The struggle for Jewish education
Not long ago, a friend told me about an obscure Nigerian tribe, the Igbos, who identify as Jews and consider themselves descendants of the ancient Israelites.
There are about 40,000 Igbo Jews who attend 26 synagogues in Nigeria. They practise Jewish rituals such as brit milah and observe kashrut, as well as Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
From a religious standpoint, not much separates Igbos from Jews around the world, except for one major obstacle – the Boko Haram.
Boko Haram, concentrated in northern Nigeria, is a violent jihadist terrorist organization. In the Hausa language – a popular African dialect – Boko Haram directly translates as “Western education is sinful.”
Essentially, a tribal faction of radical Islamists, the Boko Haram will take any measure to eradicate man-made laws or practices.
It is extremely difficult for any Nigerian to receive a formal education in the face of their Boko Haram adversaries. Obtaining a Jewish education and practising Jewish customs are particularly dangerous.
This is not the first time Jewish education has been targeted by outside forces.
In the story of Chanukah, King Antiochus of Syria forbade Jewish learning in an attempt to eradicate Judaism. Despite the sinister decree, many disobeyed the edict and continued to study Torah and observe Judaism in an effort to maintain Jewish laws and customs for future generations.
In 1480, the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sought to preserve Catholicism in their kingdom and ensure the mass conversion or exile of both Muslims and Jews.
During this period, known as the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were prohibited from engaging in Jewish learning on penalty of death. As with the story of Chanukah, many Spanish Jews, referred to as Conversos, underwent Catholic baptism and conversion, yet secretly practised Judaism.
The most notorious record of antisemitic statutes was found in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Public burnings of Jewish books began as early as 1933, during Hitler’s first year in power. As the Holocaust inched closer, Jewish children were forbidden to attend public schools and eventually outlawed from Jewish schools as well.
Once again, the antisemitic decrees did not prevent Jews from keeping their faith. Despite the dire circumstances in the ghettos and camps, many adults secretly provided children with a Jewish education.
They created makeshift ways of preserving their Judaism and continued to observe Jewish holidays and customs to the best of their ability.
Looking back on my 14 years of Jewish education, I can’t recall a major obstacle that stood in the way. Though I reflect back on my time at Leo Baeck Day School and the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto nostalgically, I am utterly grateful for the education that I am now aware others are still fighting to obtain.
In Canada in the 21st century, it seems unthinkable that we will ever face such challenges as our ancestors encountered in their endeavour to engage in Jewish education.
But even though Jewish schools are available and accessible in Canada, the latest issue is the exorbitant tuition fees. Jewish education is becoming virtually unaffordable for many.
The question is: how far have we truly progressed from the reigns of King Antiochus, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and the leadership of Adolf Hitler?
Considering the Igbos’ inability to have a Jewish education because of their conflict with the Boko Haram, and Canadian families’ contemporary struggle with Jewish private school costs, the challenge definitely continues.
Contrary to my preconceived notions, it appears that our battle for Jewish education is far from over.