“We were thrown into the middle van, while the soldiers entered a van ahead of us and behind us,” he said. “I recognized from my army service that it was a patrol, and looked for signs that we were being taken to the jungle or somewhere else to be executed. So I came up with a plan: I would take one of the soldiers’ guns and use it to ‘take out’ the three guards. But what was I going to do about the front and back vans, which were also armed and extremely dangerous?”
Rochman decided to wait before taking action. After one hour, a guard informed him, Leibman and Benaym that they were being taken to the Department of State Services (DSS) headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. It was there that Rochman, an unabashedly proud Jew and Zionist who asked for access to his tefillin while in prison, was forced to share a small jail cell with a convicted murderer belonging to the Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram, which has killed nearly 40,000 people and abducted hundreds of school girls in its quest to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state.
To understand why Rochman and his colleagues were imprisoned in Nigeria, it’s important to revisit Rochman’s college days at Columbia University (he transferred from UCLA to Columbia upon learning that the latter was “the most antisemitic school in the United States,” he said, and he wanted to face his enemies head-on).
“I started researching all sorts of stories about Jews being displaced, seeking to be accepted back into the mainstream Jewish community, and I saw it as an opportunity to change Jewish history,” he said. “I want to bring them back to the fold of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and even give them an option to make aliyah.”
Rochman, who was born in Paris but now lives in Jerusalem, began researching the 2,000 to 3,000 people who practice a form of Judaism and belong to southeastern Nigeria’s Igbo community, which comprises roughly 40 million people, most of them Christian, in a total population of 211 million Nigerians.
Igbo Jews partake in many Jewish practices, including circumcision, kosher dietary laws, wearing kippot and tallit, and marital separation during a woman’s menstruation. They also observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in recent years, have begun celebrating Hanukkah and Purim as well.
Rochman, Benaym and Leibman were able to film two days’ worth of interviews with members of the Jewish Igbo community during their first few days in Nigeria before they were captured.
“Their neshamot are so elevated,” Rochman said. “All they talk about is Torah and being Jewish. They breathe it, and it was a beautiful experience to be with them.”
He recalled seeing a single siddur with pages that had been photographed again and again for worshipers in synagogue, as well as meeting a young Igbo man whose dream is to move to northern Israel and become a pioneer in agricultural technology.
But despite some Igbos’ claims that they are descended from ancient Israelites, scholars have found the historical evidence lacking. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, the community is not allowed to immigrate en masse to the Jewish state because Israel’s Supreme Court does not officially recognize Igbo Jews as an authentic Jewish community.
Rochman and his colleagues weren’t the first to visit the Igbo; in 2006, Rabbi Howard Gorin and members of his Rockville, Maryland synagogue, Tikvat Israel, visited Nigeria and also shipped computers, books and Jewish scripture to the community. Other visitors have included Dr. Daniel Lis, Professor William F. S. Miles, filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman and Shai Afsai, an American writer who has visited the community three times and who, in 2013, invited two Igbo Jewish leaders to visit his Jewish community in Rhode Island.
But Rochman, Leibman and Benaym wanted to capture the story of Igbo Jews on film for a documentary series called “We Were Never Lost,” which is about unknown Jewish communities around the world. The trio is aiming to show the documentary on an online streaming service, but would not disclose more information. The first season will focus on Africa, and Nigeria was their first destination.
The crew applied for visas as filmmakers without specifying that they wanted to make a documentary about the Igbo community (providing film information wasn’t required). They also enlisted the help of a local “fixer,” according to Rochman, who handled the paperwork.
“None of us could have expected that the government would send mercenaries to abduct us and throw us into a cage.” — Rudy Rochman
When I asked if he and his colleagues knew that Nigeria was a dangerous destination (the U.S. State Department has issued a travel advisory against the country due to “crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping and maritime crime”), Rochman responded, “We knew that Nigeria is one of the least safe countries in Africa and that the government is very against the Igbo population, but our main concern was that a robber would take us for ransom. None of us could have expected that the government would send mercenaries to abduct us and throw us into a cage.”
