January 4, 2020 7 Tevet, 5780
Abayudaya - Uganda Visit
Many have been asking Cindy and me about our trip to Uganda, from which we returned last week. I promised I would speak about it this Shabbat, though I am still reflecting on and absorbing the experience. Our Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of about 1700 Conservative/Masorti Rabbis, has been working to more fully realize the international aspect of our organization by providing opportunities for colleagues to travel to places around the globe where our colleagues are hard at work building Jewish communities. When the RA announced that a trip was being organized to Uganda to visit the Abayudaya Jewish community it felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to see this community led by our colleague there, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. Some of you may recall that Rabbi Sizomu visited us here at Adath for Shabbat a number of years ago.
I am grateful that timing worked out for Cindy and me to be part of this group of 20 RA rabbis and spouses for an adventure that was beyond what we could have imagined. I must confess how odd it was to be flying to Uganda’s International Airport in Entebbe. It is of course best known as the site of Israel famous Entebbe Operation on July 4th 1976, when Israeli commandos freed an Air France plane, that had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists who singled out Jews and Israeli as hostages. It was bizarre to think that our vacation adventure would begin at the infamous Entebbe Airport that shows no signs of what took place there.
Instead we entered the country without fanfare. In our first days we marveled at the richness of Uganda’s natural beauty. We got to see wildlife such as chimpanzees, giraffes, elephants and in a special trek at the end of the trip we hiked almost 10 miles to stand within feet of mountain gorillas, an endangered species unique to that region. These are animals that we had only ever encountered in the zoo. In preparing for the trip I had not given a lot of thought to how moving it would be to see these wonders of God’s creation. It gave new meaning to the words we recite in the morning service “Mah Rabu Ma’asecha Adonai- how wonderous are Your creations Adonai.”
At the same time Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world. I have never witnessed this level of abject poverty. Many people live in roughhewn brick homes, without electricity or indoor plumbing and hunger is widespread. Children often walk without shoes, wearing tattered clothing. Substantial wealth seems to be limited to those who are associated with the government and corruption is pervasive.
Our primary mission in undertaking the trip was to meet the Abayudaya community that I have heard about over the years and was eager to encounter firsthand. Imagine arriving in their tribal area in Eastern Uganda and pulling into their largest village of Nabugoye to be greeted with the words “Shalom” and introduced to members of the community with names such as Moshe and Yisrael, Yehudit and Yonit. We met two young twin boys named Jacob and Esau. We went first to their beautiful Stern synagogue, built through the generosity of a Southern Californian Jewish couple, with South African roots, to accommodate large communal gatherings. There are about 8 synagogue and 4 schools that serve the Ugandan Jewish community.
The story of the Abayudaya African community is a fascinating one. They make no claim to having been a lost Israelite tribe as is believed about the Jews of Ethiopia. These African communities had no previous contact with each other at all. The Abayudaya story starts about 100 years ago when Uganda was a colony of Great Britain. The British were assisted in conquering Eastern Uganda by a local military leader by the name of Semei Kungulu who was converted to Christianity. As he immersed himself in the study of the Bible he was struck by the practices of the Israelites that were not maintained by Christianity. As he questioned these changes, he was told that these were things done only by the Jews. He resolved that he and his people would become Jews, calling themselves Abayudaya- the people of Judah.
Starting in 1919 they began to adopt the practices of circumcision, Kashrut and Shabbat on Saturday in contrast to their Christian neighbors and to the Muslims who make up the largest population in that region. They practiced Judaism, as they understood it from reading the Bible and despite having no contact with the global Jewish community. This changed when Kungulu encountered a foreign Jew named Joseph who had come to the nearby city of Mbale to assist with a water works project. Upon meeting Kungulu, Joseph recognized his eating and religious practice as being derived from the Hebrew Bible. Joseph introduced the Abayudaya to the Hebrew calendar, the Jewish prayer book and the wearing of the Kippah and Tallit. He began to instruct them in Hebrew.
After the death in 1928 of Kungulu, who personally had sustained and taught the Abayudaya about Judaism as he understood it, the group began to experience division and a decline. Eventually the community was united under the leadership of a disciple of Kungulu, Samson Mugombe, the grandfather of Gershom Sizomu, who took on the role of spiritual leader of the Abayudaya. He helped them reorganize and revitalize themselves to the point that they grew to 8000 members. The rise of power of Ida Amin in 1971 was a very difficult chapter as he is estimated to have killed as many as ½ million people. During his regime he outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues. The persecuted Abayudaya saw an attrition to just a few hundred adherents until Amin was thankfully overthrown in 1979.
Contact with the broader Jewish world helped the Abayudaya to develop their Jewish knowledge and commitment. In the 1960s the Abayudaya had their first contact with an Israeli Jew named Arye Oded, who later worked for the Israeli Embassy in Kenya. He and others from the Jewish Diaspora, who came upon the Abayudaya, helped them connect to the broader Jewish world. For example, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, now the retired Exec Director of Tufts U Hillel recorded the unique African Jewish music of the Abayudaya for a Smithsonian Folkways cd that was nominated for a Grammy award. Using profit from the recording and with the help of friends, he has for years raised significant funds to send capable Abayudaya students to University.
