Jews from Cameroon, he said, originate from Egypt. In order to escape the Islamic conquest of North Africa they were pushed towards the Equator and settled in Central West Africa 1,200 years ago. Yisrael, formerly Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus, was born into the Ba-Saa tribe. The word Ba-Saa, he said, is from the Hebrew for `on a journey’ and means blessing. Rabbi Oriel claims to be a Levite descended from Moses.
Other Jewish tribes in Cameroon, Nigeria, and Mauritania he said, included Haussa, descended from the tribe of Issachar, who were forced to convert to Islam in the eighth and ninth centuries, and the Bamileke.
He said that in 1920 there were 400,000 ‘Israelites’ in Cameroon. But by 1962 the number had decreased to 167,000 due to conversion from Christian and Islamic missionaries. However, he admitted that these tribes had not been accepted halachically although he could prove their ,Jewish status from medieval rabbinic sources.
Yisrael, whose curriculum vitae states his birth date as ‘The Year of the Beginning of ‘World Redemption’, told me that he is over 50. His father Hassid Peniel Moshe Shlomo (Ngimbus Nemb Yemba), a textile manufacturer, scribe, mohel and tribal leader, had been imprisoned 50 times for teaching his traditional Jewish beliefs.
In 1932 he had run away from a Catholic school because they had wanted him to train for the priesthood.
Yisrael describes the condition of Jews in Central Africa between 1920 and 1960 as “a spiritual Shoah”. Because of intense missionary activity, it was “like the Soviet Union where Jews had no permission for Jewish education, no batei din, synagogues or sifrei Torah. Everything was taught by oral tradition”.
Although young Yisrael (Bodol) was sent to a humanist boarding school, from which he only returned home once a year, he remembers Jewish tradition from his early life at home. His grandfather had built a synagogue, now in ruins, of which his uncle had been the last gabbai. Nevertheless, even without a synagogue, the family prayed to the one invisible God in the Ba-Saa language, which, he said, contained many Aramaic words.
Yisrael was circumcised when he was eight-days-old. The men wore stone tephillin on their arms and wood on their head. His mother Orah Leah (Ngo Ngog Lum) had a large kitchen in which milk and meat were separated by six meters. Shortly before his mother died in 1957, she told him: “My beloved child, one day you will go to ‘Yesulmi’.” It was not till 1980 that he realized that she must have meant Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, soon after Cameroon independence in 1960. Yisrael was awarded a UNESCO scholarship to study in Strasbourg and Paris where he established an impressive academic career in law and international relations.
He was also heavily involved in Cameroon politics, having founded his own political party, the Bantu People’s Party, to oppose the Cameroon government which he considered “barbaric, monolithic and fascist”. Three times, he contested the position of Cameroon president.
Yisrael considers himself the only nonviolent and noncommunist Central African opposition leader, forming a Cameroon government in exile.
Whilst lecturing in Germany, Yisrael entered into a civil marriage with a woman who claimed to be Jewish. They divorced when he became sure she could not prove her Jewish roots. Their son Osiris, he claims, was kidnapped by Cameroon agents, who have repeatedly tried to assassinate him for opposition stance.
In 1980, the German government cancelled his refugee status. His home and belongings were confiscated and he was expelled. Lecturing in Greece at the time, he was advised by his lawyers to put his case to the UN High Commission for Refugee in Geneva.
Lecturing in the Swiss city to a Jewish audience on the Jews of Central Africa, Yisrael met, Elmer Benedict, the Hungarian-born Jew who helped him return to his Jewish roots. Over a cup of coffee after the lecture, Elmer asked him why his head was not covered and invited him to his home for Shabbat. As his refugee passport was expiring and he did not have a Swiss work permit, Yisrael was becoming desperate.
A friend of Elmer’s, Emanuel Gay, offered him a job as a legal consultant in his business and he was able to remain in Switzerland for seven years. During this time he made a decision to start a new Jewish life and cut back on his political and academic ambitions. Meanwhile, he was coping with his own personal tragedies. Not able to return to Cameroon, he had not seen his brother Macir since he left the country and only heard of his father’s death seven years after it occurred.