In 1967, Nigeria endured a two-and-a-half-year civil war when Igbo secessionists tried to create their own independent state, calling it the Republic of Biafra. Up to three million Igbo were either massacred or died from starvation, resulting in what writers and historians have called one of the worst genocides in Africa of the twentieth century. But the conflict, which ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the separatist state in 1970, only increased ethnic nationalism among the Igbo. The government is still embroiled in conflict with the Igbo, accusing them of attacks against the state and blaming them for the country’s massive unrest.
In traveling to Nigeria, the three men hoped to tell an incredible story. Little did they know that after just two days, they would become the story.
“We Are Here to Spread Light”
Rochman, Leibman and Benaym didn’t consider themselves agents of Igbo separatism (Nigeria considers the movement, called Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob), a terrorist group); they wanted to explore Jewish identity through the African Jewish experience. A few days before the trip, Leibman, who runs Kavana Films in Tel Aviv, suggested taking a sefer Torah that was written in Ukraine and survived the Holocaust as a gift to the Igbo Jewish community.
The trio arrived in the country on July 6, and one day later, photos of the men presenting the sefer Torah to Igbo Jews were posted by local bloggers and separatist media, claiming that the crew was in Nigeria on behalf of Israel, to “officially declare Biafra a Jewish sovereign state.”
But the Nigerian government saw things differently: The trio arrived in the country on July 6, and one day later, photos of the men presenting the sefer Torah to Igbo Jews were posted by local bloggers and separatist media, claiming that the crew was in Nigeria on behalf of Israel, to “officially declare Biafra a Jewish sovereign state.”
In response, the filmmakers took to Twitter to adamantly restate their mission to connect with little known Jewish communities around the world. “We do not take any position on political movements as we are not here as politicians nor as a part of any governmental delegations,” they wrote. “We are here to spread light.”
Rochman, Leibman and Benaym had planned to attend a youth Shabbaton with hundreds of members of the Igbo Jewish community on July 9. At 7:30 a.m. that day, they received a phone call to their hotel room in Ogidi (an Igbo village) and were told to go to the lobby, and to bring their phones and passports. Upon arrival, 15 gunmen from the Department of State Services (DSS) surrounded them, placed them in separate vehicles and confiscated their passports and phones. They were taken to a holding facility where English-speaking guards told them that they would be detained for 15 minutes. Ironically, they were taken at gunpoint with Israeli-made Tavor rifles, which Rochman immediately recognized (and as a former paratrooper, knew how to use).
The trio never managed to make it to the Shabbat festivities. They spent the remainder of the day being questioned and verbally abused in separate rooms. For Rochman, whose maternal family members are Mizrahi Jews from North Africa and whose paternal family is Ashkenazi, it was his first time forgoing erev Shabbat rituals.
Upon realizing that they would be spending the night in the dark and filthy cell, the crew asked a guard for a few grapes and crackers so they could recite the prayers for kiddush and ha’motzi, in a miserable “cage,” as Rochman described it, thousands of miles from home, with their dire situation unknown to anyone at the time. They were joined in the facility by their Nigerian “fixer” as well as a matriarch of the Jewish Igbo community named Lizben Agha, whom the DSS had also detained.
“It’s how I was raised,” Rochman said about maintaining Shabbat customs in the jail cell. “I’m a Jew, and as a Jew, I have these practices. I have respect for my ancestry. For me, saying kiddush and bringing in Shabbat is like brushing my teeth. I always do it.”
The following morning, the gunmen were even more belligerent. They released the fixer, but threw Rochman, Leibman and Benaym into a van together (Agha was also transferred). The filmmakers imagined an imminent execution, which only strengthened their resolve to survive. “In the van, I shifted to warrior mode and said to myself, ‘My story is not ending here in Nigeria,’” Rochman said.
