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March 13, 2012 1:34 pm

The New Jews of Cameroon

avatar by Bernard Starr

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A minyan at the Beth Yeshourun Community - Cameroon. Photo: Kulanu.

Serge Etele is a thirty-one-year-old cocoa farmer and native African who lives in Sa’a, a small rural village in Cameroon, on the west coast of Africa. He and his family, as well as a thousand others in his village, were members of a Pentecostal Christian congregation. Today, though, Serge considers himself a Jew. He is the spiritual leader of the Beth Yeshourun Jewish Community of Cameroon.

What is most remarkable about Serge’s transformation is that at the time of his self-proclaimed conversion he had not heard of any Jews in Cameroon (although there are reports of ancient connections to Judaism), and he never met or had any contact with Jews. How then did this unlikely and puzzling conversion take place thirteen years ago when he was still a teenager?

In a talk at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on February 23rd–his first excursion out of Cameroon—Serge told his story in halting but adequate English (French and English are the official national languages of Cameroon but 230 tribal languages are also spoken). The audience was captivated. After the presentation, I had the privilege of interviewing Serge for more details about his spiritual journey.

Serge was chaperoned on his visit to the U.S.–which is part of an East Coast tour of speaking engagements with Jewish organizations and student groups–by Rabbi Gerald Sussman and his wife Bonita. Two years ago Kulanu, a Jewish organization that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world, sent the Sussmans to Cameroon to help Serge and his congregation of fifty self-converted Jews broaden their understanding of Judaism, obtain study materials and prayer books, and establish contact with other Jewish groups.

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Serge’s journey began when he studied the New Testament at his Pentecostal Church in Cameroon, where Christianity is the most popular religion. He said that the deeper he got into his readings the more he could not shake off disturbing contradictions. In particular, his perception that Jesus did not fulfill the Old Testament requirements for the Jewish Messiah–“Jesus did not bring in the golden Messianic age.” The fact the Christians say that the “Second Coming” of Jesus will fulfill biblical messianic prophesies did not sit well with him. Also, he was troubled that Jesus was “not of the Davidic line”—another requirement for the Messiah. Although Mary’s husband, Joseph, he said, was shown to descend from David in the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. Then Serge asked himself, If Jesus was the dedicated Jew that he is portrayed to be in the New Testament then to honor his teachings shouldn’t I be living the life of a Jew–not the life of Jesus the Messiah but the life of Jesus the practicing Jew?”

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Serge’s conversion was revealed in what he said when asked what meaning conversion to Judaism had for him. In his poised, self assured and soulful manner he said that he couldn’t explain it in terms of words or logic but that as he explored Judaism he felt in the depth of his being that he was Jewish. A moment of stunned silence consumed the lecture hall.

When Serge, along with several people in his family, and a number of members of the Pentecostal group decided to become Jews they were at a loss about how to proceed. They didn’t have Jewish prayer books nor did they know how to practice. Soon afterwards, though, the world of Judaism opened up to Serge when Internet access came to his area of Cameroon. Although just a high school graduate–he couldn’t afford college–he had a thirst for learning. He became a regular at a local Internet café where he dived into intense study. He swiftly improved his English, learned Hebrew, and was soon reading the Torah in Hebrew.

Serge sought to practice Judaism authentically—strictly observing the Sabbath, celebrating all the Jewish holidays—and doing so by following the letter of the law. But how to do that, he wondered, without instruction. Then he thought, what better source than the Torah, since all the Jewish laws come from the holy Old Testament. So, in his group’s first celebration of Passover they followed guidelines in Exodus and Deuteronomy and actually slew a lamb, as was practiced in the Temple in Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Roman’s in 70 CE. But he would soon learn about contemporary Jewish practices and services.

Aided by the Internet’s worldwide access he eagerly sought contact with other Jews for mentoring and guidance on Jewish practices. Much to his frustration, initial efforts to contact rabbis and Jewish organizations were unsuccessful–virtually none responded. Looking back, he thinks that happened because his inquiries began by identifying himself and his group as Pentecostal converts. The Jews he was reaching out to probably assumed that he was a Messianic Jew who embraced Judaism and Jesus as Messiah. But fortunately, Kulanu was intrigued by Serge’s query and responded. Harriet Bograd, President of Kulanu was impressed by Serge’s dedicated pursuit of Judaism. Kulanu became his lifeline to the wide world of Judaism.

