By Menachem Posner Chabad.org
Known for its steamy jungles, raw beaches and bustling markets, the West African nation of Ghana is home to 28 million people, perhaps 500 of them Jewish. Since 2015, the Ghana Jewish community has found a home at the Chabad-Lubavitch Center of Ghana in Accra, directed by Rabbi Noach and Altie Majesky. In this interview, Zachary Bucheister, a native of Westchester, N.Y., describes what it’s like to be part of Ghana’s tight-knit, but chronically transient Jewish community.
Q: The first thing I am wondering is how a nice Jewish boy from Westchester ended up in Ghana …
A: I came to Accra in February of 2016 from Oxford, England, where I had just finished my MBA. I set out to help build a business advisory and market-research firm that a classmate of mine had founded—a company focused on promoting private sector growth in sub-Saharan Africa.
I showed up at Kotoka International, literally bag in hand, in the middle of a torrential downpour and blackout. I had never been to Ghana before, and that first night in a flooded, dark apartment was quite the experience. Up to that point, I had limited exposure to Ghanaian (or West African) culture, and over the next few days I was reeling from the colorful, intense and powerful reality playing itself out all around me. My family is affiliated with Chabad of Briarcliff, and I occasionally had attended the Chabad House in Oxford, so it was natural for me to ask my dad, somewhat wistfully, if something similar existed in Accra.
I remember sitting in Vida Cafe in an area called Cantonments when literally 45 minutes later, I got a call from Rabbi Majesky inviting me over for that Shabbat. He gave me exact directions to the Beit Chabad, as it is known here.
Q: What is the Chabad House like?
A: Located on a pothole-ridden dirt road behind a security wall lined with large palm trees, the Chabad House is a spacious home on an expansive property. Inside are classrooms for the Hebrew school and summer camp, as well as a large rec room for prayers, which is also used for meals when the crowd is too big to fit around the dining-room table.
The layout is open and inviting, which reflects the mood very well. Everyone who walks in is invited to have a cold drink, join the prayers and meals, and definitely encouraged to make a l’chaim.
It doesn’t matter what your prior level of observance may be; every Jew in Ghana is welcome at Chabad. Some join for holidays, some for every Shabbat, and some for other programs or events. But the Majeskys do all they can to make everyone feel at home.
Q: Who are the community members, and where do they come from?
A: There is no historic Jewish presence in Ghana. When Rabbi Noach and Altie showed up, they literally created something from nothing. I am sure folks had been gathering for holidays and special celebrations—and there is the Israeli embassy—but to the best of my knowledge, there was no communal place for Jews in Ghana to call home.
The core of the community is formed by Israeli businesspeople and their families. They are mostly here for the “traditional” Israeli export industries: construction, security, infrastructure.
Some Israeli families join regularly, and their kids run around with Yankee, Hillie and the rest of the Chabad children who are always brightening the house. But I think the BeitChabad was especially important for those of us without family in Ghana. That was my anchor, my community—the one thing I could rely on amidst the uncertainty. It didn’t matter if they were building businesses, working in natural resources, staffing the Israeli or American embassies, Peace Corps Volunteers, New York University students coming through for a semester as exchange students. Whatever they were doing in Ghana, on Friday night they would be eating Altie’s spicy fish and matbucha salad, and having a drink poured for them by Rabbi Noach.
In the past two years, things have really grown. When I arrived, we generally had a minyanon Friday nights and sometimes on Shabbat morning. Now there is always a minyan on Fridays, and more often than not, on Shabbat and Sunday mornings as well.
It’s a heady experience and hard to imagine if you haven’t experienced it. People come to Ghana to work very hard and are under a lot of pressure during the week. Ghana is a lovely country, but the work stresses, the outrageous traffic jams and hectic bazaar of life in Accra can wear your nerves down to frays. As soon as people arrive at Chabad for Shabbat, that pressure melts away. They are greeted by the Majesky kids, they sit with their friends, and everyone just feels at home and at peace.
Q. With a mix of Americans and Israelis, what’s the common language spoken at the Chabad House?
A: Exactly as you would imagine: It’s a mix of English and Hebrew. In typical Chabad fashion, Rabbi Noach is always encouraging everyone to do a bit more, be it come up for an aliyah or prepare a short talk on the weekly Torah portion. Those can be in either language and sometimes a mix, based on the crowd.
I guess it’s best expressed by the five Majesky kids, who know everyone and greet them like best friends, which they are. The kids speak Yiddish, Hebrew, English, French and a bit of Twi, which is a local language in Accra. On Sunday mornings after eating Israeli-style shakshuka (tomato and eggs), the kids would beg for motorcycle rides in every language they knew how. Actually, on that note, Ghana was the first (well, only) place I ever taught a rabbi to ride a motorcycle. Not sure if it’s every day in other Jewish communities that you see a black-tie Chassid trying to ride a Boxer motorbike.
Granted, there were no motorcycle rides on Shabbat, but people come early to socialize, join the services and then linger over the meal way past midnight. Everyone feels welcomed, knowing that there are even beds available to sleep in overnight if they want.
Q: What are the logistical challenges of maintaining Jewish life in Ghana?
A: I remember before one Passover, the rabbi commented that there is not a single Passover product that could be gotten locally. Everything needs to be shipped from abroad, which can be complex. But even with all the logistical challenges, before Passover there were boxes of matzah handed out for everyone, Chanukiyot and candles for every house on Chanukah, and gift baskets on Purim. The hurdles just don’t seem to matter. The Majeskys get it done.
The rabbi is a trained shochet (ritual slaughterer), so he supplies whoever needs with fresh kosher poultry and invites anyone interested to join for his farm visits on Wednesday mornings. Beef, on the other hand, is brought from elsewhere and is carefully stockpiled.
Noach and Altie Majesky are a team. Everything they do for the community is a joint effort. They share the burden of preparing events, teaching, guiding and everything else. Together, they are the spark and the lightning rod; they know every Jewish person, and every Jew knows them.
There is a very strong communal spirit here, so if anyone is coming into the country and can bring an additional suitcase, they’ll see if they can bring something for others, including kosher food and other supplies for the Chabad House.
Q: What are Jewish holidays like?
A. On holidays, everyone showed up for the Beit Chabad parties. You have to show up, if only for the food.
There is usually Chanukah menorah-lighting in some hotel lobby (a lot of events happen at hotels here), but there is no question that the Beit Chabad is the center of the action, where everyone comes together and feels like they belong.
Rabbi Noach and Altie brought down a Jewish cover band for Chanukah one year, and that’s a surreal experience. You know you are in West Africa (the palm trees and intense humidity make it impossible to forget), but there you are eating sufganiyot and listening to Israeli musicians belt out a mix of Chassidic music and Led Zeppelin.
Simchat Torah and Purim here are just unbelievable; the joy is palpable and contagious. I can share some pictures, but of course, the best stuff happens on Shabbat and holidays when photos are not allowed, so you’ll have to use your imagination or come yourself to experience it.
When you live in a place where Judaism is more accessible, you may or you may not decide to take advantage. But here on the holidays, on Shabbat, you just need that sense of family. You know that all that’s expected is for you to show up, and that’s exactly what makes Judaism here so special.