They were taken nine hours away to DSS headquarters in Abuja and forced into what Rochman described as a “cage” no bigger than a few feet. Agha was separated from them and placed in another cell. The smell of rat feces permeated the air and left the dank walls encrusted with black fecal matter. There was urine everywhere and the floor was littered with cockroaches. Even worse, the atmosphere was brutally demoralizing.
Rochman remembered the writing by former inmates on the putrid walls, and the messages were devastating: “Remember my name, because tomorrow, they will execute me,” read one. “This (prison) is the university of life,” read another. Finally, a solemn plea: “May my life see happiness one more time.” There were tally marks on the walls signifying prisoners’ terms as well.
“We were more stressed about the dangers we could put the communities in or the worry we brought to our families than for our own lives.” — Edouard David Benaym
“We were more stressed about the dangers we could put the communities in or the worry we brought to our families than for our own lives,” Benaym said. “But all I could truly think about at the very beginning of our arrest was a phrase from the Torah. After being welcomed by the Igbo Jews and before we could celebrate Shabbat with them, I kept thinking, ‘How beautiful are your tents, Yaacov; your home, Israel,’ because we had discovered a part of us in this village, a synagogue in the middle of Nigeria, and it felt amazing. And I also thought about how amazing it was to be captive with such amazing brothers as Rudy and Noam.”
Leibman said that the trio remained calm during the initial detainment: “We genuinely believed this was all just a miscommunication that we could clear up over a brief conversation,” he said. “Over the course of the next few days, it became clear that that was not going to be the case.”
It would be three days before they were given food, and the cell didn’t have a single bed, but Rochman, Leibman and Benaym had something more pressing on their minds: Benaym, a film director and Emmy-nominated journalist who specializes in analyzing American politics, suffers from an autoimmune disorder and his medicine was hours away in a hotel room in Ogidi.
“Once in the ‘cage,’ I was focused on trying to let the outside world know where we were, and on finding a solution,” Rochman said. “We had a ticking time bomb on his [Benaym’s] life. But we knew the guards wanted to keep us alive because they gave us water.”
On the fourth day, they decided to request nourishment in a way that would betray their location to the Chabad of Abuja: Rochman, Leibman and Benaym told the guards that they would only eat kosher food. Once the request was made to Chabad, the word got out: the three Jewish filmmakers had been imprisoned. Their families were notified and they immediately contacted Israel’s Chargé d’Affaires in Nigeria, Yotam Kreiman. Soon thereafter, the story broke worldwide.
Five days after being detained, the men met Kreiman, who secured one kosher meal a day for them from Chabad. Each day, they reserved part of the meal for Agha, the Igbo matriarch who was imprisoned elsewhere in the facility. The trio asked a guard to send her some of their meager rations.
After six days, they were handed buckets that previously contained human waste and afforded a chance to bathe themselves. According to Rochman, by then, their nostrils were black from inhaling so much rat fecal matter.
On the seventh day, the guards informed them that they were being moved into a new cell and delivered horrifying news: While one of their new cellmates was a gun smuggler, the other, they warned, was a Boko Haram terrorist who had killed 70 people. “He’s the one you have to look out for,” warned one guard.
That same day, Benaym was taken to a hospital and eventually released into the custody of the French embassy (he holds dual Israeli-French citizenship) due to his autoimmune disorder, although he was forced to report back to the prison every week for further interrogations. Meanwhile, Rochman and Leibman found themselves face to face with a murderer—an Islamist terrorist who knew they were Jewish and Israeli.
“We had to act with a lot of confidence,” Rochman said. “Let’s just say that I constantly was making him understand that I was a very dangerous person.”
Rochman managed to steal a pair of small scissors from a guard’s desk, which he displayed again and again to the terrorist. In case of an ambush, he and Leibman practiced back-to-back fighting in the cell, in full view of the Nigerian prisoners. Showing any sign of weakness could have gotten them killed.
