Jews In Cote d’Ivoire? An Untold Story

Rabbi and Bonita Sussman with Professor Marla Brettschneider and the emerging Jewish community in Abidjan.

By Bonita Nathan Sussman

For about 20 years a new Jewish community has been developing in Abidjan the capital of Cote D’Ivoire.

It started as an outgrowth of the International Kabbalah Center founded by the Bergs about 50 years ago in which Kabbalah Centers were seeded throughout the continent of Africa. It was open to the public, everyone of every faith and belief was welcome to learn kabbalah and meditative techniques that would benefit and improve the quality of lives for the practitioners. It promised to make people more aware, calmer and better to cope with the daily stressors of their lives circumstances through the study of Kabbalistic texts.

Some women of the Jewish community; photo by Bonita Nathan Sussman.

What happened in Abidjan and in other places, a group of practitioners came to believe and understand that to really practice kabbalah in the right way, one had to practice Judaism. They studied Hebrew, learned how to pray and celebrate Jewish holidays and some travelled to Israel to study with renowned Kabbalists and set up a community of practicing individuals in Abidjan.

They differ from other groups in Africa that practice Judaism in that while some are poor and struggling with poverty issues, for the most part they are middle class, live in a large city and are educated with college degrees and the like, some are professionals and are on faculties in the Universities.

A Jewish library in Abidjan; photo by Bonita Nathan Sussman.

My husband Rabbi Gerald Sussman and I visited this group in 2014 as volunteers with Kulanu, a group that supports returning, emerging and isolated communities around the globe. We will be returning in December with a Bet Din to perform 42 conversions. We were privileged to bring them a sefer Torah that was donated to Kulanu and we added books of Jewish learning to add to their library of sidurim, machzorim and books of higher learning like the Sefer Hachinuch, Tanya, the Ben Ish Chai.

The 42 candidates have been studying Judasim for years and recently had a rabbinical student From Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Elyahu Friedman, teach there for a month this summer through a rabbinical student program initiated by Kulanu called the Kulanu Global teaching Fellows. This year there were 19 applicants for 5 places from 7 rabbinical schools.

Cornet Alexander Zouko, developer and leader of Jewish community; photo by Bonita Nathan Sussman.

The male candidates for conversion have circumcisions and will undergo hatafat dam brit, meet with Bet Din individually as the women will and go the mikva. They all have written questionnaires documenting their journeys and answering questions to holidays, life cycle events and beliefs and impact on families.

All over the world there are emerging Jewish communities that long to convert to Judaism and become part of the Jewish people. They come to Judaism for many reasons, some claim descendency from Lost Tribes or consider themselves Children of the Inquisition, others come from a place that reject Christianity and associate it with imperialism, others relate to the Jewish experience of persecution and the concept of redemption as seen in the State of Israel.

They live Jewish lives and sacrifice to be Jews often at financial loss to them (since they stop working on Shabbat) and are often rejected by family and old friends.

Here is an interview I had with Alexander, one of the leaders of the community who is the Kulanu liaison to Cote d’Ivoire, it was taken in 2014.

Bonita Nathan Sussman is Vice President of Kulanu.