, 5th December, I was privileged to shake the hand of the President of the Philippines as he conferred a Presidential Award to JDC, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The award was given to JDC for the work I have been a part of this year, assisting those who were affected by Typhoon Haiyan, and for services provided to Filipino migrants working in Israel and America. During the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, over 6000 people died and 11 million lost their homes and livelihoods as the storm tore through the Philippines with wind speeds of 235km/hour and gusts of 275km/hour.

Soon after the typhoon struck, JDC’s disaster response team was mobilized and has been present in the Philippines ever since, assisting the relief and recovery efforts of our wonderful local partner organizations in the areas of education, agriculture, fishing, psycho social support, and disaster risk reduction, whilst focusing particularly on vulnerable populations such as the elderly, disabled and marginalized communities. More than 15,000 people have already been directly supported by JDC in the Philippines in the past year.

Secretary Imelda Nicholas, from the Commission of Filipino’s Overseas, had selected us for the Presidential award and highlighted JDC as the only non-Filipino organization to be commended.

As I walked on stage with my colleague Ilan Cohn, and heard the announcement that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was being honored by President Aquino III, I felt an overwhelming pride in our community for raising and investing millions of dollars to assist those in need, regardless of race or religion, epitomizing the Talmudic phrase ‘whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’ Babylonian TalmudTractate Sanhedrin 37a.

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During the ceremony however, there was an underlying tension in the room.  A new threat was about to hit the Philippines – another potentially devastating typhoon, the 18th to enter the country this year. Typhoon Hagupit, locally known as Ruby, would pass through the Philippines, with wind speeds of 175km/hour and storm surges of 5 meters in some areas.

In just over a year since Haiyan, there are still communities struggling to regain their livelihoods, build back their houses and work through the trauma of such a catastrophic natural disaster. Yet, during Ruby, the resilience of the Philippines and the dedication of our local partner NGOs was remarkable.  With JDC’s support, early warning systems were activated, fisherfolk were able to secure their boats out of the storm’s reach, and evacuation centers were prepared with supplies of food and water.

Once again, the Philippines will start to rebuild. Farmers will plant a new crop of rice, fisherfolk will go back out to sea, damaged houses and schools will be repaired and churches all over the country will be filled with prayers that the next typhoon will be less destructive.

And JDC will be there, supporting and assisting where we can. After all, as Rabbi Tarfon said ‘It is not upon you to complete the task, but nor are you free to desist from it.’ Pirkei Avot, chapter 2, mishna 21.


Hannah Gaventa is the Philippines Coordinator for JDC, as well as the JDC-Pears Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow 2014/15. She is spending 1 year working in the Philippines, bringing with her 3 years of international development experience after working in the UK, Ghana and India.


De-planing in Manila

Here I am in the Philippines, after de-planing (read: getting off the plane – my new favourite Filipino phrase makes me giggle every time!) in Manila almost a month ago as the Philippines Coordinator for JDC, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. http://www.jdc.org/where-we-work/asia/philippines-relief

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I am lucky enough to be one of 20 Jewish Service Corps Fellows this year, who are placed all over the world working with JDC. Each role is unique and the work in Argentina differs to the work in Turkey or the work in Ethiopia. I recommend checking out other blogs here: http://jdcentwine.org/jsc

This year I will be based in Manila and working with partner organisations all over the Philippines to assist in the recovery effort after the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013. Although it has been 9 months since the typhoon, locally known as Yolanda, the mere mention of it still has an affect on the population here. Everyone knows exactly where they were when it hit  even if they weren’t directly affected. Many of the people I’ve met here joined the international relief efforts just after the typhoon and made their way from all over the country to the worst hit areas to assist their fellow Filipinos as best they could, often travelling for days to reach those in need living in isolated areas.

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I’ve spent the past few weeks meeting the local NGOs JDC are working with in the recovery of education and livelihoods. Many schools were destroyed and JDC are helping to repair classrooms. The trauma of the typhoon is still clearly present with the school children who are too scared to go to school when it rains, even today, in case the rain turns into a typhoon and a classroom roof falls on them.

