The Jews of Uganda
A rabbinic court (beit din), which included Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Little Neck Jewish Center in Little Neck, NY, screened over 300 members of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda. Rabbi Prouser participated in this historic event as part of a 14-member delegation formed by Kulanu; an organization that assists lost and dispersed Jewish communities.
In 1995, Kulanu sent a fact-finding delegation to visit Abayudaya and has played an active role in the education of the community. The 600-members of Abayudaya occupy a rural village near Mbale, Uganda. A majority of the 300 people screened, completed halachic conversions and are now officially recognized under Jewish law. Plans are being made for the remaining people to complete this process. The Abayudaya community embraced Judaism in 1919 and has been practicing and upgrading its knowledge and observance ever since.
"They believed they have been living Jewish lives their whole life, we were really there to recognize them and to formalize their Jewish status," said Rabbi Prouser.
Rabbi Howard Gorin, who had converted two Abayudaya leaders in the United States in August, organized the beit din. His congregation, Tikvat Israel in Rockville, MD, donated $5,000 for the purchase of a kosher Torah for the Abayudaya. Rabbi Menachem Youlis of Silver Spring, MD had donated his services as a Scribe in reconditioning the Torah.
Accompanying Rabbi Gorin and Rabbi Prouser was Rabbi Scott Glass of Temple Beth-El in Ithaca, NY and Rabbi Andrew Sacks, who is a Mohel and Director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. Moshe Cotel, a rabbinical student in New York City, and Gershom Sizomu, the Abayudaya spiritual leader who had undergone a halachic conversion in America six months earlier, assisted them.
"I have always been interested in the process of conversion. When I got a call and was invited to participate in the beit din in Uganda, I could not pass up the opportunity to be part of history," said Rabbi Prouser. The conversions were conferred February 5-13 by visiting rabbis from the United States and one from Israel. The beit din did not accept all of the candidates for conversion. The males who were screened, all of whom had been circumcised, underwent a hatafat dam brit (ritual circumcision). The successful candidate underwent ritual immersion.
Sizomu referred candidates who keep Shabbat and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) to the beit din. The rabbis asked Abayudaya whether they were converting under their own free will. Additional questions included whether they would raise their children as Jews and if they recognize Adonai as the one and only God. They were asked if they accept the obligation to observe the mitzvoth and whether their children would formally mark their bar and bat mitzvah at the appropriate age. They were also asked to describe the place of Israel in Judaism and their pattern of religious observance.
The visiting rabbis repeatedly expressed their admiration of the isolated community's grasp of the practice of Judaism. The community's practice of Judaism began when their leader, Semei Kakungulu, decided to follow only the laws of Moses in the Bible that British missionaries had brought to Uganda.
"The most impressive thing is that they are living in desperate poverty and are isolated from the Jewish world. They have very few resources to learn about Judaism, and yet they are very devoted to our religious tradition and really love Judaism and love God. They are truly leading an exemplary life," said Rabbi Prouser.
Men and women's ritual immersions in the river or mikveh were a source of great celebration. Young men and women had memorized the blessings for this mitzvah, and some under-aged children insisted on saying the blessings themselves, even though it was a duty of the rabbis. When the river was used, candidates marched single-file through hilly fields of crops in a colorful and joyous procession.
Among the candidates were Israel and Abraham Kakungulu, respectively 76 and 80 years of age, the grandsons of Semei Kakungulu. At their beit din screening, Gorin told them, "It is an honor to be the grandchildren of such an important man, but it is also a big responsibility, so that the Jewish heritage will go from you to the next generation."
Rabbi Gorin's gift Torah was dedicated in a moving ceremony during which a group of Abayudaya approached the center of the synagogue yard carrying their old Torah, singing psalms and prayers in Luganda, the local language. The visitors approached in a group toward the Ugandans carrying the new Torah, singing Hebrew songs. After a noisy and joyful procession circled the sanctuary seven times, the guests and hosts chanted Torah portions. The entire congregation joined in the singing of Hatikvah, which even the children knew.
On Shabbat eve, visitors attended services in the main synagogue on Nabugoye Hill, which was lit by candlelight; the community has virtually no electricity. Kiddush was held at the home of Gershom Sizomu and his wife Tziporah Naisi Gershom, who made excellent challah over a flame (they have no oven). About 60 attended the Kiddush, which was followed by an intimate dinner for the guests.
Shabbat morning services, which past visitors recalled as always being high-spirited, were especially so on the Shabbat the beit din visited, in part because many of the Abayudaya had already been fully converted to Judaism by that time. During that afternoon, rabbis and Abayudaya congregants engaged in informal teaching sessions. The rabbis expressed surprise and delight at the depth and complexity of the questions.
Prouser, who served for a number of years as director of the conversion institute of the Connecticut region of the Rabbinical Assembly, said he was inspired hearing and seeing the deep commitment and love the community has toward Shabbat. He was inspired to recite the blessing thanking God for doing miracles for His people in this place.
The final two days of the visit were devoted to chuppah ceremonies for the community's already married leaders. On the first wedding day, Gershom and Tziporah were united in a traditional Jewish ceremony with all four rabbis officiating.
"The Abayudaya have witnessed something they have never seen before; the first chuppah ceremony in our community. To begin something is not very simple. So Gershom and Tziporah have begun for us," said JJ Keki, former Abayudaya chairman, in the address following the chuppah ceremony.
The following day saw the separate and complete wedding of six couples, the participants all Abayudaya leaders. After the final ceremony, the sugar cane poles, which had been supporting the chuppah, were sliced into pieces and distributed to the children of the congregation so that they could savor the sweetness of the occasion.
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