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Ugandan Jews: A Unique Community Growing Rapidly Through Conversion

By Alana Goodman

Abayudaya bet din (Jewish court)

In the lush, green hills of Eastern Uganda, huts adorned with the Star of David house the Abayudaya tribe, a group of black African Jews who went virtually undiscovered by modern civilization until the 1990s.

Nestled under the shade of Mt. Elgon, the Abayudaya, which means “Children of Judah” in Luganda, have been eating Kosher, circumcising their boys at birth, and keeping Shabbat for almost 100 years. Persecuted by dictators and disdained by their non-Jewish neighbors for decades, the group has miraculously flourished, and recently welcomed 250 African Jewish converts into their community.

Converts in front of the Abayudaya synagogue

The Abayudaya are not ethnically Jewish. The religion was first brought to Uganda in the early 1900s by Semei Kakungulu, a charismatic former Christian who had converted to Judaism.

While working as a Christian missionary and British military commander, Kakungulu successfully captured large areas of Uganda, mainly because he believed that Britain would appoint him the king of these territories. Instead, they only gave him a small 20-square-mile village to rule over, now known as Mbale.

The men preparing for the mikvah (ritual bath)

Deeply offended, the colorful Kakunglulu distanced himself from the Europeans and became a Malakite Christian-- a cultish religion that combines Christianity, Judaism, and Christian Science.

As a Malakite, Kakungulu started questioning the European Christian interpretation of the Bible. He noticed many inconsistencies; for example, Christians celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday, even though Jesus and his followers celebrated it on Saturday.

Eventually, Kakungulu rejected the New Testament and Jesus in favor of the Old Testament. When he was told that only Jews did this, he boldly declared to his followers “Then we will be Jewish!”

The British grew annoyed by Kakungulu’s self-styled kingship, and ousted him to a small area near Mt. Elgon. There, Kakungulu converted to Judaism and formed a small separatist sect that became known as the Abayudaya.

The Abayudaya were strict adherers of the Torah and since none of them-- not even Kakungulu-- had ever met a Jew, their knowledge of current customs was almost nonexistent. While they had a few visitors from modern societies, most notably a foreign Jew named “Yosef” in the 1920s who taught them the seasons of Jewish holidays, their contact with the outside world remained minimal.

As a result, they developed some unique customs, many of which haven’t been practiced since the biblical times. For example, until recently the Abayudaya still participated in animal sacrifices. Today they maintain the biblical ritual of removing their shoes before entering a synagogue, and many of their religious prayers are set to African melodies.

The tribe has survived in the face of extreme adversity. At one point the community was as large as 3,000, but after military dictator Idi Amin took control of Uganda in 1971, nearly 90% of the Abayudaya reverted to Islam or Christianity to avoid religious persecution.

Idi Amin ordered the Abayudaya synagogues to close, banned Jewish prayer books, and branded the community as “Killers of Jesus.” Just like generations of pious Jews before them, a small, devoted group of 300 Abayudaya practiced their Judaism in secret, under the fear of death.

In an essay, a member of the Abayudaya community describes how difficult these times were. “Those members who dared to have prayers had to conceal themselves in very thick bushes, caves, or in their banana plantations. But even this was done at great personal risk…We prayed very late in the evening when most people were asleep,” he wrote.

After the fall of Idi Amin’s reginme in 1979, the Abayudaya were able to practice their religion openly once more, which eventually led to their discovery.

Today, the community has around 800 members, five beautiful synagogues, Jewish day schools, and a Yeshiva. Financial support and college scholarships are often provided by outside Jewish groups, and in June, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu became the first Abayudaya member to be ordained by an American rabbinical college.

The Abayudaya have welcomed the support that has been pouring in from the modern Jewish world-- but with that support also comes controversy.

While the group has practiced Judaism for generations, and many have undergone conversions by Conservative rabbis, they are not considered Jews in Israel unless they have an Orthodox conversion. Even Rabbi Sizomu’s recent conversion of 250 Ugandans is considered invalid by the Orthodox community.