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I’ve heard people question their faith, saying ‘the stronger we called to God during Yolanda, the heavier the rain fell and the stronger the wind was’. I’ve seen people cry when talking about the destruction of their homes. I’ve witnessed farmers hold their heads in their hands sharing how they lost all their crops and therefore all their future income. I’ve seen the mother of a severely disabled child point to her shoulders to show the height of the water in her home as she described how she and her elderly mother carried her son through the water to safety up the hill.

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However, a word I’ve heard repeatedly here is ‘resilience’. Whether by conducting disaster risk reduction assessments to prepare for future disasters; ensuring there is a plan for caring for the vulnerable, the elderly, person’s with disabilities, or the sick; re-planting crops, coconut trees and re-building boats; or dancing away during energisers to Tragedy by Steps during UN and NGO meetings; the Filipino strength, integrity and resilience remains.

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It has truly been an honour to be here on behalf of JDC and represent the Jewish community in assisting the recovery in any way we can. I’m looking forward to learning more throughout my year and hopefully to share with you!

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I will be spending my first Filipino Rosh Hashana this week with the small but vibrant Jewish community based in Manila. More about this wonderful community in a future blog…

Shana Tova



Please note that my views are my own and not the official position of JDC or any other organisation. 

Thank you to the Pears Foundation for supporting my year as a JSC-Pears Fellow


An Open Letter to Rabbi Kimche

Let’s be honest.

The beauty of Limmud is that Jews of all backgrounds and beliefs can meet, share a coffee at the (Kosher supervised) catering stand, and discuss their Judaism and Jewish practises, all the whilst acknowledging that it is our differences that make us unique in our beliefs and our similarities which make us part of the wider Jewish community.

Growing up in the Ner Yisrael community, I was taught by my highly educated parents and their peers to respect others, to promote tolerance and understanding within our community, to be confident and secure in my beliefs, to know that there are ‘Shiv’im Panim la’Torah’ and to look outwards, to the wider community and even to the rest of the world.

At university, I met Reform Jews, Liberal Jews, Masorti Jews and even Atheist Jews. All who had different views to mine. Yet I could engage with them because I was strong in my own faith. I knew what I, as an Orthodox Jew, believed in. And we were able to share with each other and delight in the fact that we all had the same heritage. At the end of the day, we all had a Passover seder, a Friday night dinner and believed in the miracle that is the State of Israel. My Passover seder may not have included a guitar accompanying our rendition of ‘Dayenu’. My Friday night dinner may not have had a female Rabbi making Kiddush over the wine. My views on Israel are Zionist, pro-peace AND pro-Palestinian.

Some of my most exciting and inspiring conversations about Judaism and the Jewish community have happened at my weekly shiur, run by a fantastic, highly respected educator (from the Ner community) with my peers who are from Reform, Liberal, Masorti and culturally Jewish backgrounds. All of us have vastly different views and ideas about life. But each week, we join each other to learn and debate, because we are all passionate about the UK Jewish community and its future.

My Jewish upbringing with my parents leading the way exemplifying tolerance and respect, is the core foundation of my beliefs. I am challenged every day when I meet those who share opposing views to mine. Yet I acknowledge their right to their views. And I respect them for their beliefs. I do not choose to hide myself behind a veil of fear and mistrust of ‘the other’. And my own beliefs are strengthened, reinforced and enriched.

As co-chair of the Limmud YADS this year, my role on the steering group of Limmud Conference is to match young adults with voluntary positions. For 6 months prior to Conference, young people get in touch with me and ask if they can volunteer 20 hours of their time whilst at Conference. These young Jews are from all over the UK, with varying degrees of Jewish practise. They are not only willing to spend a week of their holiday time at a Jewish Learning Conference, they are also willing to help out with babysitting, at the nursery, at the bookshop or coffee stall.

It astounds me that each year, more than 2000 people from the UK Jewish community come together for 5 days at Warwick University, purely to learn more about Judaism, Israel, and the Diaspora. We socialise, laugh, dance Israeli dances (separate dancing available) and even eat some Hummus, all the whilst learning Tanach and Gemara, discussing a talk we’ve been to that day and deciding which one to go to next.

