An effort is under way to get members of a black southern African tribe who claim a Jewish heritage to accept Orthodox Judaism, by offering them a yeshivah-type education on a farm at the foot of the Soutpansberg mountains in South Africa’s Northern Region.

Around Hanukkah time, an emissary will leave the U.S. for South Africa, with the aim of helping the Lemba, Christians who believe they are descendants of Abraham, set up a school to teach a group of youngsters Orthodox Judaism. Those behind the project have been excited not only by Lemba oral tradition – they claim to be a lost tribe that moved to Yemen around 2,500 years ago before migrating to Africa – but also by a remarkable genetic finding that has revealed that Lemba males exhibit a high incidence of a chromosome marker found among Jewish priests, or kohanim. (See “Decoding the Priesthood,” The Report, May 10.)

“The main goal is to set up a nucleus of a school based on the yeshivah model and to institute Shabbat services,” says Shmuel Wapnick, a South African-born physician now living in the U.S., one of the initiators of the project.

Wapnick, who says money is being raised to help in the construction of a synagogue and “halakhically built” mikvah on a farm owned by a wealthy Lemba, explains that his aim is “to try to find a group among the Lemba who are willing to accept Orthodox Judaism … Every Lemba is interested,” he says, “but not all are prepared to commit to halakhic Judaism.”

The Lemba, most of whom are Christian and believe in Jesus while insisting that they are Jewish, might well find joining the Jewish faith an uphill battle. Wapnick says that the South African Orthodox establishment has refused to support his effort and that the initial response of Cyril Harris, the chief rabbi, was “negative. The South African Orthodox under Rabbi Harris,” says Wapnick, “said they don’t see any reason to convert the Lemba as a tribe. But that’s not what we’re doing. We’re not claiming a whole group should be automatically accepted. We’re at the point where the Ethiopians were 100 years ago.”

Wapnick also wants to help set up a clinic on the farm and to bring out Jewish doctors for a month or two. “My goal,” he says, “is to be able to ultimately have an Orthodox minyan.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, who specializes in tracking down “lost” Jews around the world through his Amishav (My People Returns) organization, is also skeptical about efforts to turn the Lemba into practicing Orthodox Jews. “What will you do with them once they are converted?” he asks. “What will they get out of it? They won’t have anyone to marry there. How long will they last?”

Avichail also questions whether converted Lemba – the tribe numbers between 50,000 and 70,000 – will ever be accepted by Israel. The project, he contends, “will create a problem for the Lemba and, in the future, for Israel.”


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