600 Ugandans Struggle for Recognition by Israel as Jews
The Abayudaya have five synagogues, although three of them are little more than mud huts. They wear skullcaps, which are knitted by local women, and their name means ”people of Judah” in the local Luganda language. Jewish visitors from overseas have donated five Torahs, which the Abayudaya pull out on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
After years of persecution for their beliefs, the Abayudaya now live in relative harmony with the surrounding Christians and Muslims.
Their biggest challenge, it turns out, is with the Israelis. Despite the devotion and insistence of this group of just 600 believers scattered in the hills in eastern Uganda, Israel does not recognize them as bona fide Jews.
”They’re very Jewish,” insisted Emily Weinstein, an occupational therapist from Manhattan who is spending six months teaching Hebrew and Judaism at the Abayudaya’s elementary school. ”People here take religion more seriously than many Jews in the United States.”
The Abayudaya make no claims of ancient Jewish heritage. They discovered Judaism in 1919 when a local chief, Semei Kakungulu, who had been converted to Christianity, abruptly turned his back on that religion and declared himself a Jew. Legend has it that he learned the outlines of Judaism from some Jewish traders who had passed through his territory.
The community’s greatest test came a half century later, during the reign of the dictator Idi Amin, when Judaism was banned in Uganda and the Abayudaya synagogues were destroyed.
Now, the 84-year-old community is attempting to gain broader recognition and face the challenges of preserving a dwindling population.
Meanwhile, the Abayudaya are continually refining their religious practice so it better conforms with the tenets of mainstream Judaism.
They gave up the slaughter of lambs on Passover when a visitor from Israel told them that animal sacrifice had been dropped by the Jews centuries ago.
They have learned the rules of eating kosher food as they have gone along. Since they have no kosher butcher, the most devout Abayudaya avoid beef altogether. When they eat goat or chicken meat, they are careful to keep milk products away.
Gershom Sizomu, the Abayudaya’s 33-year-old rabbi, travels regularly to the United States to spread the word of his community and learn even more about the only religion he has known since birth.
Recently, the Abayudaya received some acknowledgement of their devotion. A group of Conservative rabbis and rabbinical students from America visited Nabugoye last year to set up rabbinical courts and officially convert the Abayudaya to Judaism.
More than half the community went through the practice, complete with a ritual bath in the synagogue’s mikvah, a pool in the middle of a corn field that has since been declared off limits because of fear that it might contain the parasites that cause river blindness.
Since they consider themselves Jewish already, the Abayudaya preferred to think of the ceremony as an affirmation rather than a conversion. A follow-up ceremony, aimed at officially recognizing even more of the Abayudaya as Jews, will come this summer.
In the meantime, Abayudaya elders are doing all they can to persuade the community’s young people to marry other Jews, a policy that has a greater impact on young Abayudaya women, who outnumber the marriage-age men.
One of those women is Rachel Keki, who is looking for a Jewish man to settle down with. She lives here amid the banana groves but would not mind moving to a city.
Rachel is quite a catch. She is 20, smart and known throughout the community as a gifted singer. She has chubby cheeks and an angelic smile and enjoys hiking along the dirt paths of Nabugoye Hill. Still, she has not found the right mate.
”My father would be disappointed if I didn’t marry a Jew,” Rachel said. ”He advises me but I have to decide.”
To help increase Jewish pairings, the elders have permitted distant Abayudaya cousins to wed, a practice that is considered taboo in the surrounding community. The elders even allowed an American Jewish visitor who had a wife back in Philadelphia to marry a local woman as long as he agreed to divorce his American wife. He did.
”That was unfortunate,” Mr. Sizomu said.
As for Rachel and the 30 or so other single Abayudaya women, the elders are attempting to keep them busy in hopes of distracting them from their long odds of finding a husband in Nabugoye.
Rachel has been appointed to the synagogue’s policy board. That takes up some of her time. She also sings religious songs, and studies long hours in hopes of going to law school one day.
”She wants to study outside, maybe in America,” said Mr. Sizomu. ”She might meet a man there — a Jewish man, of course.”