Ghana’s Budding Jewish Community Celebrates High Holidays
Joshua Armah in front of the river where the Ghanaian Jewish community performed ‘Tashlich’
Monday is Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year for Jews. The holiday will be marked in Jewish communities around the world, including Western Ghana.
A small group of people from the Sefwi tribe in western Ghana converted to Judaism in the 1970’s. While many Sefwi people observed some Jewish laws for centuries, including refraining from work on Saturdays, this group declared themselves ancestors of ancient Israelites and starting calling themselves Jews.
Every year during the high holidays Jews visit a river and throw in bits of bread and cookies, to symbolize getting rid of their sins. Joshua Armah, 13, belongs to the Jewish community in Sefwi Wiawso about seven hours from the Ghanaian capital Accra.
“I was thinking that even, the fishes would not get the biscuit to eat,” he said. “I was thinking that maybe the biscuit would just mix with the water. But when the fishes are in the water they just see that the biscuit is coming and immediately it gets into the water and they too will come and take it off.”
The holidays mark the beginning of a new year for Jews. Like many other members of the religion, the Ghanaian Jews will fast on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. It is a 25-hour fast from food and water that starts Sunday night. Armah says he’s figured out how to get through the hard day.
“The best thing for you to do is to go and sleep, and you’ll not feel very hungry,” he said.
But the Ghanaian Jewish community did not always celebrate these festivals. Until the early 1990’s they only observed the weekly Sabbath and the spring holiday of Passover. They first learned about the other Jewish holidays from foreigners who came to visit their community.
“Christians, they celebrate Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, Pentecostal Day, and many occasions,” said Joshua Armah’s older brother, Patrick, who is also an active member of the community.
“But at first when they saw us celebrating only Passover and they were saying, ‘Oh, this is not a good type of religion for you to belong.’ So when we got to know about Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, maybe lighting the candles and the Feast of Esther, which is Purim, and the fasting day, we were really happy,” he said.
Despite its small size, the community is strong in its convictions. And they have received a lot of attention from outside Ghana. Members work with a group in the United States called Kulanu, which seeks to support Jewish communities around the world. The leaders of the community expect to incorporate new holidays into their routine as time goes on. They are looking forward to celebrating even more Jewish holidays this New Year.