Senior Explores Jewish Identity in Ghana

January 11, 2019 — Corine Forward (C’19) has always been fascinated by the concept of identity, especially identities that seem mysterious or idiosyncratic to most of the world.

This interest brought her to one of the most obscure and isolated communities in the world: the Jewish community of Sefwi-Wiaswo, Ghana, which she is studying for a senior thesis.

DISCOVERING A MINOR

A native of Oakland, Calif., Forward had little to no exposure to Judaism before arriving at Georgetown. Seeking an elective for her planned African-American studies minor, she enrolled in a cross-listed course called “Blacks and Jews in America” with Professors Jacques Berlinerblau and Terrence Johnson. Soon, she was hooked.

“I didn’t even know any Jewish people in Oakland, so it was fascinating to me,” Forward said. “The Center for Jewish Civilization and the minor it runs is one of the best communities around.”

With the encouragement of Berlinerblau, for whom Forward would TA the next year, she elected to pursue a minor in Jewish civilization in addition to her planned English major and African-American studies minor. She’s thoroughly enjoyed her classes since.

“I went on to take a creative writing class with David Ebenbach where we read a lot of Jewish stories, a lot of Jewish authors, and we’d pull from that when we went to do our own writing,” Forward said. “Now I’m in another called ‘Jews on Trial,’ and seeing the atrocities that have happened time and time again — especially through the legal lens, because I want to be a lawyer — has been incredible.”

A LOST COMMUNITY

Forward spent the spring of her junior year abroad in Ghana, an experience she cites as one of the best things Georgetown allowed her to do.

When she began to seriously consider topics for a senior thesis earlier this year, she had a moment of inspiration: Were there any Jewish communities in Ghana?

“I knew that I wanted to write a thesis on something involving blacks and Jews,” Forward said. “I knew there were Jews in Ethiopia, in Nigeria, so I started to wonder if there was anything in Ghana — it would be really interesting subject to look at.”

Not only did a Jewish community exist — in a nation where Christianity is a pervasive aspect of everyday life, no less — but there had been virtually no academic research done on it. The Jewish Ghanaians of Ghana’s Sefwi-Wiaswo region, according to Forward, had been more or less treated as a bit of trivia in most books on the international spread of Judaism.

“There was nothing more than 10 pages or so on this community in any given book,” she said. “I knew it was what I wanted to write about.”

RETURNING TO GHANA

With multiple sources confirming the community’s existence and so little documented about them, Forward had her work cut out for her. But with such an original research topic, Forward’s advisors recommended she conduct on-the-ground research — no easy task, with a full course schedule and no way to make the transatlantic trip.

Enter the CJC. Working with Berlinerblau and CJC Chief of Staff Anna Dubinsky, Forward produced a budget and secured funding for last-minute flights to and from Ghana this October.

Forward’s host family from last year’s study abroad, with whom she had grown close, happily received her and helped set her up with contacts in the town where the Jewish community was located. Georgetown’s Institutional Review Board approved her research plan, and on Halloween weekend she ended up on a plane.

“I got a direct flight, arrived in Ghana, and surprised my host mom, who was so happy to see me,” Forward said. “My host aunt knew someone in the Sefwi, so I got on the phone with him and he agreed to help us out.”

An 11-hour bus ride later, Forward saw what she had come for — though she didn’t quite believe it at first.

“We pulled up to a storefront, and I just assumed it was a friend of our contact,” Forward said. “He’s putting out his fruits and stuff, and then I notice a yarmulke on his head. I thought ‘This man is Jewish!’”

JUDAISM AND WHITENESS

Forward spent the next two days interviewing and observing members of the Jewish community in Sefwi-Wiaswo on topics ranging from specific religious practices to the difficulty of observing as a tiny minority in their country. While her thesis remains a work in progress, she was able to share her general approach.

“When we think of Judaism in America, we usually think of whiteness,” Forward said. “I wanted to examine where this puts Jews of color — especially these Ghanaian Jews, who are written off in a lot of the literature. It didn’t sit well with me, and I wanted to figure more of it out.”

The community’s traditions date back for generations, but they did not begin to identify as “Jewish” until 1976, when a local leader had a vision that his religious community was descended from one of the 12 tribes of Israel. He reached out to the nearest Israeli embassy, who helped him establish guidelines for creating a modern Jewish community.

What does this history mean for how we think about them in the context of global Judaism? Forward will tackle that question head-on.

“They believe they’re Jews. They believe they are descendants of Abraham. That should be just as legitimate as the Judaism of people here,” Forward said. “They know the prayers, they’re learning Hebrew, they light the candles on the Sabbath, they celebrate the high holidays. They observe.”

— Patrick Curran