Snappy titles draw us to the sessions, and how many there are! The Beit Midrash is open and thriving from 8am until 1am, with educators on hand to help those who need it with Hebrew translation, guidance and explanations. There are at least 6 options for every time slot throughout the day, and no-one at Conference is seen without clutching the Limmud Choveret, nose to book highlighting and underlining, lest they were to miss out on a great speaker, a fantastic panel debate or even that Jewish musician they have always wanted to meet. Sessions begin at 8.30am and run until midnight, with over a thousand presenters and hundreds of topics to choose from.

The future leaders of the UK Jewish community are participants and presenters at Limmud Conference. This Jewish community is positive, forward thinking, unified and respectful. One which I feel proud of, and am honoured to consider myself a part of.

Judaism and Jewish education is at its peak at Limmud Conference. And I would not miss it for the world.



Please note that my views are my own and not the official position of Tzedek, Limmud or any other organisation.

Intra-faith prayer with Women of the Wall


It was with mixed feelings that on Sunday 9th June, I woke up at 5.30am in Jerusalem and walked to a meeting point outside the Old City, where I was met by a group of men, women and policemen in order to travel by coach to the Kotel, the Western Wall, escorted by sirens and police to pray morning prayers.

For the past week, I have been on a human rights fellowship trip with Rene Cassin, a Jewish human rights charity based in the UK. A group of 10 UK, 10 USA and 10 Israeli young professionals have been studying about human rights and international law for the past few months and we were all in Israel to look into human rights issues in the country we all know and love.

I had been following the news about the controversial group of women who come together every Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Jewish month, to pray at the Western Wall wearing tefillin and tallitot. These Jewish symbols are traditionally only worn by men, and have therefore been the cause of much controversy. The prayer sessions at the Kotel each month have degenerated into violent protests by the Ultra Orthodox community, who feel that the women are violating Jewish tradition and practice.


In actuality, although women are not obligated in time bound commandments, such as wearing tefillin and tallit, many commentators suggest that women may participate in the commandments if they wish to. Maimonides writes  “so too all positive mitzvot brought on by time that women are exempt from, if they wish to do them without making a blessing, we do not hinder [them].”  (Maimonides Mishnah Torah Laws of Tsitisit 3:9).This is a general truth about mitzvot, that one who is not obligated to do a mitzvah may still perform that mitzvah provided there is no explicit statement otherwise.

So why have the Women of the Wall caused such an uproar in their attempt to connect to G-d and pray in the way in which they are accustomed to?

It seems that there are larger forces at play here. The friction over the Women of the Wall group is symbolic of a widespread tension between Jewish sects all over the world. Often I have witnessed ill feeling between Orthodox and Reform communities, between Modern Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox, between Conservative and Liberal communities. Why is it that Jews cannot overcome barriers and embrace the similarities we all share in our love for our faith? When did intra-faith tension become almost more of an issue than interfaith tension? Historically, Jewish fear of the other has come in the form of uneasiness towards other faiths and beliefs. Yet during Sunday morning’s prayers, a group of Indian ladies wearing saris walked past the protesters and the women of the wall, straight to the Western Wall to pray. And not one person blinked, shouted abuse or threw eggs. Is this true progress when instead of turning against another faith, we turn against ourselves?

As I walked through the barrier towards the Kotel, through a line of armed police and into the enclosure provided for the Women of the Wall, I could hear chanting from the Orthodox protesters, although I could not see them through the fence. Behind me, a few women started singing passionately in Hebrew, tunes which took me back to my childhood. Tunes I have been hearing all my life and have always associated with positive and happy Judaism. I could not help but think back to my visit to Poland on a school trip a few years ago, singing Hebrew songs with my peers as we walked through a different kind of fence, through a very different scenery. As Jews, we know very well what happens when intolerance meets extremism.


The tense atmosphere increased as more and more women gathered and the prayers started. It was almost amusing that as the women’s prayers became louder, from the other side of the mechitza, I could hear the men attempt to compete in a song war reminiscent of a youth movement camp. Who will sing the loudest and shout the strongest?!

