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Serving among the “Lost Tribes”

by Lee Weeks
July 09, 2021

I first started serving among the Lemba Jewish community in Zimbabwe nearly six years ago. I assisted as an Outreach participant in the Gutu Outreach in August of 2015. Little did I know this would be just the beginning of my journey to understanding and working among the Jewish communities of Africa we serve in Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. 

Like many of us, I found it fascinating to find out there are Jewish communities in Africa. Who are they and how did they get there?  

The Lemba Jewish Community

The Lemba Jewish community lives primarily in Zimbabwe, but also in Zambia, northern South Africa and Mozambique. This community traces its history and wanderings from Ezra 10:10-44, when Ezra made the determination from Scripture that those priests who had been in exile while in Babylon and married “foreign wives” must separate from these marriages according to Torah. 

Some of the community of Israel decided not to leave their foreign wives so they left Jerusalem. This community moved into Yemen and Northern Africa, eventually landing in “Great Zimbabwe,” an area today that comprises Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other parts of southern Africa. 

The Lemba are a strong Jewish community that has a tremendous oral history and culture that has kept them as uniquely Jewish, but also have the DNA to prove it!  While serving among the Lemba community, I quickly understood that I was truly amid an historic people that is not only Jewish, but descendants of the Levites themselves. As I began to meet Lemba elders and leaders it was the same story repeatedly of how they maintained separation from other tribes of Africa as a necessity to remain Jews and historical descendants of Levites. 

As I have served among the Lemba now for nearly six years, I have been amazed at their order in culture, practice, tribal connectedness and their ability to reach their community with the Good News of Yeshua (Jesus). The Lemba are mostly agrarian and live in the rural parts of their perspective countries. When I entered service with the Lemba, many of them had already accepted Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah, and with the partnership of Jewish Voice, began planting congregations and organizing their communities to hear and receive the Good News of Yeshua. 

Over the last six years, as I have traveled and visited the many different areas of the Lemba community, I am continually amazed at their tribe’s organization that has functioned for centuries. This organization is through family names and “houses” of Lemba.  This structure has led to the outburst of planting congregations so effectively and widespread among the Lemba community. 

As we go from community to community around Zimbabwe to visit congregations, we are met by Lemba chiefs, elders and congregational leaders whom we have helped raise, as well as passionate congregants. They are always hospitable to us and eager to grow into their fullness as a Messianic Jewish community. Each time we visit a congregation we are met with vibrant worship, and we have the opportunity to participate in the Shema and the Aaronic blessing and learn how their congregation is growing or what problems they are facing. It is truly a pleasure to serve and walk among this historic community who now serve and lead nearly 130 Messianic Lemba congregations around Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The Ethiopian Jewish Community

The different Ethiopian Jewish groups I’ve had the opportunity to serve with all originate from the Beta Israel tribe, or House of Israel. There are three different groups we work among in Ethiopia: The Beta Israel, the Beta Abraham, and the Gefat. The Beta Israel and Bet Abraham are located mostly in central and northern Ethiopia and the Gefat are primarily in the southern area of Ethiopia. 

The Beta Israel tribe as a whole trace their history from the time of King Solomon and the connection of the kingdom of Israel and the Queen of Sheba representing the kingdom of the Cushites (or Abyssinia). You can read more about the Beta Israel’s well-documented history online with reputable sources and from 1st Kings 10. 

Like the Lemba community, I was fascinated by their history and easily verifiable link to the people of Israel. I remember on one of my first trips having an “aha moment” when I realized that I had glossed over a tremendous biblical fact in the book of Acts. 

We read in Acts 8:26-39 that the Apostle Phillip was sent by an angel to share the good news with an Ethiopian eunuch (most likely from the historical Ethiopian Jewish community or a formal convert to Judaism) that had traveled to Jerusalem to worship during Pesach (Passover) and was returning to Ethiopia. Once the Ethiopian eunuch had received Yeshua as the Messiah and was immersed, he returned to Ethiopia with the Good News himself, making Ethiopia the first Gentile country to receive the Good News!  This “aha moment” gave me great reverence for serving among the Ethiopian Jewish community and a peek into Adonai’s heart for the nation of Ethiopia. 

Working among the Ethiopian Jewish communities for nearly five and a half years, I am amazed at their resilience. They have been persecuted, killed, pushed the edge of society and forced to convert to Christianity over the last 1,800 years. However, many in these communities have held onto their identity as the people of Israel, and now in our day, just like in the Book of Acts, they have accepted Yeshua as their Messiah and are able to identify as Messianic Jews.

Most of these communities live in rural parts of the country or on the edges of cities due to persecution. They are humble and hard workers, often making a living in pottery, as blacksmiths or farmers. Over the last two decades Jewish Voice has been serving the three different Ethiopian Jewish communities with Medical Outreaches, leadership development, and helping to plant congregations. 

I have ministered in all three facets among these historic communities and have seen incredible worship, discipleship growth, congregational growth and a determination to reach their communities with the Good News of Yeshua. I can truly say that I am blessed to serve among these communities.

I believe these communities reveal Adonai’s resolve to regather His people and reach them no matter where they have been scattered.

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