Letter From Uganda

by Avi Rubel

Last week, while on a personal visit to Uganda, I had the privilege of spending Shabbat with the Abayudaya Jewish community. It was inspirational and also challenged my perception of Jewish peoplehood and of what it means to be part of klal yisrael.

Enosh and Shira

In an email exchange before going to visit the Abuyadaya, a friend wrote that it “sounds cool, but are they really Jewish?” From all I could gather on the internet, I learned that the Abayudaya are a Jewish community that has its origins at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s not clear exactly why they chose to begin practicing Judaism, but several community leaders began to follow the Torah and to observe Jewish laws. During the reign of Idi Amin in the 1970s, Judaism was banned and many intermarried. Following the Idi Amin period, the community re-assembled and is now 2,000 strong. Now, more than a century later, they are a small yet thriving community.

As I learned on my visit, the challenge for the Abayudaya is being accepted by world Jewry. I emailed several contacts from websites I found and was contacted by Enosh Keiki Mainah who graciously invited me to come to stay at his home for Shabbat. I hired a car and by Friday early afternoon, met Enosh on the side of a Ugandan road. He was wearing a kippa and I could see tzizit hanging out from below his shirt. Could these people really be Jews?

Yoav Keiki Mainah

Enosh brought me to his village, a collection of small huts and houses around a few fields of millet and banana tree groves. I noticed the mezuzot on the doors and stars of David on all of the walls, but not much else. They have no electricity, no running water and no gas. They live simply, and have learned to survive and even thrive with little of the creature comforts we’re used to in the west. Enosh gave me a tour of Putti Village and introduced me to his community. His beaming wife Shira and his children followed behind. I met three or four young men named Moshe which seems to be their name of choice, a Tarphon, an Isaac and a Miriam.

Enosh explained that his community of Abayudaya live completely Jewish lives and try to follow Jewish law as much as possible. They have been seeking to connect to world Jewry for some time and in order to do so they have had to seek formal conversions from “western” Rabbinic authorities. A handful of Israeli and American Rabbis got involved several years ago and it became necessary for the Abayudaya to decide if they would be Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. So, now there is a conservative community, a Reform community and Enosh is the leader of the Orthodox community. It seems crazy that these 2,000 people who are trying to just live as Jews should have to copy our denominational mishegas, but I guess the old adage of every Jew needing a synagogue they won’t go to applies even in Africa.

The head of the Conservative community, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu recently completed five years at Ziegler College in California and he received official conservative ordination. Gershom and other conservative Rabbis have conducted mass conversions of members of the “conservative group.” Enosh is Gershom’ s nephew. Enosh has been working with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in Israel and Rabbi Riskin has done official conversions on nine of Enosh’s community members. According to Enosh, Rabbi Riskin is planning on doing more in the coming year. This is significant because in order to have aliya rights, the conservative conversions are not valid and Rabbi Riskin’s conversions would make the difference.

Abayudaya house

I had a wonderful Shabbat with Enosh and his community. We did Kabbalat Shabbat in their “shul” and everyone joined for dinner which was made possible by my small contribution to the community. Shabbat morning we all prayed together. They have a Sefer Torah which was donated by a man in Dallas Texas. Having only dirt floors and no shelves or Aron Kodesh, the Torah lies in the container in which it was shipped. I was impressed with how many of the youth read Hebrew and can daven – definitely a greater percentage than in an American community!

I tried to have as many one on one conversations as possible. Over and over again, the young adults and their parents told me: “We want to be connected to other Jews. We want to know them and for them to know us. We want to be able to go to Israel. We might stay there or we might come back here to build our community.”

It is incredible that this small group of Africans is so dedicated to Judaism. Cynics might think they are observing Judaism in order to get out of Africa and go to Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth. From what I observed over one Shabbat, it seems that they are living authentic Jewish lives, and are seeking to convert according to Rabbinic law so that they can truly function as part of the Jewish people.

In general, the Jewish community acts like an ultra-exclusive tribe. It can often be a struggle for Jews by Choice to feel wanted and at home. You would think that millions of people are beating down the doors to join us in droves when in fact the Jewish community is shrinking due to assimilation and intermarriage. Except for the orthodox community, the rest of the Jewish world is in a constant state of existential angst. And here we have a group of Ugandans who want nothing more than to be recognized as Jews.

Like all converts, the Abayudaya see Judaism with fresh eyes and they have a lot to teach us about what it means to live Jewish lives. While a few foundations and individual are supporting the Abayudaya, they are getting almost no support from the mainstream Jewish community. Enosh would like to build a school so that young people can learn Hebrew and a real synagogue so that they can put their Sefer Torah in a proper ark.

I hope that more people learn about the Abayudaya. There are resources on-line that explain their history and culture. I also hope that more Jews visit Uganda and the Abayudaya. They are so welcoming and eager to have you.

If you or anyone in your community is interesting in donating funds, the Abayudaya have a 501c3 recognized foundation in the US. I would also like to arrange for materials to be sent to the Abayudaya: Hebrew learning books, prayer books, texts on Jewish thought, etc. Ugandans all speak English so language is not an issue. Please contact me at avir@masaisrael.org to arrange for shipping of educational materials or if you are interested in learning more.

*My visit to Uganda was personal and these views are not officially endorsed by Masa Israel Journey and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Avi Rubel is North America Director of Masa Israel Journey.