In 2002 five rabbis of our Conservative Movement went to Uganda and formally converted approximately 400 of the Abayudaya to Judaism, helping them to better understand Judaism as it developed through rabbinic interpretation over the centuries. Samson Mugombe’s charismatic grandson Gershon Sizomu was admitted to our Movement’s Zeigler Rabbinical School. Since his ordination in 2008 he has worked hard to build the Abayudaya as a Jewish community that now numbers 2000 members. Gershom even got himself elected to the Ugandan Parliament, which was no small achievement, given that the vast majority of his constituents in his region are Muslim or Christian. He explained to us that he considered this necessary to protect his vulnerable community. When we asked how this could happen, he explained that he was helped by the fact that the Medical Clinic established by the Abayudaya community with the help of a Detroit Jewish physician Dr Tobin in the nearby town of Mbale serves everyone regardless of religion. We got to affix muzuzot to dedicate the rooms of a new maternity section of the clinic. It is fascinating to see that the schools established by the Abayudaya, which possess a great reputation, are all multifaith institution. Jewish, Christian and Muslim children study together, separating only to receive their specific religious instruction. We could learn from their example of respectful collaboration.
It is clear that the Abayudaya community has benefited from the support of Jews around the world. Our group brought many things we heard they needed. Cindy and I carried three boxes of our synagogue’s old Siddur Sim Shalom. It was sweet seeing the Siddurim with bookplates from Adath added to the prayerbooks and chumashim used in their synagogues. I hope we can send more. Our group brought badly needed pre-natal vitamins and supplies for the medical clinic. We brought bottles of kosher wine and matza, which are hard for them to get, as well as used clothing. The Abayudaya are not immune from the deep poverty in Uganda as they try to eke out a living from subsistence farming growing coffee and cocoa, among other things. When we returned to the capitol city of Kampala we got to visit the MAROM student center that has been established as a gathering places for young adults who are in the city for their studies and work.
I want to acknowledge the effort in our community on behalf of the Abayudaya of Joanne Trangle who founded Global Village Connect. I understand she has been to Uganda 13 times. Thank you also to Mark and Debbie Glotter who are in service this morning who have been there several times. You may have heard about the trip to Uganda in November organized by our Minneapolis Federation and Global Village Connect. Our Federation and Global Village Connect have made grants to build a kitchen for the Tikkun Olam primary school and to acquire a field to produce crops to feed the students who would otherwise be severely undernourished. Kol HaKavod on those efforts.
There are national Jewish organization such as Kulanu based on NY and Bechol Lashon dedicated to assisting Jews of color around the world. These two have done particularly important work in supporting the Abuyadaya over the years. When I speak about the importance of voting in the election for the World Zionist Organization- our success in this endeavor also determines the extent to which this remote Jewish community gets support from the Jewish Agency. Fortunately, the Jewish Agency recognizes them as a Jewish community. Tragically the present Israeli government has refused to give them similar recognition, which is shameful. There are also new tension in the community as several hundred members in the village of Putti have converted under Orthodox auspices and there are rivalries for legitimacy.
One cannot spend time with the Abuyadaya without being moved by their commitment to Judaism and the difficult challenges they face to maintain it. I cannot convey to you how moving it was to be in services with their community over Shabbat. Rabbi Sizomu is a charismatic leader. He combines his experience with upbeat services playing the guitar, that he no doubt experienced during his time in California, while setting the prayers in Hebrew and in the national language Luganda. His congregants were up on their feet during much of the service dancing. They were very excited to welcome this delegation of Rabbis and Jewish leaders from our Rabbinical Assembly and called on us to lead parts of the service and to teach as well. They are deeply proud committed Conservative Jews (and fully egalitarian!). I was delighted to lead the section of the morning service using upbeat tunes that I learned from our Hazzan Dulkin and to see the enthusiastic response they elicited from the congregation.
The passage that especially moved me that morning in Uganda was the one we say just before reciting the Shema. Our tradition is to take the four corners of the tzizit of our tallit and bring them together praying that our people of Israel should be gathered together from the four corners of the earth. What an honor it was, as North American Jews, to be with our brothers and sisters- and they really felt like our brothers and sisters- from Uganda. I invite you to take a look at the photos of our trip that will be on display in the social hall. Cindy and I will be glad to answer question as will the Glotters and Joanne Trangle.
Those words about gathering our tzitzit together ring out to us again this week as our Jewish community in North America has had to endure another anti-Semitic attack this week that came this time as Jews in Monsey NY were celebrating Hanukkah in the home of their rabbi. We prayer for safety and for healing of those who were heartlessly attacked. This is a negative example reminding us of the bonds we have with Jews, though different in their views of Judaism, but with whom we share the bond of Jewish peoplehood. The example of the Abayudaya in contrast was a positive example of the bonds we have with Jews around the world, even in such a remote place.
I look forward to seeing how we can continue to connect to the Abayudaya community, to assist them as we can, and to learn from them- both from the lively tunes they have created for our prayers and from the example of their deep and profound dedication to maintaining their Jewish faith, in spite of the many obstacles they have had to overcome.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz