In remote Madagascar, a new community chooses to be Jewish

The conversion process included full body immersions in a river located a 90-minute drive away from Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital. (Deborah Josefson)

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (JTA) — A nascent Jewish community was officially born in Madagascar last month when 121 men, women and children underwent Orthodox conversions on the remote Indian Ocean island nation better known for lemurs, chameleons, dense rain forests and vanilla.

After 10 days of festive conversion rites, 12 couples were wed in Jewish ceremonies. (Deborah Josefson)
After 10 days of festive conversion rites, 12 couples were wed in Jewish ceremonies. (Deborah Josefson)

The conversions, which took place over a 10-day period, were the climax of a process that arose organically five to six years ago when followers of various messianic Christian sects became disillusioned with their churches and began to study Torah.

Through self-study and with guidance from Jewish internet sources and correspondence with rabbis in Israel, they now pray in Sephardic-accented Hebrew and strictly observe the Sabbath and holidays.

The conversions were facilitated by Kulanu, a New York-based nonprofit that specializes in supporting isolated and emerging Jewish communities, but were initiated by the residents.

“Now that we’ve re-established the State of Israel, it is time to re-establish the Jewish people, especially in the Diaspora,” said Bonita Nathan Sussman, vice president of Kulanu.

Her husband, Rabbi Gerald Sussman of Temple Emanuel on Staten Island in New York, added: “We are in the process of reconstituting the Jewish people, which would have been more numerous had it not been decimated by the Holocaust and had we not lost millions of Jews in Arab lands.”

Beginning on May 9, members of the community came before a beit din, or rabbinical court, convened for the occasion at the Le Pave Hotel here, the Madagascar capital. The court comprised three rabbis with Orthodox ordinations: Rabbi Oizer Neumann of Brooklyn, Rabbi Achiya Delouya of Montreal and Rabbi Pinchas Klein of Philadelphia. All three belong to a group of rabbis who serve far-flung Jewish communities and support converting emergent Jewish groups.

Delouya, whose background is Moroccan, spoke with the converts in their second official language, French, and also provided Sephardic influences for which the Madagascar community feel an affinity.

The conversion process included periods of intensive Torah study, interviews by the beit din and full body immersions in a river located a 90-minute drive away from Antananarivo. A privacy tent was hastily erected beside the river for the occasion, and a festive atmosphere ensued as men, women and children, ranging in age from 3 to 85, lined up to take the ritual plunge.

Additionally, the Madagascar men, who are already circumcised, underwent “hatafat dam brit,” or ritual penile bloodletting, to affirm their new faith.

The 10-day period concluded with 12 Jewish weddings and a symposium on Madagascar’s Israelite connections featuring a keynote address by Tudor Parfitt, a British scholar and expert on the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Jews Some of the Malagasy Jews by choice see the practice of Judaism as a return to their roots and an overthrowing of the last vestiges of colonialism. (Deborah Josefson)
Some of the Malagasy Jews by choice see the practice of Judaism as a return to their roots and an overthrowing of the last vestiges of colonialism. (Deborah Josefson)

Indeed, many Malagasies, as the islanders are known, believe they are of Jewish or Israelite descent, and that their founders were seafaring members of the Lost Tribes. Belief in the “Malagasy secret” persists despite evidence that most Malagasies are of Indonesian and African origin.

According to local lore, Madagascar is the biblical land of Ophir and played a pivotal role in providing construction materials to King Solomon’s temple. Many also believe that the Ark of the Covenant and other ritualistic temple items are buried on the island.

Even Prince Ndriana Rabarioelina, a descendant of the Merina monarchy of Madagascar, proudly asserts Jewish ancestry. He told JTA that up to 80 percent of Malagasies can claim Jewish roots. He asserts that portions of the tablets, Moses’ rod and a copy of the Book of Daniel are safeguarded by descendants of Levites in the Vatamasina-Vohipeno region of Madagascar.

