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Professor leading students on mission to Papua New Guinea


Professor Tudor Parfitt, the scholar known as the “British Indiana Jones,” was in Australia a decade ago lecturing on the Judaising Lemba tribe of southern Africa when a strange call came.

Professor Tudor Parfitt

Professor Tudor Parfitt

The man identified himself as a leader of the Gogodala tribe of Papua New Guinea.

He told Parfitt: You’re the guy who proved the Lemba are really Jews? We are the same as the Lemba.

A few days later the Papuan man showed up in Parfitt’s hotel with a hat full of hair plucked from fellow tribe members. He asked Parfitt to test the strands to see if the Gogodala were a Lost Tribe of Israel.

Then professor of Jewish Studies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Parfitt was skeptical, but curious. He visited Papua New Guinea on two occasions and did the DNA tests. The results were inconclusive but the Gogodala have nonetheless continued to embrace and elaborate a new identity as Jews and they see Parfitt as somehow central to their Judaic aspirations. They have decided to honor him with a gift, which will be presented to him in a great ceremony on March 13 near the Fly River Estuary.

This year, Parfitt, who has just joined FIU as a research professor in the School of International and Public Affairs, decided to lead an educational mission to Papua New Guinea with five FIU students and a team from FIU’s Division of External Relations. Two New York rabbis representing a Jewish outreach organization called Kulanu, hearing of the expedition, asked if they could come along as well.

Traveling to Papua New Guinea will be, from left, graduate student Sabrina Diz, FIU Magazine Editor Deborah O'Neil, Honors College student Pablo Currea, biology major Keysel Pelaez, education graduate student Olivia Autolino and religious studies major Kyle Decker.

Traveling to Papua New Guinea will be, from left, graduate student Sabrina Diz, FIU Magazine Editor Deborah O’Neil, Honors College student Pablo Currea, biology major Keysel Pelaez, education graduate student Olivia Autolino and religious studies major Kyle Decker.

 

“I was going anyway so it was good to kill two birds with one stone,” Parfitt said. “It is such a unique place and such a unique people that it will leave an indelible mark on the lives of the students we are taking along.”

papua-new-guinea-mapThe group of 10 will be greeted at the airport by Gogodala in native costume, community leaders and government ministers. Other Papuan tribes with similar claims of Jewish ancestry are expected to be on hand to meet Parfitt. From there, they will travel by Army plane to the Western Province village of Balimo, where the Gogodala live and have planned the ceremony to honor Parfitt.

“There is going to be a very highly charged emotional event,” Parfitt explained to the students this week. “The people will be very excited. There will be religious manifestations on the periphery and at the heart of it.”

The students include religious studies senior Kyle Decker, Honors College student Pablo Currea, religious studies graduate student Sabrina Diz, biology senior Keysel Pelaez and education graduate student Olivia Autolino. As part of the trip, each will be leading an individual research project.

“We are all excited about this,” said Diz, who is hoping to be able to publish a paper based on her trip. “I’m interested in gender roles in religious customs.”

Autolino, who speaks four languages and several dialects, is studying foreign language education for her master’s degree. “There are over 800 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea, around a quarter of all the world’s languages. The Gogodala do not understand the language of their neighbors who live just a few miles away – I want to find out why.”

Peleaz has also taken charge of one of the important non-academic activities of the trip – bringing an FIU Trophy Cup for the winner of a rugby match being planned in Balimo during the group’s stay.

Currea, a psychology major, will be assisting FIU filmmaker Tim Long with cameras. He will also be studying how the Gogodala and the FIU group interact. “I’m interested if people will be noticing differences between us and them and as we get used to each other, will there be similarities?”

Decker will be looking at how the Gogodala, who have been highly influenced by Christian missionaries, view Judaism. “I’m interested to learn about how they incorporate Judaism into Christianity. I’d like to see how Christianity has influenced certain groups and how Judaism has influenced certain groups.”

The expedition was made possible with the support of the Office of Business Services, the College of Arts & Sciences, the School of International and Public Affairs, the Department of Religious Studies, The Honors College, Global Learning for Global Citizenship, the Division of Advancement and the Division of External Relations the Sephardic Studies Program and the Jewish Studies Program.

The rabbis, husband and wife Gerald and Bonita Sussman, will meet up with the FIU team in Papua New Guinea. The Gogodala had asked Parfitt to find them a rabbi who could instruct them in the Jewish faith and the Sussmans volunteered.