To give Serge easier access to Jewish communities in the U.S. Kulanu arranged for Serge’s formal conversion to Judaism. The ceremony was conducted in New York City by three Rabbis. Circumcision, a requirement for Jewish males to fulfill the “covenant” was not a problem. Serge had been circumcised, since it is a common practice among all faiths in Cameroon.

Serge sees growing interest in Judaism in his community and expects more to join his congregation. Gerald and Bonita Sussman firmly believe that Serge’s growing erudition, infectious sincerity and sense of mission will make him an important voice of Judaism in the coming decades.

What are Serge’s plans for the future? His primary dream is to intensify his Jewish studies and be ordained as a Rabbi. Then, he longs to build a small synagogue and acquire an authentic Torah Scroll—Beth Yeshourun currently holds services in the homes of members .

Mark Twain quipped, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” after he heard that the New York Journal had published his obituary. Throughout the millennia Judaism has encountered numerous declarations of its imminent demise. There were persuasive reasons to jump to that conclusion: The Babylonian conquest and enslavement, enslavement in Egypt, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans along with slaughter, enslavement and banishment, the Nazis genocide, and more have all been proven to be greatly exaggerated forecasts of the end of Judaism. Renewal and revitalization have always resounded–sometimes in unforeseen ways.

Is Serge Etele and Congregation Beth Yeshourun the vanguard of a new and surprising revitalization of Judaism—out of Africa?

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  • Steven Morgen

    Le Rico
    Jews are aware of Christian interpretations of the Suffering Servant as a Messiah and the Christian theology that requires a “blood sacrifice” for atonement. However, neither of these elements are Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh.
    Isaiah 53 is understood by Jews to be referring to the Jewish People and not to the Messiah. Indeed, elsewhere in Isaiah that is positively the meaning of the “Suffering Servant” – a metaphor for the Jewish people generally.
    As for the requirement of sacrifices for atonement, Jews do not believe that sacrifices are necessary for atonement at all. Hosea 14:3 says that prayers alone can achieve atonement. Hosea 6:6 says that God prefers acts of kindness to sacrifices as a means of atonement. these are only two texts which can be sited as evidence of the Jewish approach that God judges us based on our actions – do we truly repent of the sins we have committed and pour our hearts out to Him in prayer? Do we demonstrate our essential goodness by performing acts of kindness to make up for the hurt we have caused?
    Moreover, Jesus’ death is not considered a “sacrifice” in the Jewish faith. Our understanding of the story of Abraham binding Isaac is that God hates human sacrifice. this interpretation is borne out by later prophets who expressly state God’s revulsion with the pagans who sacrificed their children to their gods.
    In short, the interpretations you have provided are Christian interpretations of the Bible which are completely acceptable and understandable in the Christian faith. However, they do not fit with Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh which we believe are more obvious and more closely connected to the text itself. In any case, the Christian interpretations of the Bible are neither obvious nor necessary, and are rejected by Judaism. That is why the author of this article did not feel the need to address them.

  • Thanks to Bernard Starr for the great coverage of Serge Etele’s Kulanu-sponsored speaking tour!

    Visit kulanu.org to learn more about the Jewish community of Cameroon and about isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world. http://www.kulanu.org lists Serge Etele’s upcoming events in DC/Maryland, Virginia, Atlanta, and Manhattan. Please pass this on to your friends!

    You are welcome to visit Kulanu’s web site at kulanu.org, and our page about Cameroon, kulanu.org/cameroon.

    Harriet Bograd, President, Kulanu, Inc. http://www.kulanu.org

  • Bernard Starr

    Historians say that there was a lot of Jewish migration to various parts of Africa. So there is plausibility to your suggestion. A genetic link to Jews has been authenticated for the Lambas of South Africa:

    http://www.freemaninstitute.com/Gallery/lemba.htm

  • Le Rico

    Serg’s assessment of the death of the suffering Messiah is as if he doesn’t read from the Tanakh at all?

