There is a congregation of Nigerian Jews in Joburg. Who knew?
I first visited the Bethel Messianic Assembly in October, to take photos for my friend Marie-Lais’ “Other Side of the City” column in the Citizen. Marie-Lais and I showed up unannounced, but fortunately the door was open.
“What religion are you?” asked the man at the door.
“I’m Jewish,” I said proudly, figuring my religious heritage would give us a foot in the door. The man led Marie-Lais and me inside and introduced us to the rabbi, Nathan Obiekwe. Rabbi Nathan greeted us warmly and we sat down for a chat. On our way through the outdoor passage that led to Rabbi Nathan’s lounge, I noticed a large room filled with people, all lying on the floor.
Rabbi Nathan in the lounge of his home. The house doubles as the Bethel Messianic synagogue. Note that the rabbi is holding a bible in his hand — this congregation reads frequently from both the old and new testaments.
“Why are there so many people here on a Wednesday morning?” I asked the rabbi after a few minutes of small talk.
Rabbi Nathan looked at me curiously. “Today is Yom Kippur,” he said, half smiling.
Busted. I’m technically Jewish but I’ve never practiced. I’m so ignorant of the religion of my birth that I didn’t realize we happened to visit Bethel Messianic on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Moshea Egbo, one of several leaders in the Bethel Messianic congregation, reads from the Torah during Yom Kippur. The congregation usually sits on chairs during prayers, but on Yom Kippur they sit or lie on the floor.
Fortunately Rabbi Nathan didn’t judge me. (Or if he did, he kept those thoughts to himself.) He was extremely welcoming to Marie-Lais and me, and then welcomed me back a few months later when I returned with my blogger friend Ang to do a story about Bethel Messianic for #TheGodProject.
Inside the Bethel Messianic Assembly
I’m not going to give away too much about the Nigerian Jews of Joburg in this post. If you’ve read my God Project posts before, then you know Ang writes an in-depth post about the experience on her blog, and I mainly just share photos on mine. I’ve got lots (and lots) of photos to share.
I thought nothing could beat the last religious service Ang and I visited for #TheGodProject — a wedding ceremony at the Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But Shabbat prayers at Bethel Messianic blew my mind even further.
Women on their periods are not allowed inside the synagogue, and I’m assuming that’s why this woman and her child were outside. But that didn’t stop her from singing, dancing, and enjoying the service, despite the fact that rain was bucketing down.
I don’t agree with everything I saw and heard at Bethel Messianic — the gender inequality, for example, and the anti-Islamic sentiment and the unexpected outpouring of praise for Donald Trump. But I was fascinated by the story of Nigeria’s Igbo Jews and the Messianic interpretation of Judaism. I was completely charmed by Rabbi Nathan and his determination to journey thousands of miles from home to build a congregation in South Africa, against stiff odds and a lack of acceptance and respect among mainstream Jews.
I also love the message Rabbi Nathan sent me via whatsapp, the evening after our visit: “May Elohim bless and keep you, oh daughter of Jacob.”
I’m not sure why, but I like the idea of being a daughter of Jacob. If I ever decided to become Jewish for real, I’d be tempted to do it at Bethel Messianic Assembly.
The Bethel Messianic Assembly is at 105 Regent Street in Yeoville.