Neither the guards nor the Israeli ambassador had any information about how long Rochman and Leibman would remain imprisoned, but the duo was hopeful. In fact, said Rochman, they derived strength and meaning from several auspicious signs: During each interrogation, they were placed in Room 18 (the numerical value for chai, or life, in Gematria, the Hebrew alphanumeric code), while the room across from them, where the guards gathered, was Room 26 (which alludes to one of the names of God). On each door of the interrogation wing was the Hebrew word “magen” (“shield” or “protection”). Ironically, the Nigerian facility had bought Israeli-made doors. According to Rochman, when put together, the signs were reassuringly clear: “Hashem is protecting our lives.”
On each door of the interrogation wing was the Hebrew word “magen” (“shield” or “protection”). Ironically, the Nigerian facility had bought Israeli-made doors. the signs were reassuringly clear: “Hashem is protecting our lives.”
There were other signs, too. On their tenth day of imprisonment, Leibman found a note in his tefillin bag that read, “When you lay tefillin in times of war, you strike fear in the heart of your enemies.” One day, Rochman and Leibman were brought downstairs for more interrogations in a space that was also occupied by civilians. They decided to protest their detainment and “make a lot of noise,” wearing their tefillin and shouting to attract attention. One guard asked them what they were wearing. When Rochman explained about the tefillin, the guard responded, “When I saw you in this, it really scared me.” That interaction also reinforced their hope of divine protection.
Each time Rochman was in Room 18, he took whatever he could find that would prove helpful, including ripping out pages from the middle of a paperback novel. On those pages, he wrote letters to his mother describing the crew’s treatment and identifying contacts who could help with their release. And each time he met with Kreiman, the Israeli diplomat, he slipped the notes into his pocket. This began during the second week of Rochman’s imprisonment. Kreiman took photos of the notes and sent them to Rochman’s mother.
Daily interactions with various guards became psychological assessments in which Rochman and Leibman tried to understand which guards were the stronger bullies, which ones were weaker and which ones only backed down when treated with equal aggression. More than anything, they spent three weeks finding a way to survive.
“Being a combat soldier in the IDF takes a lot of emotional and physical strength,” said Rochman, who is still a reservist. “You’re trained to know how to survive all situations, and as a paratrooper, I was exposed to minimal food, constant drills, marching for miles with heavy gear, simulations of grenades, carrying injured soldiers and much more. In training, I barely ate, slept or drank, and wasn’t allowed showers. But I learned how to read people and their body language psychologically and to recognize their dynamics between one another.”
Leibman and Rochman didn’t know if they would be imprisoned for weeks or years. And they rightfully feared that well-intentioned media campaigns to release them (including a planned protest in front of the Nigerian Consulate in New York City, which was later aborted) would only make things worse. Rochman said he believes that the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, could have easily ordered their execution if triggered by what he would have perceived as aggressive international pressure. In the past, Buhari has sworn to crush Igbo separatists.
Meanwhile, the trio’s family waited in angst, and on Instagram, Rochman’s 100,000 followers helped ensure that as many people as possible knew about the crew’s dangerous circumstances.
The Incomplete Light
After 20 days, Leibman and Rochman were finally released from prison. They’re still not sure why they were freed then, but Rochman is certain that the government never really suspected them of conspiring with separatists. “They only wanted to prevent us from making the film,” he said.
On their last day in Nigeria, Benaym was brought back to the facility so that the trio could leave the country together. Their pictures were taken so they could be identified as “criminals,” according to Rochman, and never allowed to enter Nigeria again.
Agha, whom the trio called “Ima Lizben,” was released on bail nine days later. Suffering from illness, she was hospitalized and has since returned to her community in Odigi.
“I gained an appreciation for life,” Rochman said about his release. “After three weeks, I saw the sun. It was such an intense experience. I could actually feel the sun’s vibrations in my ears.
“In 12 hours, we went from being in a cage to being back in Israel,” he continued.
Just before leaving Nigeria, the crew was handed back their cell phones and passports. “I went for weeks without any communication with the outside world, and when I got out, I realized, ‘Hey, Ben and Jerry’s is a problem now’ and that the Olympics were almost over,” Rochman said.
