Meet the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, in documentary and talk at Marin JCC
The highlight of most vacations to Africa typically centers on hobnobbing with lions, giraffes and elephants. For Fred and Joanne Greene, the highlight of their African sojourn was a close encounter with a remote Jewish community.
In February, the Novato couple spent two weeks in Uganda, and while they did enjoy close encounters with gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, their main goal was to meet with the Abayudaya Jews in eastern Uganda.
What they saw, and the people they met there, changed their lives forever.
After a few days in the parks, the Greenes rode a Jeep across the country to the foothills of Mount Elgon in Uganda’s Mbale District. There they met the Abayudaya in their home villages.
The Greenes chronicled their trip, taking more than 7,000 photos and filming their meetings with families, teachers and Abayudaya leaders. They greeted students at the local school, celebrated Shabbat in the home of the Abayudaya rabbi and danced with teenagers while baking challah.
A filmmaker by trade, Fred Greene turned the footage into a 15-minute documentary. The Greenes will premiere that film and talk about their adventure at a 7 p.m. presentation at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael on Wednesday, Aug. 14.
“It’s our gift back to the community,” Joanne said of the film. “We have the ability to tell the story, and we hope the documentary will raise money and awareness [of the Abayudaya].”
Joanne, a former radio broadcaster who now serves as the JCC’s director of Jewish engagement, had known of the Abayudaya for years.
That community, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, originated when Ugandan statesman Semei Kakungulu (1869-1928) made the choice to follow the mitzvot of the Torah. In time, his sect drew a number of followers.
Though they live observant Jewish lives, and though their current spiritual leader Gershom Sizomu, 49, was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, the Abayudaya have not been officially recognized as Jews by Israel’s Interior Ministry.
However, the Jewish Agency for Israel does recognize the Abayudaya (which translates as “People of Judah”), making them eligible for aliyah under the country’s Law of Return.
Estimated to number around 3,000, the Abayudaya have received financial support from Jews around the world, especially from the Bay Area. The S.F.-based nonprofit Be’chol Lashon, which works with Jewish communities of color, has been unstinting, sending delegations to Uganda and hosting Sizomu in the Bay Area many times.
In a story last year, Be’chol Lashon executive director Diane Tobin told J. that Sizomu was “an extraordinary individual. His community is the only one we still work with outside the United States.” Tobin will join the Greenes on stage at their presentation at the JCC.
Be’chol Lashon also contributed to the cost of building the Abayudaya synagogue in Nabugoye and the Tobin Health Center in Mbale (named for Tobin’s late husband, Gary Tobin, who founded Be’chol Lashon).
The Greenes had met Sizomu a number of times in the Bay Area. So Joanne’s 65th birthday earlier this year gave them a good excuse to splurge and take a trip to Uganda.
Once they reached the Abayudaya villages, they found a community with little electricity or running water. Poverty is endemic, with the people living primarily as subsistence farmers. “They grow what they eat and they eat what they grow,” Fred said.
But every Friday night, work comes to a stop.
“We were there for Friday services, Saturday services, Torah study and Saturday morning’s reading from Torah,” Joanne recounted. “[The leader] chanted the haftarah in Luganda [the local language], so everybody could understand.”
In their film, the Greenes interview Sizomu, who tells his story of surviving the nightmarish regime of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and shares the subsequent growth of his community. They also interview the leaders of the local Jewish school, which is run by a Jew and a Muslim and is open to students of all faiths.
One highlight is the scene of Shabbat dinner at Sizomu’s home, with his family members belting out a thrilling East African rendition of “Hinei Ma Tov” as they prepare stewed chicken and matoke (a Ugandan plantain) in a backyard iron pot.
“We arrived and it was immediately, ‘We love you, come be with us,’” Joanne said. “It was a level of openness and sharing that you don’t get when you’re a tourist ordinarily. Because of that, it was an experience on a different level, instant intimacy because of shared traditions and shared values.”
Those values were not always shared by other Ugandans. Idi Amin was famously anti-Semitic, and is today best remembered for holding scores of Israelis hostage at Entebbe Airport in 1976, until a daring Israeli commando raid rescued almost all of them.
Even though Sizomu serves in Uganda’s parliament, the Abayudaya are not well known in the country. The Greenes’ documentary ends with an amusing clip of a morning news show on Kampala television, with two anchors wondering about the cap on Simozu’s head.
The Greenes did not have to turn to the morning news to experience such unfamiliarity.
“Our guide for the two weeks we were there has been a tour guide for over 30 years,” Fred said, “and he had never heard of the Abayudaya. He came to services with us on Saturday morning and was joking about converting.”
Both Joanne and Fred emphasized that the people they met in Uganda were uniformly friendly and welcoming. But the couple couldn’t help recalling the terrible centuries-long history of European colonialism in Africa as they traveled.
Once, when their Jeep broke down in a town off the typical tourist map, the Greenes decided to take a walk.
“We were the only white people,” Joanne said. “It felt uncomfortable. People stared at us; some people kept asking us for money. We didn’t feel unsafe, but we were the ‘other.’ As Jews we pass as white people, but it’s not like being a black person in America. This was a little taste of that.”
As for the Abayudaya, they have made some headway, as far as their connections to Israel are concerned. In 2018, the community sent its first cohort of young people to Israel for a Birthright trip, and this year, Israel’s High Court agreed to hear a petition from an Abayudaya man who wanted Israeli citizenship but was denied. The Conservative-Masorti movement asked the court to rule in the man’s favor. A decision is pending.
As for the Greenes, they hope their film, which will be available on YouTube after its JCC screening, will draw attention to the Abayudaya, who still need plenty of help from the outside world.
“We have a lot to learn from them,” Joanne said. “Our lives and realities are so different, but to see the simple beauty in their lifestyle was inspiring. You come home and try to remember what matters.”