Most of the Orthodox women watched the Women of the Wall in silence, some sniggering at the strange sight of women wearing traditional men’s garb, some even taking photos, whilst others felt it necessary to walk past and yell abuse at the women. ‘You trouser-wearing women, go to a Church, you are not Jewish’, ‘let the police do their real jobs’ and ‘you are not wanted here, you are ruining our men’s prayers’.


The Kotel has always been a place of peace and serenity for me. A place to gather my thoughts and put my life in perspective.

Last Sunday, all I felt was an overwhelming sense of sadness. Is this really what Judaism has become? For the first time in a long time, I prayed. I prayed for tolerance and respect to seep through to the gathering crowds. I prayed for greater understanding of ‘the other’, on all sides.

And I prayed for Jews all over the world to have the strength to not become threatened by difference and change. Regardless of people’s personal opinions of the Women of the Wall, I feel strongly that change, even if only to the extent of attitudinal change, must come with respect and tolerance. After all, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”. (George Bernard Shaw).


Viewing poverty as entertainment? A voluntourist trip to Ethiopia

A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to Ethiopia with American Jewish charity JDC. The 8 day trip was aimed at Jewish young professionals from all over the world who ‘seek to make a meaningful impact on global Jewish needs and international humanitarian issues’.  Having always wanted to visit Ethiopia, I jumped at the chance to participate in this trip.

However, upon receiving the itinerary which emphasized a ‘service’ or volunteering aspect of the trip, I felt the need to ask myself a few questions.

Was I doing more harm than good by spending a few hours doing ‘service work’ – helping to paint the Alphabet on a school building, giving out de-worming tablets to children or mixing sand to make cement in order to build a new school building? Surely the experienced local builders could build the school much faster and with much more skill than we ever could. Were we taking away local jobs just to have a photo opportunity? What was the impact of 25 young people from the Global North turning up in Africa in order to ‘help’ local impoverished communities for a few days and then leaving the residents to get on with their lives?

During our volunteer work on a building site, I stopped for a moment to look around. I watched as what seemed like the entire local community came out of their homes in order to stop and stare at this unique phenomenon. The children ran around us asking for money and water, but were soon roped into helping with building work. It became almost a game, 3 white people with a trail of Ethiopian children following, everyone taking hold of a brick and bringing it to the building site.

I am sure that the builders did not appreciate our help whilst we painstakingly and slowly mixed sand and water to make cement, however I do feel that there is a small value in us all working together for a common purpose. During our work, conversations in broken English and a few words of Amharic flew across the bricks, with much laughter and jokes at our own inadequacies.

I have come to feel that the key to short term trips which combine tourism and volunteering or ‘voluntourism’ is for the organisers and participants to act responsibly. It should be made clear that by our visit we were not even close to ‘saving the world’ or ‘helping solve extreme poverty’. Rather, by participating in these trips, we are helping ourselves further understand the culture of the region we are visiting, learning from the residents and attempting to appreciate what it is really like living in conditions of extreme poverty.

By learning about another culture and way of life, we can help ourselves to become more socially aware, more tolerant and more open-minded. We must be able to see the value in diversity and learn to respect and even admire how people all over the world can share and learn equally from each other. Only with a responsible attitude can we find meaning in trips such as these, allowing ourselves to understand the context of our actions and perhaps one day to pursue overseas volunteering opportunities that match our skill set.

The highlight of my trip to Ethiopia was certainly not the volunteering aspect of the trip, rather the meeting of local people, learning a few words of Amharic in order to communicate with others who have fascinating life stories as well as visiting JDC funded NGO’s who have created microfinance and water projects.

I met Magda, who works at reception at the Deselygn Hotel in Addis Ababa. She graduated from public university last year having studied management and hopes to work her way up in the hotel system. Magda is 24 and has wild curly hair which she says takes her an hour in the morning to tame!

At JDC Medical Director Rick Hodes’ house in Addis, I chatted to a 14 year old girl whose brother has been given life changing spinal surgery in Ghana, paid for by American Dr Rick, who has been working in Ethiopia for over 20 years. Dr Rick has saved the lives of hundreds of spinal TB patients, giving them a future. Many of his patients are now studying in universities, having been given the opportunities they would never have had if they had not met Dr Rick. Not only does he help his patients, but their families as well. His house has become a hostel, where over 20 young people are staying whilst waiting or recovering from their surgery. The 14 year old girl I met had run away from her village and her abusive husband 2 years ago. Dr Rick has given her a new lease on life and she is now in school and has aspirations to become a doctor, just like him.

Fassil, a JDC taxi driver has lived in Gondar all his life and has visited Addis Ababa once. His family are farmers and grow Tef, a grain grown in Ethiopia and used to make injera (a kind of sour dough bread). He has 3 brothers and a sister who are all in school and he, at 22 is the eldest with the most responsibilities. I was honoured when Fassil gave me an Ethiopian name – Genet, meaning Paradise!

Ethiopians share their food in a way which does not exist in the UK. A big plate of injera arrives with lentils, beans and other curried veg or stews. A group of 2 or more people will sit together around the large circular plate, tearing strips off the bread with their hands and dipping into the delicious vegetables.

There is so much more I could say about Ethiopia, but my short visit to this beautiful country has taught me to appreciate the importance of community and caring for others. I hope to be able to infuse these ideals into my own community in London, always seeking to find value in multiculturalism, becoming a more informed and responsible citizen and advocating and educating about my African experiences.

One day, I would love to be able to visit again, hopefully for a longer trip! As Gandhi said ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’.

If you would like to know more about JDC, visit http://www.jdc.org/

To learn about Dr Rick Hodes and his valuable work in Ethiopia, visit his website: http://rickhodes.org/

Cold showers, fried yams and Malaria Free!

It is my last day in Ghana. For the five months I have been living in Tamale, I have been bitten by hundreds, if not thousands of mosquitos (but no malaria!!!! Yes, I am smug); I have had way too many cold showers; bonded with a crocodile; fallen in a river; had food stolen from me by a baboon; played with hundreds of children; learnt how to make Shea butter; embarrassed myself dancing Azonto; and was taught the proper way to make rice and yams.

Above all though, I have met incredible people here in Ghana. I think I can safely generalise in this case and say that Ghanaians on the whole are the most friendly and welcoming people I have ever met. Not only friendly, but Ghanaians laugh ALL the time, whether at the siliminger who has pronounced ‘Desiba’ (Good Morning) wrong, during a serious conversation about arranging a meeting or at every other available opportunity for smiles and jokes.

Everyone greets you as you walk down the street and everyone apologises when something even slightly bad happens. If you are walking and your flipflop breaks, men women and children will stop to make sure you’re ok and to tell you about the best place to buy or fix flip-flops. ‘Sorry, ok?’ is the most frequently heard phrase. If it starts to rain and you are caught in town without an umbrella, passersby will stop you to say ‘Sorry, ok?’ (usually once they have finished laughing at the silly white girl without an umbrella in a thunderstorm) before they offer to find you a place to shelter.

Living in a small town has really highlighted to me the importance of community. Driving in a taxi with my driver friend Doobia as he honks his horn and waves to all his friends is certainly an eye-opening experience. I feel sure that as I drive around Hendon next week, I would get many stares if I disturbed the peace of North West London in the same way.

Last week, whilst driving with Doobia, we passed an NGO that Tzedek funds ‘RAINS’ who promote female education and provide vocational training for young girls who haven’t been able to complete high school education. I was ecstatic to find out that one of Doobia’s sisters benefitted from the RAINS tailoring project and is now working in her own shop selling her own dress designs.

My last day in Tamale, feeling slightly hungover from a party the night before, saw my colleague and I at 9am on the backs of motorbikes, driving away from Tamale. We were visiting Sandu village, where Tzedek funds a Shea butter project.

