Exterior View (2012), 15” x 11” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker
House of Israel Synagogue (Completed in 1998)
Interior View (2012), 15” x 11” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker
The House of Israel black sub-African Jewish community is based in the small and remote towns of Sefwi Wiawso and neighboring Sefwi Sui in southwestern Ghana. The House of Israel, of the Sefwi tribe, alleges to be descended from one of the ten lost ancient tribes of Israel. They believe their ancestors migrated across the desert from North Africa centuries ago and settled in Ghana. The history, background, and claims of the community continue to be studied and debated. Since the late 1970s, they have identified themselves as Jews and gradually connected with some Jewish communities mainly in the United States and Europe. They have not, however, formally converted to Judaism. The community estimates itself to number two hundred men, women, and children.
In 1998, the House of Israel community built a modest synagogue at the base of Sefwi Waiwso’s mountain in an isolated and quiet area of town called New Adiembra. According to the community, they chose a spot at the lowest point in the Jewish quarter because of the Torah's admonition "you shall not worship from the high places," an apparent reference to the Canaanite practice of building altars on mountaintops (and contrasting the arrangement of the elevated ancient Temple in Jerusalem).
The synagogue is located down a dirt road on a grassy and unspoiled site near a few private houses and away from commercial activity and commotion. The building is a simple rectangular structure constructed of concrete masonry units finished with a veneer of painted plaster. The color scheme, a medium blue at the base and white above, was selected for its overt associations with Jewish objects, including the tallit (prayer shawl) and Israeli flag. The building has no proper windows but rather seven rectangular panels of grouped perforated masonry units to allow slits of light to permeate the interior space. Otherwise, only the three royal-blue paneled wooden doors – one on each of the long sides of the building and the third to the rear – allow natural light inside the space. The roof of the synagogue is framed in simple wood trusses that are covered in corrugated metal sheets. Aside from the electrical box affixed to the side of the synagogue and some steps, the building is void of any other details or elements. Without decoration in the architecture, the structure appears very utilitarian, and it lacks any community-based embellishments and personalization aside from readily-available local construction materials.
Next door to the synagogue to one side live community members, and to the other side is a visitor’s center under construction at the time these watercolors were painted. The House of Israel congregation is building the guest house believing that tourists in growing numbers will soon visit the site and wish to stay in the area overnight.
The interior of the rectangular sanctuary measures 20’-6” x 33’ and features a painted concrete floor and concrete block walls veneered in plaster painted, once again, white and blue. The room also contains wood paneled doors also painted blue, and window openings with grouped perforated masonry units to allow in some natural light and ventilation. The space is furnished with long stained wooden benches, three wooden bookcases for prayer books, Judaica objects including candle sticks and a menorah (candelabra), educational materials, a wooden table covered with a white table cloth, and a draped rectangular wooden bimah (platform where the Torah is read). Officers of the congregation sit in this area. Ceiling fans, a naked bulb as the ner tamid (eternal lamp), and a single fluorescent lighting fixture hang from the raw wood trusses that make up the roof framing. The open ceiling exposes the underside of the corrugated metal roof.
Although there is no Ark and no full-size Sefer Torah, there is a pulpit (platform) one step high along the room’s eastern wall. This wall, closest to Jerusalem, is draped with white and blue fabric. A few Israeli flags and blue and white ribbons hang throughout the sanctuary, yet there is no other decoration in the space particular or personal to this black African community. Men and women sit separately as per Orthodox Jewish customer, yet there is no mechitza (a traditional screen partition) dividing the genders. To one side of the sanctuary is a door that opens into a small unpainted storage room. Among the things in this room is a small Torah, printed on paper and not inscribed as per kosher tradition on parchment, in a wood and glass case. This Torah was hand-delivered to them some time ago by an Israeli businessman visiting Ghana. Although the community cannot read it, they treasure this special gift and treat it as a precious object not to be disturbed.
Some years back, while preparing for a visit to Sefwi Wiawso by an American tourist and member of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in Des Moines, Iowa, two-hundred prayer books were arranged to be donated by this congregation and sent to the House of Israel Synagogue. Since the community did not have books or materials for their entire membership before then, this donation was particularly well-received and appreciated. Other Jewish publications, ritual and liturgical objects, holiday ware, and Jewish education material have also been generously donated to the community over the years.