Additionally, several Merina tombs, including those of his family, bear Hebrew symbols or letters, he said.

Nevertheless, evidence of a historic Judaic presence in Madagascar is scarce, and what signs can be found could date from from the seventh century, when traders from Arab lands sailed to the island, or the 1500s, when conversos may have been among the Portuguese sailors who established trading posts.

Madagascar, a country of 20 million people, is awash with missionaries. Some 50 percent of the population practices some form of Christianity, while most of the other half practices an indigenous animist faith in which ancestor worship features prominently. Approximately 7 percent of the population is Muslim.

While many Malagasies were brought to Judaism through study of the Old Testament and a sincere effort to get closer to God, some see the practice of Judaism as a return to their roots and an overthrowing of the last vestiges of colonialism.

“I was a victim of the colonizers, as you know we had the French here, and then the communists and then the socialists … so I didn’t have any roots anymore,” said Mija Rasolo, an actor who hosts his own late night talk show on Madagascar TV and took the Hebrew name David Mazal. “So I told myself for now I am going to be Jewish, because that works for me. I found Judaism. I found my roots, baruch Hashem … Am Yisrael Chai” – the people of Israel live.

As residents of Antananarivo began to explore Judaism, three leaders emerged to guide the nascent community: Andrianarisao Asarery, known as Ashrey Dayves; Andre Jacque Rabisisoa, known as Peteola, and Ferdinand Jean Andriatovomanana, known as Touvya.

Ashrey is a dynamic former pastor and singer who works as a pastry chef by day and is famous throughout Madagascar for his television cooking show. His father is also a famous Malagasy singer. He favors a more liberal and welcoming version of Judaism, leads a congregation of about 25, and conducts radio broadcasts on Jewish topics and religious practices.

Peteola, a computer programmer, conducts Hebrew language lessons and religious radio broadcasts. He has a following of about 30 and favors a mystical and kabbalistic approach to Judaism. He teaches Torah concepts with Gematria, through which meaning is derived to the numeric values of Hebrew letters.

Touvya, a self-taught cantor, davens devoutly and sports peyot, the traditional sidelocks mentioned in Leviticus. He leads his congregation of 40 in strict observance of the Torah.

All three have set up makeshift synagogues in their living rooms, while some prayer services are also held in a space provided by the English Language Institute. Services are generally held at Touvya’s house, which is large enough to accommodate most community members. Getting there can sometimes be problematic because not everyone lives within commuting distance of the home. Most Malagasies do not have cars and rely on their feet or bush taxi (taxi brousse) for transportation.

Inevitable congregational differences have also arisen.

The move toward conversion was spearheaded by Ashrey, who functions as president of the Jewish Community of Madagascar, which is also known as Sefarad Madagascar. Ashrey thought conversions would bring legitimacy to the group as well as greater ties to world Jewry.

Touvya and Petoula were reluctant at first to accept conversion. Touvya in particular felt that conversion was unnecessary because he believed that he was already Jewish, and did not want or need the validation of an outsider to confirm it.

Community members dress modestly and strive to keep kosher in a land lacking the proper infrastructure to do so. Without a kosher butcher, most will eat only fish, dairy and vegetable products.

Many observe the practice of niddah, avoiding marital relations or even touching while a woman is menstruating.

Only 30 people were originally scheduled to convert when Kulanu arrived on the scene last month, but the number ultimately swelled to 121 as family members and Touvya’s congregation joined in. Kulanu estimates that at least 100 more potential converts live among the community.

The conversions are an ironic twist of fate, occurring around the 76th anniversary of the Madagascar Plan. Launched by Nazi Germany on June 3, 1941, it was conceived as an alternative method to achieve the Final Solution by deporting European Jewry to Vichy-controlled Madagascar. Most were expected to die en route, succumb to disease or be massacred without international oversight. The plan was never implemented.

Instead, decades after the Holocaust took the lives of 6 million European Jews, one pocket of the African nation has become a place of Jewish rebirth.