Visiting a village an hours drive away from Tamale gives you a whole different view of life in Northern Ghana. Life is quiet and peaceful in the village on a Sunday. 20 women came to greet us and show us how they make Shea butter from the Shea nuts which grow on trees in the vicinity. We sat under a tree and with the help of our translator Hussein, who runs the project, asked the women about their lives and their Shea butter. Many of the women did not know their ages, and we all laughed together as each woman told us she was 25 years old. Beating the Shea nut oil for 3/4 hours causes the Shea butter to rise to the top of the bowl. Once it has been boiled, the butter can be packaged and sold either to locals in the market in the nearest town, or exported to Europe with the help of Hussein’s NGO. The women in this village told us they can make 25 cedis a month by selling Shea butter – that’s just under £10. With the help of their husbands who farm maize and yams, they can just about pay school fees for their children. I was touched to hear one woman tell us that her biggest concern is to find enough money each year to pay school fees to give her children the opportunity to ‘become like you’ – my colleague and I. Most of the parents of the children in this village did not have the opportunity to go to school at all – so are mostly illiterate.

From my 5 months living in Ghana, I have really witnessed the impact of Tzedek’s work. Tamale as a community has been touched by Tzedek in a big way and individuals all over town have benefitted from the UK Jewish community’s efforts to help alleviate extreme poverty. I feel honoured to have been part of the Tzedek Tamale community for a short time and I hope I will be able to return one day!

I leave you with a quick Azonto tutorial. I’m off to the beach for a last spot of sun!


The Jews of Sefwi Wiawso – a lost African Tribe?

Shabbat Morning 21st July 2012.

Best clothes are put on and worn by all. Children are playing in the synagogue. Prayer books are lovingly opened. Songs praising G-d are being sung. Kiddush is recited over wine.

This is a familiar scene in every Jewish community all over the world.

There is one place however, where this weekly scene is set in an unobtrusive blue and white painted synagogue hidden amongst the cocoa plantations and sugar cane farms of Western Ghana.

In the heart of Africa, in a small remote village called New Adiembra in a town called Sefwi Wiawso is an isolated community of Jews. The nearest city is a 3 hour drive by tro-tro – a van which can fit 22 people, babies on laps and live chickens under the seats, on a journey where passengers can feel every pothole of the dirt roads.

I travelled to Sefwi Wiawso with a friend to visit the African Jewish community I’d heard so much about. As my work for UK based charity Tzedek is mainly in Tamale, Northern Ghana, it was an adventure in itself trying to get to the Jews! First was a 6 hour journey to Kumasi, and then the 3 hour tro-tro ride to Sefwi Wiawso. Unfortunately, due to being given an ‘old bus’ for the journey from Tamale, which of course broke down halfway into our journey, a journey that should have taken 6 hours took 11 and a half. And due to the phenomenon of ‘Ghana time’ by which everything and everyone is late, the tro-tro from Kumasi to Sefwi Wiawso took 4 hours to fill up with passengers before it could leave and an extra hour of travelling through the traffic of Ghana’s second biggest city, Kumasi. Total length of travelling: 19 and a half hours.

Finally, we reached our destination. We had been told by Mr Joseph Armah, the Assembly-man to take a taxi to his house. He had assured us that all the taxi drivers know where he lives. Mr Armah is the equivalent of local MP for 4 villages, a well respected man who is fortunate enough to own a large compound, renting out 3 rooms to local Muslim and Christian families. We would be staying the weekend in his guest room.

As the sun set over the mountains and rainforests of West Ghana, Mr Armah and his 12 year old daughter Rachel (Ghanaian name – Afua, as she was born on a Friday) stood together to light the Shabbat candles and sing the Sabbath blessing over the wine and bread, before joining us in a Friday night meal of boiled yams and kontomire stew – a mixture of tomatoes, onions, eggs and coco yam leaves (tastes a bit like spinach).

After an early night, we were woken by Rachel at 8am ready to be taken to the synagogue. Walking through the village, we were joined by adults and children dressed in their best clothes, a mixture of Ghanaian brightly coloured cloth and Western style dresses for the young girls. Rachel pointed out every Jewish house and informed us that there were 3 other Jewish children in her class at school and the Christian teachers had started to understand that the Jewish children sometimes had to miss classes due to festivals.