Exuberant family members as well as the media welcomed them home, but transitioning back to normal life proved overstimulating. “Just seeing colors [and] hearing music or even the sound of a dog barking was an overload,” Rochman said. For weeks, he had difficulty sleeping. “I kept feeling that it wasn’t real. Were we actually back? I remember thinking that we even take something as simple as colors, which weren’t anywhere in the prison, for granted.
“It’s hard to explain what it was like in that cage,” he continued. “For three weeks, you couldn’t move your body more than a step or two. And there was nothing to distract you, especially not a phone. There weren’t even lights. The conditions were definitely some kind of torture. And then, out of nowhere, you’re back to normal life.”
The filmmakers are including the limited footage they captured of Nigeria’s Jewish Igbo community in the documentary series. For Rochman, a return to normal life means continuing to create educational virtual content with the goal of combating antisemitism and influencing global conversations about Israel and the Jewish people. It also includes working with Leibman and Benaym on their documentary series “We Were Never Lost,” for which they are currently crowdfunding. Rochman also remains active on social media platforms (particularly Instagram and Twitter), and on his YouTube channel.
Ironically, his ordeal in Nigeria only strengthened his resolve to support the Igbo Jewish community and tell its story. “Each [Jewish] Diaspora group took something with them—a piece of life—when they were scattered,” he said. “The goal is to come together and be a full light. I realized that without people like the Igbo coming back home to Israel, we’ll never be able to complete that light.”
Rochman is challenging Israel’s rabbinate to use its “responsibility and resources” to visit the Igbo in Nigeria and investigate their claims of Jewishness for itself. Many Igbo Jews are willing to officially convert to Judaism in order to make aliyah, he said.
“Coming home meant that we were going to be able to tell the story, the tale that we were originally supposed to film,” Benaym said. “We became the story and that was never our intention. As a journalist, and as filmmakers, all we want now is to go back to document these amazing lives and bring back the consciousness of these Jewish souls to the world.”
“I promised something to the Igbo community: This is the last generation of Jews that doesn’t know who you are.” — Rudy Rochman
For Leibman, returning to Israel was bittersweet. “I still feel much frustration that we were blocked from being able to capture these amazing stories and share them with the world the way we intended,” he said. “On the other hand, it was a blessing to return to our homeland and experience the basic freedoms of daily life, such as being able to go outside, deciding when to eat and having the ability to be productive again.”
Some have expressed concern that the filmmakers’ trip put the Jewish Igbo community at greater risk, especially given that the trio posted photos of themselves with Igbo leaders and alluded to a relationship between Israel and the Igbo community (one Instagram post by Rochman stated, “Israel X Igbo are locking arms”). It’s an important question, especially given that the visit also resulted in the imprisonment of an Igbo Jewish matriarch. But Rochman is adamant that the Igbo story must be told: “To talk about her [Lizben] spending 29 days [in prison], to quantify even what suffering means for the Igbo people means that someone does not understand what the Igbo people are facing,” he said. Rochman claims he received several videos from Igbo members this week that showed “bodies on the floor; of people’s heads being blown off … there’s a massacre happening to the Igbo people and it’s necessary for us to bring awareness in the world as to what’s happening.”
He acknowledged the inherent dangers of exposing the Igbo’s suffering, adding, “Of course, people are going to have to risk their lives to create change; that’s the only way that change has ever happened in the past, and they [the Igbo] are the ones who are spearheading that movement among their community. And we’re there to document and to show it in order to actually save them. If we focused our energies more on trying to save them, and less on trying to pin fingers on where that suffering is from, we would actually be saving more lives.”
When asked if he made any promises to himself or to God during those three tortuous weeks, Rochman thought for a moment. Then he responded, “I didn’t promise myself. I promised something to the Igbo community: This is the last generation of Jews that doesn’t know who you are.”
For more information on “We Were Never Lost,” visit www.wewereneverlost.com.
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker, and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby