While working overseas on a volunteer placement with a human rights organization in Ghana, downtown Toronto filmmaker Gabrielle Zilkha found herself longing to connect with her own faith.
Zilkha, who is Jewish, asked around to find anyone with whom she could share Rosh Hashanah and, after some research, learned of Sefwi Wiawso, a small and remote village of Jewish Ghanaians living in a Christian and Muslim-dominated country.
“I didn’t believe it at first, but I figured I had nothing to lose,” Zilkha said. “I arranged to stay there for two days and wound up staying a week.”
While there, Zilkha discovered the villagers followed many of the Jewish traditions familiar to modern culture such as celebrating the Sabbath and sticking to a kosher diet, but also had other rituals dating back to the pre-Rabbinical days, with similarities to the teachings of the Old Testament.
She was struck by the strangeness of seeing a relatively small group of people – known as the Sefwis – practicing a religion when virtually no one else around them was practicing it.
“What I believe, and what the Ghanaians believe, is that they’re one of the lost tribes of Israel,” she said. “Jacob’s 12 sons each led an Israelite tribe and while two of the 12 tribes remained in the southern part of Israel, the other 10 tribes have been largely unaccounted for.”
The Sefwis did not even know their traditions and beliefs were shared by others anywhere on Earth until some 20 years ago, making their devotion to Judaism all the more incredible.
Now, Zilkha is working on a documentary titled The Jews of Ghana: From the Four Corners of the Earth, which will examine the journey the Sefwis have made toward self-discovery while aiming to connect them with the larger Jewish community.
“The movie will look at what it meant for them to go from being isolated and worshipping something no one else does to realizing they’re part of a global religion,” she said. “I want to bring eight members of the community to Israel to give them the opportunity to reconnect with their Jewish roots and history.”
While focusing on the Sefwis, the film will serve as an examination of faith as a whole, showing how beliefs can bring and keep people together.
Zilkha is looking to fund the project through an online Kickstarter fundraising campaign, with a goal of raising $15,000 by Saturday, Dec. 22.
That funding will send a small, two-person crew to Ghana for the first phase of filming, which will tell the Sefwis’ story and showcase their traditions in their own village.
To learn more about the project or make a donation, visit www.kickstarter.com, then search 'The Jews of Ghana'.