NEW YORK (Feb. 28)
A Conservative rabbi declared here today that he had been in correspondence with leaders of some 1,000 Nigerians who considered themselves Jews and who had informed him that they were prepared to undergo conversion to assure their acceptance as Jews. The report was made by Rabbi Lester Hering, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Jacob. of Merchantville, N. J., at a meeting of Hatzaad Harishon, an organization seeking to aid black Jews. The meeting was held at the 92nd Street Y, in one of its regular monthly meetings. This one was open to the public. Rabbi Hering told the meeting that his discovery of the Nigerian would-be Jews started with a letter he received in 1967, from one of the leaders of the group, reporting they had discovered Judaism on their own and that they wanted help and recognition as Jews. Rabbi Hering said that the Nigerian leaders had learned about the existence of a worldwide Jewish community-from a Christian missionary who happened to be carrying a Camden County (N.J.) yellow-page telephone directory. One of the Nigerians, identified by Rabbi Hering as Jacob, looked through the directory and found Beth Jacob Congregation. Rabbi Hering said he suspected that the Nigerian chose his congregation because of the similarity between its name and his.
He said that in response to a letter from the Nigerian leader to his synagogue, he had replied in 1967, starting a correspondence which was interrupted by the Nigerian civil war and then resumed. In July, 1970, he reported a member of the Nigerian group came to California for a university course and wrote to him from there. He said that he had learned from his correspondence that the Nigerians “have truly discovered the philosophy of Judaism” independent of any previous knowledge of Judaism. He said the Nigerians had no Jewish background and that the three original founders were Christians who had decided to reject Christianity. He quoted a letter from U.E. Umoren, which said, “we are not Christians but Israelites. Teach us about Judaism.” Rabbi Hering said that the group has “five or six” synagogues and that the members were miss ionizing in the southern section of Nigeria. He reported they call their houses of worship synagogues, although the structures have none of the usual components of a Jewish house of worship.
Rabbi Hering reported also that the Nigerians have only the Jewish materials he had sent them–some prayerbooks and Jewish history textbooks. He added that he wrote to them in English, since they do not know Hebrew, and that they replied in an “understandable” pigeon-English. He also reported that the Nigerians had called their leaders “rabbis” until he suggested, in one of his letters, that the term was limited to individuals who had taken specific training. Accordingly, he reported, the Nigerians started calling their leaders teachers. Asked by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency for his views on their status as Jews, Rabbi Hering said that, in terms of Jewish Religious Law, they could not be considered Jews, but that they were “sincere” in their desire to do whatever was necessary for that status, including conversion under acceptable Halachic direction. He said they observe such rituals as they know about and can observe, including rest on Sabbath and the Holy Days. On that basis, he said, he felt American Jews should assist the Nigerians by providing them with necessary ritual materials, educational aid, and similar help. He said he thought some American Jews should visit Nigeria for a direct contact and observation of the Nigerians and their needs.