Yom Kippur has always been somewhat problematic for me. I have never fully understood the concept of a fast resulting in God’s absolving you of a year’s worth of sin. In the progressive Reform Jewish community and household in which I was brought up, I chose to omit the conversation with God. Instead, I focused my energy and thoughts on those whom I may have wronged, including myself, and let the universe and my friends and family hear my apologies and desires to improve in the coming year.
I suppose my Judaism ultimately lies in childhood tradition, in spirit and in community, but not necessarily in observance, ritual or belief. The idea of reflection and forgiveness, however, speaks to me, so I listen.
This past Yom Kippur found me in Ghana. Thoughts about the High Holy Days, coupled with homesickness and curiosity, led me on an Internet search for signs of Jewish life. I stumbled across Kulanu, which supports small isolated Jewish communities across Africa and Latin America. Among Kulanu’s blog posts, I found an essay recounting a visit to the small village of Sefwi Wiawso, a mere three hours away, home to the only 150 Ghanaian Jews in existence.
Before I knew it, I was arranging accommodations for a Yom Kippur visit that would prove to be the most intriguing High Holy Day I had ever observed.
After waiting 21⁄2 hours for a decrepit minibus, I traveled on a bumpy dirt road and eventually made it to the mountainous Sefwi Wiawso. I was met at the station by a kind young man named Alex Armah, who turned out to be the rabbi of this tiny community. Although it reportedly numbers 150, I did not see more than 20 community members during my stay.
During the beautiful taxi ride up a mountain to the guesthouse and adjacent synagogue, Rabbi Alex told me about his community, his yeshiva studies under a rabbi in Uganda and his dreams for his people. I was blown away by the scenery and the fact that a Ghanaian had just said the word “yeshiva.”
Rabbi Alex, who said his community has been practicing Judaism since the 10 tribes were lost, believes members are descendants of Jews from the neighboring Ivory Coast.
During Ghana’s colonization, he said, missionaries promised money and luxuries to the region’s king in exchange for Christian conversion. The king obliged, punishing Jews who continued to practice.
The Jewish community of Sefwi Wiawso all but disappeared until 1975, when one man claimed that God spoke to him in a dream, insisting that the people of the region are not Christian but Jewish. Determined to rebuild a Jewish community, he gathered followers slowly and today the tiny village of Sefwi Wiawso exists.
After unpacking and sitting down to rice and tomato stew with fish, suddenly it was 5:15 p.m., the setting sun was moving quickly and the Kol Nidre service was about to begin.
The synagogue is a small, unassuming cement building, painted half blue, half white, with a single Star of David on the front. The inside looks more like a church than a temple, with several pews set up in rows, an aisle down the center and a podium at the front. The prayerbooks hail from 1986. The service focuses on call-and-response reading and recitation. Members observe Shabbat, wear tallits and chant the same Mourner’s Kaddish as my parents in California.
The Yom Kippur morning service ran almost 5 1/2 hours without breaks. I barely noticed the passing of time, mesmerized by the complexity of the observance, in four languages. Call-and-responses are read in English; the sermon is in Twi, the language of the Ashanti region, and then explained in English and Sefwi, the even more localized dialect of the community. Prayers are chanted in Hebrew, the Torah portion and Haftorah recited in Twi, and songs are sung in Twi, Sefwi and English. It is a veritable who’s who of languages, an intermingling of cultures and practices that is unique to this village.
We ended the service at midday with a few hours to nap and then returned to the synagogue at nightfall for closing prayers and the Havdallah service, where I was unexpectedly invited to help Rabbi Alex lead the prayer. I had no earthly idea how this would work, but I simply started chanting the words as I knew them.
As I began to sing, others joined in and, except for a few melodic variations and pitch changes, we were singing in harmony, in sync. They knew my melody. I knew their melody. This traditional and isolated Jewish community in the mountains of Ghana chants the same Havdallah tune as mainstream liberal Reform Jewish communities across America. I was stunned and suddenly felt a powerful, human connection with this group of strangers, with whom I shared only a religious background.
It was then 7:30 p.m., and I almost forgot I’d been fasting for over 24 hours when my food was delivered. Rabbi Alex and I retired to the front porch, sat in plastic chairs, discussed the humanity of Jesus and the foundations of faith, and in the distance all I saw were fireflies and all I heard were crickets. The next day, I was back in Kumasi, my life again strangely devoid of Jews.
Those two days I spent with Rabbi Alex and Sefwi Wiawso’s Jewish community left me with more questions than answers, but also an overwhelming admiration for their strength of conviction and dedication to their faith, to their history, to their tradition and to their ancestry. The village’s remoteness in the Ghanaian mountains makes growing their following a quintessential uphill battle.
I didn’t return from this trip more religious than I was before. However, I did make a conscious decision to return to my own roots and remind myself what it is about Judaism that I love.
I am selectively spiritual. If I am moved by what I see, feel or hear, I hold onto it. I was inspired and touched by the physical and soulful beauty of the Sefwi Wiawso community, and I intend to hold on to the lessons their story can teach me about my own faith.
Laura Ross-Perry grew up in Marin County, where she attended Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. She is the director of operations for the poverty-alleviation NGO Exponential Education in Kumasi, Ghana. Ghana’s Jewish community desperately needs Jewish ritual objects and other materials, as well as financial help; learn more at www.kulanu.org or contact email@example.com.