Malagasy women

Malagasy women get ready to immerse in the river before converting to Judaism, near Antananarivo, Madagascar in May 2016. Photo by Deborah Josefson

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 lives 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.

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. 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 4:30 a.m. 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. 

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.

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