Orthodox and Messianic Jews Are Competing to Reach the Igbo People of Nigeria Who Believe They Are a Lost Tribe of Israel

Onwukwe Alaezi, standing, presents to a group of Igbo and visitors from Jewish Voice Ministries. Alaezi is part of an organization of Nigerian academics who promote the Israelite origin story of the Igbo. (Courtesy Onwukwe Alaezi)

Onwukwe Alaezi, standing, presents to a group of Igbo and visitors from Jewish Voice Ministries. Alaezi is part of an organization of Nigerian academics who promote the Israelite origin story of the Igbo. (Courtesy Onwukwe Alaezi)

The race is on to reach a “Lost Tribe of Israel” in West Africa.

The Igbo of Nigeria have long believed themselves to be descended from the Israelites of the bible, an oral history passed on for generations. And now there is a competition brewing between Messianic Jews, who teach Jesus Christ is the Messiah, and other Jewish groups, who may want to bring the Igbo into the fold of mainstream Judaism.

“It creates a kind of competition,” said Daniel Lis, a professor of Jewish studies and the author of “Jewish Identity among the Igbo of Nigeria.” “This may create a certain kind of race. The appearance of Messianic groups creates the stimulus for a counter-mission.”

Jewish Voice Ministries International, which seeks to “share the Messiah with the Jewish People” and conducts medical outreaches specifically to “Lost Tribes of Israel” in South Africa and Ethiopia, among other countries, has travelled twice to Nigeria this year.

And Shavei Israel, a Zionist organization that seeks “lost” and “hidden” Jews worldwide, often assisting with their conversion to Orthodox Judaism and immigration to Israel, began sending emissaries to Nigeria this year. A smaller American Jewish organization called Kulanu has also been providing rabbinic Jewish resources to grassroots groups for over a decade.

All three groups say they became involved in Nigeria in response to calls from Igbo on the ground.

The growing tensions in West Africa illustrate the strange dynamics at play in Africa and elsewhere as so-called Lost Tribe or new Jewish groups seek to establish themselves and international organizations, each with their own agenda, enter the scene.

Jewish Voice Ministries International adheres to an eschatological belief held by some Christians that the “ingathering” of Lost Tribes is a sign that the biblical Messiah is returning. Both Kulanu and Shavei Israel have roots in Religious Zionism, which see the establishment of the State of Israel — and the ingathering of the Jewish people — as part of a divine plan.

This summer, Jewish Voice Ministries International held a meeting in the small town of Nnewe, attended by Igbo leaders. Onwukwe Alaezi, a well-known Nigerian author who writes almost exclusively on the Lost Tribe origin story of the Igbo, presented his work to leaders from the missionary group.

In an interview with the Forward, Alaezi said he thought Jewish Voice could be a great ally for the Igbo. Jewish Voice wants to find “Lost Tribes” — and many Igbo want to be recognized as such.

“I am convinced that they are working towards identifying the Lost Tribes,” said Alaezi, “maybe finding a way to reconnect them to world Jewry.”

Alaezi is right — Jewish Voice Ministries International is indeed on a “Lost Tribe” search.

But his hope that Jewish Voice Ministries International could connect his organization with “world Jewry” could be complicated by the uneasy relationship between mainstream Jewish groups and Messianic Jewish groups, many of which — like Jews for Jesus — make it their express mission to urge Jews to accept Jesus Christ.

Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, said that he was unaware of Jewish Voice’s work in Nigeria, but was familiar with the group, which he called a “threat” to the types of emerging Jewish groups that he himself seeks out.

Freund charged that members were “misrepresenting themselves” as Jews. “They are, based on everything I’ve heard, a group that aims to convert people to Christianity while calling themselves Jewish.”

In the eyes of Jewish Voice Ministries head Jonathan Bernis, who identifies as a Jew who follows Jesus, the group is very up-front about what they believe. “There is no question that we believe in the Messiah-ship of Yeshua,” he said, using a Hebrew rendering of Jesus’ name.

“We are motivated to go to locations where the are Lost Tribes and scattered communities,” Bernis said.

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SOURCE: Sam Kestenbaum 
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