Film Opens Up Life, Faith of Isolated Ugandan Jews

A new documentary focuses on Abayudaya people. It renews a contentious question for modern Judaism: Who is a Jew?

It was by reading an e-mail at 4 a.m. on a sleepless winter night that filmmaker Debra Gonsher Vinik first learned of Ugandan villagers who had been practicing Judaism in virtual isolation for more than 80 years.

A friend, a rabbinical student, had written to say he was joining a group of American and Israeli Conservative rabbis traveling more than 7,000 miles to a remote part of Africa to bring the 400 villagers formally into the worldwide Jewish community.

Gonsher Vinik woke her husband — who’s also her business partner — and pitched him on the idea of producing a documentary on the Jewish conversion ceremonies for the Abayudaya people.

Seven weeks later, the couple was in the Ugandan countryside, filming “Moving Heaven and Earth.” The 44-minute documentary will air on the Hallmark cable television channel at noon Oct. 5, hours before the start of the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur.

“I liked the movie very much,” said Gershom Sizomu, 34, the village’s spiritual leader, who is studying to be a rabbi on a full scholarship at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air. “It made me a bit homesick.”

The film shows Abayudaya families — mostly farmers — going through the conversion process: appearing before a Beit Din, or Jewish religious court and immersing all converts in a mikvah, or ritual bath. Although the males had been circumcised since infancy, the ceremony called for the drawing of a drop of blood.

Other images in the documentary include Stars of David and menorahs drawn on the villagers’ mud huts; the performance of songs that mix Ugandan melodies with Hebrew lyrics, accompanied by guitars; and a mud-brick synagogue with thin benches made from tree trunks.

“We so believed in it that we put up our own money — and you never put up your own money” in filmmaking, said Gonsher Vinik, who estimated that her company, New York-based Diva Communications, spent $15,000 just to travel to Africa, including $1,000 worth of vaccinations.

Her film also forces reexamination of a contentious question that has plagued Judaism’s recent generations: Who is a Jew? The conversion of the Abayudaya — Lugandan for Jews — hasn’t been recognized by the Orthodox branch of the faith, keeping the Ugandans from full rights in Israel.

The story of Ugandans and Judaism dates back to the early 20th century, when Christian missionaries left Bibles, translated into the local language, in the village.

According to the village’s oral history, the elders had trouble reconciling the one God of Hebrew Scriptures with the Holy Trinity – – God in three persons — of New Testament. As a result, they stuck to the Hebrew texts.

In 1919, a local leader declared he would become a Jew and would follow the Torah, circumcising himself and his sons.

From then until 1992, the Abayudaya community existed with little contact from the outside world, though Jews who passed through were able to teach the villagers Jewish rituals and customs.

Two visitors in the 1920s were surprised to stumble upon the undiscovered community. “It was a shock for them to see Jewish rituals and practices [in Africa],” Sizomu said. “They left their [Hebrew] books as a gift.”

The Abayudaya’s greatest challenge came in the 1970s, when the reign of Idi Amin brought anti-Semitic laws that threatened death for those who practiced Judaism. The villagers continued to observe their faith in private, though their numbers dwindled. By the 1990s, the Abayudaya asked visitors to help them build a synagogue, get them a Torah scroll and find a university where Sizomu could study to become a rabbi. That culminated in the conversion process last year.

However, Orthodox rabbis believe any conversion of those not born to Jewish mothers must be done according to Orthodox rules. In their eyes, that invalidates the ceremonies done by Conservative rabbis. Also, Orthodox leaders said the villagers, at this stage, are unable to follow some of the Jewish laws, or Mitzvot, observed by Orthodox Jews because, among other things, the community has no rabbi, no kosher butcher, no mohel and no place to study the Torah.

The Abayudaya say the lack of recognition doesn’t matter.

“My community and I don’t need somebody to determine our Jewishness and our faith,” Sizomu said. “We think that it’s a special covenant between us and God.”

He said some villagers opted to not participate in the conversion ceremonies last year because they didn’t think outsiders were needed to prove their faith.

“But most of us saw it as a welcome to the big family of Judaism,” he said.

Gonsher Vinik isn’t so easygoing about the Orthodox rabbis’ refusal to recognize the Abayudaya.

“It makes me furious,” she said. “Gershom is so connected to his faith. His parents were Jewish. Her grandparents were Jewish.

“There’s no justification for their position,” she said. “This is the kind of Jew you really want in your congregation.”

But for Orthodox rabbis, liberal offshoots of the faith are compromising ancient beliefs and traditions that make up the essence of Judaism, including conversion standards.

“For 3,000 years, there’s been regular standards of Jewish identity and conversion,” said David Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, an association of Orthodox rabbis. “Nobody in the Orthodox world will close the door to anybody who truly wants to commit to being an observant Jew.”

There have been some attempts to forge an understanding about conversion among the different factions of Judaism worldwide, but little has been solved.

“There are not enough people alarmed enough to find a solution,” said Arnold M. Eisen, professor of religion at Stanford University. “But sometime soon we’re going to have to deal with it.”

The Abayudaya have more pressing problems in the coming years. Sizomu will spend the next five school years in L.A. with his wife and two children, keeping the village’s spiritual leader half a world away except for three months in the summer. They want to give their children an in-depth Jewish education. Back home, they are surrounded by African Christians who aggressively evangelize and have little understanding of Judaism.

“To call yourself Jewish in Uganda is to define yourself as a bad person who killed Jesus,” said Sizomu, adding that the Abayudaya have started a charity project that gives away milk-producing cows and goats to neighbors in need to show “that we’re friendly and willing to share. We need to kill the stereotypes.”

To raise awareness of the Abayudaya, Gonsher Vinik is working on a second documentary, called “In the Shadow of the Sugarcane Chuppah,” referring to a Jewish wedding canopy that in Uganda is supported by sugarcane stalks symbolizing the hope for a sweet marriage. Her desire is that Jews worldwide will help the Ugandan village thrive as a Jewish community, and allow for opportunities for education in the U.S. and Israel.

Gonsher Vinik said the Abayudaya will be on her mind during Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. It’s a time of reflection, fasting, prayer and repentance.

“I get a chance to think about my past year, what I’ve done right and done wrong and how to better myself and my behavior for the next year,” she said. “It’s the same spirit we share with the Abayudaya. This holy day is for Jews, which they are. I’m glad that we are connected.”

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