He made aliya in 1988 and was ordained as a rabbi by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and appointed rabbi to Nigerian Jews. He explained that he was not able to go to neighboring Cameroon because of the political situation.
He accuses the Israeli government, of daily persecutions including the confiscation of his belongings and preventing him from working in the country. He further claims that Israel is racist in its treatment of black immigrants and accuses the Israeli government of trying to prevent the democratic process in Cameroon. He believes that the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Aliya have documents on the Jewish tribes in Africa and fear that if there were democracy in the country, then they might want to rediscover their Jewish roots. Eli Yerushalmi of the Israeli Embassy in Britain would not comment on the allegations.
Despite all the alleged Israeli opposition against him, he claims to have helped most Israeli politicians from Moshe Shamir on the right to Yossi Sarid on the left., for the sake of `Jewish unity’.
He has published 12 books of Torah and set up a yeshiva and kollel in Meah Shearim to train staff to go to Nigeria to bring the 10 lost tribes back to the fold.
His mission is being supported by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Beth Din Zedek, Sephardi Beth Din and Rabbi Avrohom Pinter of London’s Yesodev Hatorah Schools Manchester’s Vaad Hatzdoko has also authorized his fundraising.
When I asked a spokesman for the Jerusalem Beth Din Zedek if he was sure that there were in fact halachically acceptable Jews in Central Africa, he replied that he accepted Rabhi Oriel’s claims.
Rabbi Oriel is currently staying for three weeks at the home of Rabbi Elimelech ilberger, 58 Wellington Street East. Salford 7, where donations can be sent, as well as to Yesode, Harorah School. 2-4 Amhurst Park. London N16 WG. He can be contacted in Manchester on 0161 792 2706 or in Israel on 00972256 896285.
by: Doreen Wachman
THE ultra-Orthodox Beth Din Zedek of Jerusalem is one of the strictest in the world. Yet I am amazed at its inclusivity in welcoming with open arms supposed members of the 10 lost tribes living in Nigeria.
I have always been puzzled by the prophecy of Ezekiel that in the time of the Messiah the 10 lost tribes will be re-united with their Jewish brethren.
How, I ask myself, can this be halachically possible in an age when Israeli converts are not even recognised by British batei din, and after all the halachic problems we have had over the Jewish status of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants to Israel?
Yet it is happening, thanks to just one man. Rabbi Yisrael Oriel (alias Bodol Ngimbus-Ngimbus) was born in Cameroon, according to his curriculum vitae, in “the Year of the Beginning of World Redemption.”
This self-styled messianic figure reminisces about a Jewish homelife in which his mother’s large kitchen had a massive divide between meat and milk, yet he was raised in a humanist boarding school miles away from his Cameroon home which he only visited once a year.
After Cameroon independence, Bodol escaped the new regime for a European academic and political career in which he styled himself head of the Cameroon government in exile.
When things got too hot in 1980 with expulsion from Germany and his refugee permits running out, Bodol suddenly found his Jewish roots and thereby landed himself a job in Switzerland and a work permit.
He later made aliya, suddenly interpreting his late mother’s words to mean that his destiny was in Jerusalem.
When I asked how he managed to make aliya, despite the fact that there seemed scant proof of his Jewish status, the politician’s reply was: ”I have my methods.”
In Israel, despite alleged persecution from the Zionist state, he was ordained as a rabbi of Nigeria by the Sephardi Beth Din.
He chose Nigeria because he is politically excluded from returning to his homeland of Cameroon and is now travelling the world, armed with certificates from top batei din, fundraising for the members of the 10 lost tribes in that country.
It is a fascinating story which raises all sorts of issues about how batei din operate. Although Rabbi Yisrael Oriel is obviously an outstanding secular and Jewish academic, I would like to see a lot more independent research into the supposed Jewish backgrounds of the Central African tribes Oriel alleges are Jewish.
Reprinted from “Nihon-Yudaya, Huuin no Kodaishi” by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, translated from Japan ese by Arimasa Kubo. Following his ordination, Rabbi Tokayer served as a U.S. Air Force Chaplain in Japan, and upon his discharge from the military, returned to Tokyo to serve for many years as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan as well as Vice President and Director of Culture, Religion and Education for the Jewish communities of the Far East.