The Shabbat service began with a song in Twi, the local language in the Ashanti region. We were told that the song means ‘We thank G-d for all He has done for us’ and that thanking G-d is a nice way to start the Sabbath prayers. Kofi, the leader of the synagogue, led the prayers using siddurim which had been donated by the Tifereth Israel Synagogue of Iowa. The service was mostly in English as the community only know a few words of Hebrew, with a number of captivating Ghanaian melodies thrown in. The weekly Torah portion was read out chapter by chapter by two of the congregation members standing at the front of the synagogue, first in English, followed by Twi. Kofi then summarised the Torah portion in both languages so that the children could understand what had been read.

After the service, the congregation asked if we would return after lunch to teach them something about Judaism, some Hebrew songs and about the UK. After a meal of cold rice and spicy tomato fish, we returned to the synagogue to play Ghanaian game Ampe with some of the children and talk to the community members. We had just as many questions for them as they had for us, and as the adults spoke varying levels of English, Kofi became translator.

We learnt that the community only found out about Judaism relatively recently. Their ancestors had always been different from their Christian and Muslim neighbours. They always had their day of rest on Saturday, they slaughtered their own meat in a special way, kept laws of family purity as well as circumcising their sons. In the 1970’s, a visitor to the village noticed their strange customs and realised that this community may have historical links to one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Their leader at the time travelled to Accra, the capital of Ghana, to find out more about Judaism. He was put in touch with an American organisation ‘Kulanu’ who specialise in educating and linking isolated Jewish communities around the world with more established communities in America and Europe.

Since then, the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso have grown in strength and numbers. Unlike my Jewish community in London, these African Jews are not mostly doctors and lawyers, they are farmers. They produce about 5 bags of cocoa beans a year to sell at 200 cedis a bag (£75) and walk 4 kilometres to sugar cane plantations where they earn 15 cedis a day (£5.50). The children mostly leave school at 16 after Junior High School to help their parents with work on the farms.

These Jews are proud of who they are. They are teaching their children to stand up and be counted as part of the wider Jewish community. It has not always been easy for them to be different from their neighbours, especially in a country where Judaism is almost unheard of. Walking through the village on Saturday, I noted that my Jewish hosts greeted not only their Jewish friends, but also their Christian and Muslim neighbours as we passed by. Although they have diverse traditions and practice a religion that’s almost unheard of in Ghana, this community has managed to combine faith and culture in a unique way, promoting values of tolerance and acceptance of others.

As an Orthodox Jew from the UK, I felt drawn to ask myself ‘are these really our fellow Jews?’

However this only brought to light many more questions. What defines someone as a Jew? Everyone knows the classical Orthodox position that if your mother is Jewish, you are also Jewish. Yet what is it about someone’s genetics and heritage that makes someone inherently Jewish? Do we really have the right to classify someone as of a particular faith? But if anyone can say they are Jewish, does this delegitimise the Jewish conversion process? And do we really have the right to judge the commitment of the Ghanaian Jewish community to their faith? What will be the future of the Ghanaian Jews? Will they ever be considered part of the global Jewish community?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, I left the Western region of Ghana inspired by this community. Each member of the community is completely dedicated to their particular way of life and eager to learn more about Judaism. Not only are they devoted to practicing their faith, they are tolerant and understanding of others. As we left Mr Armah’s compound on Sunday morning, the Christian family next door greeted us on their way to Church and the Muslim and Jewish children living in the compound waved to us as they pounded yams in the yard together to make local dish ‘fufu’. So I must conclude that regardless of the future of this community in Ghana, for now, as they learn more and more about Judaism, let us leave this inspirational community to themselves and learn from them the value of standing up for ourselves in the secular modern world. The question I am left with is not ‘are these people really Jews?’ but ‘Does it really matter?’

And if you do ever find yourself in Ghana, be sure to visit the Jews of Sefwi Wiawso. The community is warm and welcoming and is always pleased to receive visitors!