(JTA) — Though there is no synagogue, mikvah or Jewish school in Madagascar, visitors to the African island nation can enjoy a strictly kosher meal, Shabbat services and weekly learning programs.
The Jewish community of 121 people — all of whom converted to Judaism earlier this year — can’t afford to build a synagogue. So now, one member is touring the U.S. to raise awareness and funds to bolster a Jewish presence there.
“If people were rich enough, maybe each family would save money and we’d gather this to raise a synagogue — [but] that’s [the] kind of thing we can’t afford to do,” said Elysha Netsarh, a university lecturer in plant chemistry and a prominent member of the Jewish community, which is based in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo.
Over three-quarters of Madagascar’s population live below the international poverty line ($1.90 per day), according to 2012 World Bank data. The Jewish community is mostly middle class, said Netsarh — most members earn enough to make ends meet but not to put aside any savings.
Some members of Madagascar’s fledgling community started practicing Judaism around 2010, but they became officially Jewish in May, when three Orthodox rabbis traveled to the island off the coast of southeast Africa to conduct the conversions. The conversions make Madagascar home to the world’s newest Jewish community, according to the nonprofit group Kulanu, which supports the community as well as other isolated groups around the world looking to learn about Judaism.
In what Netsarh termed an “extraordinary event,” 121 Malagasies, as the locals are called, answered questions in front of a rabbinical court and immersed in a river, which served as a ritual bath. Men underwent symbolic circumcisions, and 12 couples wed according to Jewish tradition.
Netsarh, like most Malagasy Jews, arrived at Judaism through Christianity. Although she was raised Catholic, she found herself unsatisfied with her faith and tried exploring other Christian denominations. None of them clicked.
“I had this deep thirst inside of me, it was a feeling of something lacking,” she told JTA last month at the Upper West Side apartment of Kulanu’s president, Harriet Bograd, which also doubles as the organization’s office.
Judaism had always lingered in the background for Netsarh. Her grandfather had told her as a young girl that he had Jewish ancestry. Though it wasn’t until years later that she explored Judaism, when she did, it felt right.
“I wanted to seek for something to fulfill me, and I didn’t get it until I had Jewish life,” she said.
Netsarh, 40, isn’t alone in believing she has Jewish roots — a vast majority of Malagasies believe they are descended from Jews, and some community members were hesitant to convert in May because they believed they were already Jewish.
Genetic research hasn’t been able to corroborate their stories, instead showing that the first people to settle on the island were of Malayo-Indonesian origin, explained Nathan Devir, an associate professor of Jewish studies at the University of Utah, who has studied the group since 2012. Later, African Bantu migrants also settled on the island.
But Devir doesn’t completely dismiss the possibility of Jewish heritage. “I don’t really have a definitive opinion on whether or not they are actually racially descended from people that belonged to one of the 10 lost tribes … Given the genetic research that’s been done, it’s unlikely but possible,” he said.
Bograd considers the authenticity of the “Malagasy secret” — as the belief in Jewish heritage is referred to — irrelevant to her work with the group.
“Kulanu’s position, and my position as president, is that when people want to practice Judaism, we welcome them, and if they have sacred stories we honor those … but it is not our job to prove or disprove what actually happened,” she said.
Through December, Netsarh will be speaking at synagogues and Jewish organizations around the United States in order to raise money for Kulanu’s efforts in her community and around the world. Kulanu is in touch with two potential donors to build a synagogue and mikvah in Madagascar — but plans have yet to be finalized, said the group’s vice president, Bonita Nathan Sussman.
Kulanu leaders are hoping Netsarh can shed light on the organization’s work in Madagascar and around the world. In the last five years, the organization has seen an increase in groups reaching out to them to learn more about Judaism, Sussman said.
“We’re getting emails every week from individuals and new communities … People [are] clamoring at the door for Jewish attention,” Sussman said, citing contact with interested individuals and communities in Rwanda, Malaysia, Afghanistan, India and Côte d’Ivoire.
Sussman’s motivation stems from Jewish history — she sees her work as a way to “rebuild the Jewish people” following the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Arab countries.
Meanwhile, the newly “rebuilt” community in Madagascar continues to balance daily struggles and responsibilities with a serious commitment to learning more about their new religion.
In Netsarh’s case, that means finding time to study Torah in between two jobs and family duties— she works both as a lecturer at the University of Antananarivo and as a consultant for a homeopathic medical company and helps to take care of her sister’s children — waking up around 4:30am to do so.
“Each morning when I have my Torah reading it’s like I am drinking energy,” she said.
Most of Madagascar’s Jews cannot study Jewish texts with such ease. Only one other person in the community speaks English, and while most people understand some French, reading complex texts in the language is a struggle.
To that end, Netsarh is working on producing the first-ever Malagasy translation of the the Five Books of Moses and the Jewish prayer book. So far, she has completed the book of Genesis, but she says her work schedule keeps her from progressing as quickly as she would like.
Despite her responsibilities, she hesitates to call herself a leader, saying that in her Orthodox community, even though men and women are considered equal, “men should lead.”
Netsarh cites tzniut, the Hebrew term for modesty, in explaining her ensemble, a brown coat that covers most of her body and a head covering that she custom ordered from a tailor. She isn’t the only community member who follows a strict interpretation of Jewish law, or halacha.
The community, which has three spiritual leaders but no rabbi, errs on the side of caution, rather than potentially transgress Jewish law. For years, when there was no access to kosher meat, members ate a strictly pescatarian diet.
“All the people in the community want to progress in a spiritual level so getting a higher spiritual level is much more important [than eating meat],” she said.
While on tour in the U.S., in addition to raising funds for her community, Netsarh hopes that the unique Malagasy Jewish experience can inspire American Jews. She has heard that “religion sometimes here is superficial because of the social environment.”
Jews here can “learn from our life and mainly from our way to be Jewish,” she said.