    Rabbi Bruce L Cohen
    In the absence of our Temple (destroyed two millennia ago, in 70 c.e.), we have no sacrificial system to deal with the justice demanded by our human sins. Without atonement (just punishment for wrongdoing), Ehyeh cannot simply “forgive” sin and remain just. Without blood-sacrifice, there can be no atonement: and without our Temple, there can be no sacrifices, and thus no forgiveness of sin through that means.
    Our Hebrew Scriptures are not silent on this subject. In direct context of the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the prophets point concretely to only one method of atonement: faith in the death of Messiah (Daniel 9:25-27, Isaiah 53).

  • I eat in a local kosher chinese resturant in Brooklyn NY approx 3 nights a week. I honestly think my eyes are starting to slant.I remember an old rye bread advertisement,’you dont have to be Jewish to love levys rye’ showing a chinese man eating a slice of rye bread. Sitting in the back of my mind is that commercial over and over.Suddenly..I felt a transformation, I told myself, I must be chinese.Its a sign, I love chinese food and I remember that commercial so vividly. Then i took a walk through china town and saw all the handbags and watches and all the name brand things like prada and gucci just what my ex wife bought as soon as our divorce was settled and she went on this shopping spree and where did she go but to china town.I mean everyone in our community has these same brands.Then I went to the internet not knowing what to search and from no where, it came upon me..search general chow chicken,,what can be more enlightening to learn about my background as my mother and wife always make chicken soup and the bar mitzvahs always serve chicken nuggets…THATS IT, LIKE MAGIC I FELT TRANSFORMED,I FELT FREE, I FELT LIKE..LIKE.. I WAS ALWAYS MEANT TO BE CHINESE THEREFORE YES YES YES..I AM CHINESE.
    I went to my rabbi very excited and told him what happened to me.My rabbi looked at me square in my eyes wide open with this new found excitement…
    …The rabbi picked up his phone and called hatzalah…

    • Chana Devorah

      Jewish identity is a condition of the soul – a spiritual identity, not just an ethnic one. Someone with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is “ethnically” Jewish, but in fact does not possess a Jewish soul. A person who is ethnically Irish, African, Chinese, or just “ethnically” Jewish, and converts according to halacha, is proven retroactively to have possessed a Jewish soul their entire life. It is this Jewish soul, this deeper dimension of oneself, that a person recognizes within when they are initially inspired or driven to pursue a conversion.

      Your sarcastic comment is totally off-base and rude.

    • Bernard Starr

      Your analogy to Chinese food is lame and frivolous.Serge’s commitment and dedication to Judaism is all consuming–not quite the same as seeking Chinese food look and taste-a-likes. His practice of Judaism exceeds that of most Jews in Israel and the U.S.

  • Bernard:

    I believe I sat to your left at this event and the stunned silence related to Serge’ to his true heart felt feeling that he was a Jew should have only surprised those who did not understand the question and answer by a non- jewish person in the audience who also from Cameroon. He asked Serge which tribe was the progenitor of his ancestry. Serge mentioned four tribes. Another member of the audience that one of these tribes had some connection to Judiasm. I understood, as others in the audience did not, that that tribe, who’s name eludes me now, had been reported in scientific journals and in the Jerusalem Report as having a similar genetic code as all Kohanim do in the entire worldwide Jewish population.
    Though there is no proof that Serge’ ancestoral tribe was part of the 10 lost tribes but maybe his feelings for Judaism stems from that tiny connection. At worst, it may be thought to ponder.

    • Bernard Starr

      Historians say that Jews going back to ancient times migrated to different parts of Africa–possibly some of the ten lost tribes. So your comment has plausibility. Genetic testing on the Lembas of South Africa has authenticated their link to Jews:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYrQvm_llBY

      http://haruth.com/jw/JewishLemba.html

      • When Chabad and the ultra orthodox start teaching their children Hatikvah and allow flags of israel and hatikvah in their schools, perhaps than they should have standing to criticizze others-so many ultra orthodox want money and social benefits from Israel yet do not reconize the nation state-the preceding Chabad Rebbe opposed the creation of Israel as did many other religious jews-ultra orthodox people will criticize this well intentioned convert-when they give up their undeserving benefits they receive from Israel, then they should have standing to comment on this man

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