(lubavitch.com) This year, school break in Nigeria coincided with Passover. For Chabad emissary to Central Africa, Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila, it provided an opportunity too obvious to ignore, and for the first time in Central African history, a Jewish camp—with two branch locations—was established, drawing a total of 70 Jewish children.
In addition to a range of sports and recreational activities, children explored Jewish traditions and history together, over a two-week period. According to Rabbi Bentolila this was a “real camp experience . . . in a totally Jewish environment.”
For years now, Bentolila—who arrived to Central Africa more than twenty years ago— has been sending Chabad rabbinical students to Nigeria to host Jewish activities, including holiday services, educational seminars and children’s programs. In the past, these programs typically drew crowds of between 40 to 200 people.
The Jewish community in Nigeria—consisting primarily of Israelis as well as a number of American and European businesspeople and diplomats—dates back to the late fifties. After Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Israel established full diplomatic relations with the newly independent country. Ten years later, when Foreign Minister Golda Meir designed the Israeli African policy, hundreds of Israeli professionals were sent to the region to help Nigeria with technology, agriculture, education and medicine. Hundreds of Nigerians also traveled to Israel for training in the same fields.
Following the Yom Kippur War, under heavy pressure from the OAU resolution, sponsored by Arab countries, Nigeria discontinued all official diplomatic relations with Israel. Nevertheless, Israeli and Nigerian businessman maintained commercial alliances. In addition, Israelis continued to reside and work throughout Nigeria. Full diplomatic relations between the two countries resumed in September, 1992.
Nigeria’s Jews generally live in the country’s capital city of Abuja or in Lagos, a port city and the second most populous city in Africa. A significant number of Israelis also live in Ibadan.
This year, Bentolila hired Yisroel and Mushka Uzan from Paris, to put together a Jewish camp, from the ground up. The newlywed couple arrived in Lagos to do the legwork—locate campsites, recruit children, purchase all necessary supplies, and arrange for kosher food to be shipped from abroad. They visited schools, Israeli residences, compounds and local embassies. “The response was impressive. Everyone was interested in participating,” Yisroel Uzan said.
Directing the camps—in Lagos and Ibadan—were rabbinical students who were in Africa to conduct Passover seders in Lagos and Accra, Ghana: Yossi Rodel, Aryeh Leib Hurwitz, Mendy Mochkin and Pessach Woloslow.
For two weeks, Jewish children, some with little or no prior exposure to Judaism, were immersed round-the clock in a Jewish environment.
“The feeling of joy after knowing you instilled a sense of pride in these children is empowering,” said Rabbi Bentolila. “The amazing success of the camp is an indication of how much more we can accomplish in Central Africa.”