This could cause legal problems for the Abayudaya, many of whom plan to move to Israel. In Israel non-Orthodox converts are not able to marry Jews, get divorced, or be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Also, children born to female non-Orthodox converts are not considered Jewish under halakhic (Jewish religious) law.

“[The issue of conversion] is fraught with controversy. The Orthodox will not accept Conservative or Reform converts…the Orthodox say that these converts did not accept [all 613] mitzvahs,” explained Rabbi Simon Jacobson of the Charlebach Shul in New York.

A prospective Orthodox convert is also required to complete a course of Jewish study, in order to better understand his religious duties.

“The person will go through a study period, anywhere from six months to three years, to study what it means to be Jewish. This is the standard Orthodox procedure. If afterward the Rabbi is satisfied and feels the person is sincere, then we get to the process,” said Rabbi Jacobson.

The Abayudaya converts did not have to go through a study program before converting, but Rabbi Sizomu explained that they are in the process of setting up a Jewish learning center for everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike. “We think being Jewish is a relationship with G-d and the Torah, so we don’t have a program that makes someone graduate. They continue learning throughout life,” he said.

Rabbi Sizomu also differs from the Orthodox community in his opinion that Jewish conversion should be easily available to everyone. “Anybody who wants to be Jewish can be Jewish. It's like going to the market and choosing what you want; It's the marketplace of religion.”

The “marketplace of religion” is a phrase often echoed by Be’chol Lashon, the organization that provided Rabbi Sizomu with his fellowship to rabbinical college, and also helps build schools and temples for the Abayadaya people. According to their website, Be’chol Lashon’s goals are “helping non-Jews to be Jewish” and “growing Judaism” in different parts of the world.

When asked if “growing Judaism” is similar to proselytizing, Diane Tobin, who founded Be’chol Lashon 11 years ago and now serves as its director, said she likes to use a different phrase. “We typically don’t use the word ’proselytizing;’ we’re pro-active and welcoming.”

Rabbi Jacobson contends that this is forbidden by Jewish law. “Jews should never look for converts. Proselytizing is unacceptable. If a non-Jew wants to serve G-d, he should be encouraged to follow the seven Noahide laws (universal laws).”

When asked if he sought out any of the 250 converts, Rabbi Sizomu denied it and said he never even met with them before the ceremony. “I was in the United States [at rabbinical college], I just came back to my community. They came on their own. I never met them before,” he said.

The fact that the recent conversion ceremony is considered null by the Orthodox community also does not bother Rabbi Sizomu, who belongs to no particular denomination and finds them “divisive.”

“I consider [the converts] Jews because they are halakhically converted. Any Orthodox rabbi who disputes this, that’s their problem. In my eyes, they are Jews,” he said.

While many of the Abayudaya have undergone Conservative conversions, a break-away group in the village of Putti is holding out for an Orthodox procedure. The group renamed themselves the “She’erit Yisrael,” which means “Remnants of Israel,” and unlike the Abayudaya, they are strictly Orthodox.

According to the group’s secretary, Enosh Keki Mainah, they are struggling to receive an Orthodox conversion because they want “to receive recognition as Jews and members of Am Yisrael. We feel a great love for the Jewish people and feel the pain of our brothers and sisters in Israel.”

However, there are many obstacles that stand in their way. The She’erit Yisrael need rabbis who are willing to work with them through the conversion process, as well as an Orthodox bet din (Jewish court) to supervise.

In an open letter to the Jewish community, Mainah writes, “We hope so much to join our brothers in Eretz Yisrael. Our dreams and hopes rest with you. We pray to Hashem that you find us worthy as members of Am Yisrael, or help us undergo [an Orthodox conversion].”

To learn more about how to help the Abayudaya and She’erit Yisrael Jews, go to www.thejewsofuganda.org.

 

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