Founder and leader of Cameroon synagogue visits Rhode Island

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In late August and early September, Betsalel Laurent Elouna, founder and leader of Beith Bnei Yeshouroun synagogue in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, visited Providence, staying for a week at the home of Rabbi Wayne and Anne Franklin.

The visit came about through William (Bill) Miles, who is a member of Providence’s Temple Emanu-El, a political science professor at Northeastern University and a leading scholar of emerging Jewish practice in Africa. (See my review of Miles’ book, “In the Shadow of Moses: New Jewish Movements in Africa and the Diaspora,” in the March 16, 2018, issue of The Jewish Voice.)

“In 2017, I traveled two days overland with Sar Habakkuk Nwafor, head of Tikvat Israel Synagogue in Abuja, Nigeria, to meet Rav Betsalel Elouna, head of the Beith Bnei Yeshouroun congregation in Yaoundé, Cameroon,” Miles said. “It was the first time these Nigerian and Cameroonian Jewish communities had had direct contact with one another.” 

Miles’ relationship with Nigerian Judaism began in 2009, when he traveled to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, to celebrate Hanukkah at Tikvat Israel Synagogue. He subsequently connected the synagogue with Wayne Franklin, who at the time was senior rabbi of Emanu-El, but has since retired. 

“Having already connected Nigerian Jewry with Temple Emanu-El, via Rabbi Wayne Franklin, I was happy to do the same for this representative of a Cameroonian Jewish congregation,” Miles said of the introduction that eventually led to Elouna’s Rhode Island visit.

 Given Temple Emanu-El’s and Congregation Beth Sholom’s interest in global Judaism, it was fitting that Elouna gave talks at these synagogues during his Shabbat in Providence. He discussed his embrace of the Jewish faith, and the challenges for those who choose such a path in Cameroon.

Adopting Shabbat as the day of rest carries enormous social consequences in the central African nation. It means missing weddings, birthdays, other celebrations, social get-togethers, funerals and communal events that commonly take place there on Saturdays. This often results in tension with family members and the loss of friends, as does the rejection of Christianity. In Elouna’s case, his decision to embrace Judaism also cost him his marriage.

In addition, there are academic and economic difficulties attendant with Sabbath observance in Cameroon. One of Elouna’s priorities has therefore been to establish, and then expand,    a private school that does not hold classes on Saturdays, thus ensuring that there is a place where those who have chosen Judaism can pursue their schooling on an equal footing with their Christian neighbors.

 This early-childhood, primary and secondary school, which Elouna named “Nili” – the Hebrew acronym for the phrase “the Eternal One of Israel shall not be false,” from the first book of Samuel – is now in its 10th year. The overwhelming majority of its 220 students are Christians whose families have chosen the school for its academic excellence, but it offers extra classes in Judaism, taught by Elouna, for students from Jewish families.

Elouna spends his work week at the school, located in Voundou, over 90 miles from Yaoundé, and then commutes for up to two and a half hours by motorcycle or car to the capital for Shabbat, which he keeps with members of his congregation, numbering some 30 individuals and families.

“I thought he was marvelous,” Mike Fink said of Elouna’s talk at Beth Sholom. Fink, a columnist for Jewish Rhode Island, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design and a former activist for Ethiopian Jewry, said he was impressed with Elouna’s “elegance, his eloquence, but, mostly, his mysticism, his search not for material advances, but for a vision.”

“He seemed to me to bring Africa itself, somehow, down to the little chapel and simple Sabbath table at the corner of Rochambeau and Camp streets,” Fink said.

Rabbi Barry Dolinger, of Beth Sholom, said, “Immersed in the day-to-day, it’s often a challenge to approach Judaism with freshness and full appreciation. Betsalel’s first-hand account was an inspiration to me and the congregants who had a chance to meet him. This is an example of an empowered community that’s making it happen.” 

On Monday morning, Elouna, Miles and I headed to Newport’s Touro Synagogue. Waiting for us there was Meryle Cawley, site director for the Touro Synagogue Foundation, who gave us a tour of the Loeb Visitors Center. We then joined a large group of visitors gathered to learn about the historic synagogue from long-time Touro educator Linda Nathanson. Murmurs of curiosity spread through the group as people heard that the founder and leader of a Cameroonian synagogue was visiting Touro that day too.                  

“My stay in Rhode Island would not have been complete without a visit to Touro Synagogue,” Elouna reflected after the tour. “I noted how the early Jews of Newport established their community, and am thinking of its lessons for Judaism in Cameroon.”

“It was an honor and privilege to host Betsalel Elouna,” Cawley said. “It was so interesting to hear about a man and his community whose journey into Judaism is relatively new, but so passionate and heartfelt. I was moved that he was so taken by our story here at Touro Synagogue.”

Franklin and Elouna used much of their time together to study face-to-face, which was a primary purpose of Elouna’s visit to Providence.

“I have been deeply impressed with Betsalel’s intelligence and his determination to continually learn about Judaism, which he practices with remarkable devotion. That he came to appreciate Judaism and observe its traditions with no supporting environment and no local sources of instruction is astounding,” Franklin marveled.

“He was previously an influential Christian leader in Cameroon, well-versed in the New Testament. But he came to believe that Jesus was guiding him to practice Judaism, as stipulated in the Gospel of Matthew 23:1-3: ‘Jesus addressed the people and his disciples in these words: The doctors of the law and the Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses; therefore do what they tell you; pay attention to their words ....’ I find Betsalel’s keen insight and courage refreshing and amazing.”

On the drive from Newport back to Providence, Betsalel spoke of his and his congregants’ steady journey from Christianity to Judaism.

“I stayed on my track to look for a genuine Jewish faith, observing the law and having nothing to do again with Christianity,” Betsalel said. “Jesus has been for us just somebody to show the way, and that’s all. Now we have arrived at our final destination, and have nothing to do anymore with a single part of Christianity.”

SHAI AFSAI lives in Providence. On Nov. 4 he will  present a program with Salve Regina University’s Sean O'Callaghan, Ph.D. and John Quinn, Ph.D. on "Ireland's Jewish Community and Newport's Irish Rabbi" as part of the Museum of Newport Irish History’s lecture series.