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[By: Mara Weiss]

The first traces of Judaism in Ghana appeared in 1976, thanks to a Ghanaian man named Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa. Living in the community of Sefwi Sui in Western Ghana, Toakyirafa had a vision and "spoke with spirits" driving him to believe that he and his fellow Ghanaian's were indeed descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. He saw a clear connection and many similarities between his peoples practices and those of Judaism. For example, it was a tradition in Sewfi for Saturday to be a day of rest. Such a strong tradition that Sewfi that didn't adhere to it were frequently punished. Sewfi also followed the Jewish dietary law restricting the consumption of pork. Members of the male community were circumcised in youth. Toakyriafa was first viewed as crazy but over time his vision became more and more readily accepted.

Toakyirafa's certainty about his ancestery only grew as he traveled to the Ivory Coast. He studied the history of the population of Sewfi. The Sewfi had traveled south to Ghana but had come through what is now the Ivory Coast. He was convinced that the Jewish community of the Ivory Coast had migrated there from other documented Jewish communities.


The House of Israel Community, Sefwi Wiawso

After his trip to the Ivory Coast, Toakyriafa began educating the Sefwi Sui and Adiembra communities about their Jewish hertitage. He taught them Jewish practices and traditions, integrating Judaism into their lives and preaching the study of Judaism to others. They called themselves the House of Israel.

The House of Israel was not accepted in Adiembra, a community neighboring Sefwi Sui. Christians violently abused and imprisoned House of Israel leaders. Most of Adiembra member of the House of Israel moved away.

Aaron Ahomtre Toakyirafa died in 1991. Many thought that the Sewfi community and all of the Judaism that had been taught would just fade away. This almost happened, but in 1993, Toakyirafa was replaced by David Ahenkorah as the leader of the community. Ahenkorah experienced a life-altering vision very similar to that of Toakyirafa. The community then relocated to the small town of Sefwi Wiawso, known as the Jewish neighborhood of New Adiembra.

There is currently a synagogue and family living facilities in New Adiembra. Most members of the community are the first generation of Ghanaians to be Jewish. There is a core group of approximately 800 people practicing Judaism. The community originated from Jews in North Africa crossing the Sahara Desert centuries ago, ending up in the Ivory Coast. Over time, people lost connections to their Jewish roots, but apparently maintained some Jewish customs, such as burying the dead immediately after dead, and avoiding some meat considered to be unclean.

David Ahenkorah remains the spiritual leader of the House of Israel Community. According to Ahenkorah, "They call me a rabbi, but I just call myself a teacher. I haven't been trained."

During nightly group meetings, David and "Rabbi" Alex read from donated books about Judaism, teaching community members of all ages about Jewish traditions. On Shabbat Alex reads from a English language Tanach, a gift from a synagogue in Iowa (according to the sticker inside the book), as David interprets the week's parsha line by line. Each sentence of the Torah is read aloud three times, once in the local language Twi, then in English, and finally translated into a colloquial mixture of of Twi-English.

The synagogue in Sefwi is described in Forward as a "rectangular concrete building, recently painted a brilliant blue and white to match the Israeli flags that hang above the doorways. A center aisle divides the two sections of handcarved wooden pews: the five pews to the left for men, the five to the right for women."

For many decades, the Jews of Sewfi believed they were the last remaining Jews in the world. It was not until the late 1980s, that one of the Ghanaian men travelled to the capital of Accra, and ask the government officials whether there were other Jews. The Ghanaian Jews were surprised to discover there were millions of other Jews in the world. The community had to travel to the Ivory Coast, to contact the Israeli government. The Israeli embassy provided the community with one Torah Scroll and a single siddur, prayer book.

During the late 1990s a man by the name of Michael Gershowitz from the Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Des Moines, Iowa arrived at the Ghanaian community to learn about their history. Through support of Tifereth Israel, Gershowitz was able to provide the Jews of Sewfi with an additional 200 prayer books. In honor of the Tifereth Israel Synagogue of Iowa, the Sewfi community has named their synagogue "Tifereth Israel" in honor of the generous Des Moines congregation.

On March 26, 2004, Bar Dahan was the first Ghanaian to become a Bar Mitzvah.

The community's goal is to build a Jewish school for the children of Sefwi. Recently, 40 acres have been acquired from a local tribesman, but not enough funds have been produced to start construction. Some of the children have learned Hebrew songs and phrases, but are forced to go to local Christian schools due to the lack of a Jewish one.

Ghana is considered the first African country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, though the date is unverified. In September 2011, reopened its embassy in Ghana after 38 years of closure and it is anticipated that the embassy will help foster and deepen bilateral relations between Israel and Ghana for their mutual benefits.

In November 2012, after a four-story mall collapsed in Accra that killed three and injured over 50 people, the Israeli Air Force sent a plan carrying medical personnel, engineers, and communication experts to help Ghana pick up the pieces of the tragedy. A Magen David Adom team was also sent to the region.

Also in November 2012, the Israeli government lent $217 million to the University of Ghana to build a 600-bed teaching hospital in Legon. Once completed, the hospital will feature state-of-the-art trauma and emergency services, a heliport and internal medicine department, Surgery, Obstetrics and gynaecology, pediatrics, cardiology, heart surgery, and medicinal imaging. The Sheba Medical Centre in Tel HaShomer, Israel will provide assistance to ensure that Ghana's new teaching hospital measures up to global standards in medicine and health. The facility will provide Ghanaians and people in the sub-region the opportunity to access excellent medical care in Ghana.

Contacts

The House of Israel Community
P.O. Box 57
Sefwi Wiawso, Ghana W/R

Embassy of Israel
No. 2, First Circular Road
Unit One, Josni Residence
Cantonments, Accra, Ghana
P. O. Box CN 91, Cantonments, Accra


Sources: The Jews of Africa
Kulanu
Austin Merrill, “Letter from Ghana: In West Africa, a Synagogue Where the Pavement Ends,” Forward, (October 28, 2005)
Suk, Tom. "Gifts Link Synagogues: Ghanaians' prayer books come from Tifereth Israel." November 10, 1999.
Yoav Zitun, "Ghana: Mall collapses, Israel sends aid" YNet, November 8, 2012; "Ghana gets $217m Israeli loan to begin construction of 600-bed Legon teaching hospital," Ghana Business News, November 25, 2012.

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