The Jews of Ethiopia
Isaiah 11:11 says, "In that day the Lord shall set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people, who shall be left, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea."
What's referred to as Cush in the ancient Scriptures is likely modern-day Ethiopia. According to ancient tradition, Ethiopia's Jewish connection goes back to the time of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. A 14th-century document known as the Kebra Nagast ("The Glory of the Kings") records that Solomon and Sheba had a son named Menelik I, who later returned to Ethiopia with his family and the Ark of the Covenant.
Others believe that Jews from the exodus made their way up the Nile and eventually settled in Ethiopia. Most historians, however, believe their presence in Ethiopia is post-exilic and traces back to the Roman dispersion of Jews migrating from Yemen to the horn of Africa. Whatever history is correct, we do have the account of Phillip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39), who was led to faith not from paganism but from Judaism.
Known as the Beta Israel (House of Israel), the Ethiopian Jews were officially recognized by the State of Israel in 1973. In fact, the Israeli government conducted two dangerous operations to bring them to Israel: Operation Moses, which took place over a period of seven weeks in 1984-85, during which 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel. Operation Solomon, a covert airlift, was conducted in 1991 and brought 14,500 Ethiopian Jews to Israel over a 24-hour period. Sadly, thousands of the Beta Israel identified as Falasha Mura (converts to Christianity) were left behind.
Another tribe of Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Avraham, was originally part of the Beta Israel community. But in the 17th century, a false messiah rose up among these people and ultimately led them to join the Orthodox Church. They broke away, becoming their own tribe and eventually settled in the Ethiopian district of Kechene, near the capital city of Addis Ababa. Jewish Voice brings a team of medical doctors and volunteers to help this community every year and operates a full-time medical clinic known as Bete Hibret.
A third offshoot of Ethiopian Jews, the Gefat, lives farther south in the Ethiopian rural countryside of Woliso and Hosanna. A remote community made up of 20,000 to 30,000 people, this tribe has faithfully observed Jewish customs for hundreds of years, including circumcising their male children on the eighth day, applying the blood of a lamb over their doorposts at Passover and keeping biblical dietary laws. In fact, their name, Gefat, means "the blowers"—according to their oral history, they were chosen by the kings of Ethiopia centuries ago to blow the shofar ahead of the Ark of the Covenant in official processionals.
I became aware of this community in 2010 when their elders contacted me during one of our medical clinic outreaches in Addis Ababa and asked for our help. The following year we held our first medical outreach in Woliso. Thousands came for treatment, and we've returned regularly ever since.
To date, Jewish Voice has planted and supports a flourishing network of eight Messianic Jewish congregations in Ethiopia, all of which are experiencing rapid growth.
The Bnei Menashe of India
Near the border between eastern India and Myanmar are the two Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram. Within these lives an ancient community called the Bnei Menashe, believed to be descended from the lost tribe of Manasseh. Oral history holds that they were captured by Assyria along with the rest of the northern tribes of Israel and eventually landed in China. Then, in the second century, they migrated to India in the wake of Chinese persecution. Many converted to Christianity in the 19th century through the work of Welsh Presbyterian missionaries.
In 2008, a rat infestation completely overtook the rice crops in Mizoram, threatening starvation. This famine drew global media attention to the Bnei Menashe. When I heard of their plight, I felt the Lord strongly prompting me to do something to help. After an advance trip to assess the needs, we provided hundreds of tons of rice and brought a large team of doctors and dentists to provide free medical, dental and eye care to the Bnei Menashe. We've been back every year since. More than 900 members of the Bnei Menashe have prayed with our prayer teams to receive Jesus as their Messiah.
In 2011, the Israeli government decided to allow 7,300 members of the Bnei Menashe to come to Israel. Several hundred more have also recently made aliyah (going up to the Holy Land), but thousands still remain and live in a state of deep poverty.
The Lemba of Zimbabwe
God made good on His promise to scatter the children of Israel to the uttermost parts of the world. Perhaps nowhere is that more evidenced than in the remote bush of Zimbabwe, where we've often had to wait to land our six-seater prop plane until zebras exited the clearing we use as a makeshift runway. Here we've found the Lemba, a tribe numbering over 70,000 and spread throughout Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa.
In a recent DNA study, 70 percent of the Lemba sampled possessed the Cohanim gene (from an ancient Jewish priestly line)—a higher percentage than both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews sampled. This finding has generated significant interest among the Jewish community and strongly supports their 800-year claim to be descendants of Aaron the high priest.
After a whirlwind trip—spent mostly on planes—to meet with the Lemba's elders, we organized our first medical outreach to their community in 2012. Without electricity, hotels or restaurants, we had to truck in the entire clinic on washed-out dirt roads—including tents and the generators needed to power our medical equipment. Since this first outreach two years ago, we now have 30 Messianic Jewish congregations among the Lemba with a weekly attendance of over 3,000. The Lemba are currently the fastest-growing Messianic Jewish community in the world.
The Yibir of Somaliland
Through a dear friend, Gerald Gotzen, I heard about a mystical tribe of people in Somaliland called the Yibir. The Yibir—whose name, some believe, derives from the word Hebrew—were forced to convert to Islam many years ago yet have secretly retained their Jewish identity. In 2012, I sent an advance team to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland to meet with tribal leaders. They quietly shared about their Jewish ancestry and their desire to further connect with their Jewish identity and the State of Israel. We've continued to develop our relationship and are seeking ways to help them in this pursuit.
The Pashtun of Afghanistan
Within the borders of Afghanistan, one of the most uniformly Muslim countries in the world, lives an ethnic group called the Pashtun who some believe to be descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes. The Pashtun are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Though DNA testing has been inconclusive and scholars have disagreed for centuries as to their true origins, it's indisputable that the Pashtun do observe certain ancient Jewish customs and traditions. Many historic markers in the region are written in Aramaic (the language of first-century Judaism) instead of the traditional Sanskrit usually found in this area.
Many of the family names among the Pashtun are Jewish as well, including Levani (similar to Levi), Daftani (similar to Naphtali) and Jaji (similar to Gad). Some historians, as far back as the 1800s, even referred to the Pashtuns as "Yusefzai," meaning sons of Joseph.
The Igbo of Nigeria
In the central-western African country of Nigeria lives a tribe of the Igbo people who call themselves the Bnei Yisrael. They believe themselves to be descended from the lost tribes of Gad, Zebulun, Manasseh, Dan, Asher and Naphtali. Numbering some 30,000, the Bnei Yisrael observe many biblical feasts and maintain the dietary laws and other commandments of the Torah.
We just completed a scouting trip to meet with the leaders of the Bnei Yisrael and plans are under way to conduct our first outreach in Nigeria next year.
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