For local congregation, African Jews bring inspiration and connection

As Rabbi Jacob Herber sees it, his congregants at Congregation Beth Israel have much to gain by developing a connection with the Abayudaya Jews in Uganda.

“It’s a tangible reminder of what is means to be a part of a Jewish community, to support Jews, no matter where they are and even though we are separated by thousand of miles, to know that we are connected in this very powerful way. It gives meaning to my congregants and that’s what it’s all about,” Herber said.

Herber spoke the day after a Nov. 11 program, titled “Two Jews, Two Continents, One People,” with Ugandan Jew, Israel Siriri. Some 300 people heard Siriri talk about his community and Herber share his experiences serving on a beit din (religious court) in July to help formally convert more than 250 Ugandan Jews. (See July 24, 2008 Chronicle issue.)

“[My congregants] have told me that they are so inspired by the example being set by the Abayudaya knowing that the rabbi has a connection with their rabbi and with the community,” Herber said.

Judy Margolis, a member of CBI’s social action committee, agrees. “The main thrust of this is that we have a direct connection to the Abayudaya through Rabbi Herber’s experience. And Rabbi Herber [as the president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis] is not only our rabbi but the whole community’s rabbi.

“We are invested both financially and emotionally in this relationship. That connection is what is so unique.”

Siriri, 38, a civil engineer and father of three young children, arrived in Milwaukee on Monday, Nov. 10, for a two-day visit that included stops at many area schools.

Siriri is on a national tour with the organization Kulanu, which works to find and assist small and dispersed Jewish communities around the world. His local visit was co-sponsored by the Milwaukee Area Jewish Committee and CBI.

?Touched and moved?

The story of his people resonates with many because of their passion for Judaism and willingness “to go through fire and water to embrace Judaism,” said MAJC Executive Director Harriet Schachter McKinney.

Speaking with The Chronicle by telephone on Thursday, McKinney added that it is important for American Jews, for whom it is relatively easy to be Jewish, to see such people as this tribe of Ugandan Jews, for whom it has been a struggle for three or four generations.

The Abayudaya came to Judaism through a tribal leader who committed himself to a Jewish life in 1919. The community now numbers some 1,000 people, who live in five villages in central Uganda.

It has held on to a rigorous and heartfelt practice of Judaism though all kinds of hardship, including the harsh discrimination of leader Idi Amin in the 1970s.

Herber first got interested in the Abayudaya when he saw a documentary movie last spring as part of his congregation’s adult education film series. The film documented a conversion officiated by North American Conservative rabbis in Uganda in 2002.

“We were all so touched and moved by what we saw when we learned about the Abayudaya,” Herber said, that they started to dream of bringing representatives from that community to Milwaukee to hear their music and also for CBI members to visit Uganda.

Several months later, Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, invited Herber to participate in the July beit din.

Upon urging from Herber’s wife Cynthia and social action committee member Judy Margolis, Herber agreed to go.

His July trip as a member of the beit din which formally converted more than 250 Abayudaya was “a life-changing experience,” Herber said and it inspired a strong commitment to build ties between his own and that congregation.

“Because this is a community that is so devoted to living Jewishly everyday, we have to help them,” he said.

And Herber has already taken bold action to do that by securing an $18,000 grant from a foundation for which he is a board member, to build a post-high school yeshiva in the central Abayudaya village.

“People will be coming to the yeshiva from all over Africa. Ideas will be exchanged and [those who come] will be supporting the community” commercially, as well.

Making progress

During his visit, Siriri told of his community’s survival after being decimated under previous leaders who persecuted Ugandan Jews and denied them any education – it fell from 3,000 members to just 300 at its lowest point – and of their recent growing contacts with the larger Jewish world, something they have pursued since their earliest days but which have only recently grown significantly.

Helped most by Kulanu, but also by other individuals and groups from North America and Israel, they now have Jewish schools that cover kindergarten through high school.

They have made progress in water and general sanitation and healthcare and in business development through micro-financing and a growing cooperative that sells high quality organic Mirembe Kawomera (Delicious Peace) brand coffee and a company that offers kosher guided safari tours.

Siriri and his community are proud of their achievements and also of their decision to interact pluralistically and inclusively with their Christian and Muslim neighbors – neighbors who have not always practiced similar tolerance toward them.

Christian and Muslim children are freely admitted to the Abayudaya schools, where they are given a secular and Judaic education and treated with full equality, Siriri said.

The Thankgiving coffee cooperative is also a collaborative effort among the religious communities.

While the Abayudaya have considered the question of aliyah, most have looked at the experience of the Ethiopian immigrants in Israel and realized that if they decide to emigrate, they will need to have the strongest skills they can develop to make the cultural adjustment.

In the meantime, they continue to work to improve their standard of living, their knowledge of the world, especially the Jewish world, and their understanding and practice of Judaism, Siriri said.

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