Moses of Uganda

Aaron Kintu Moses performs weddings, ministers to the sick, and teaches in a Jewish school. Sound like the typical rabbi? Well, what if your pulpit was in the bush of Uganda?

Open text. On his first trip to America this fall, Ugandan Jewish educator Aaron Kintu Moses became something of a one-man public relations phenomenon. Hailed by local rabbis and synagogue sisterhoods, he tirelessly criss-crossed the country from Massachusetts to California to Wisconsin and back to raise awareness about the very existence of his home community in Uganda. As headmaster of the Abayudaya Primary School, the local Jewish elementary school, Aaron came bearing stories and fundraising items, not the least of which was himself: a flesh and blood member of Uganda’s Jewish community.

After more than a dozen lectures in as many cities, he landed in Wayne, N.J., his final stop on the tour. I caught up with him there, the day after his lecture at Congregation Shomrei Torah, where congregants crowded around him after a prayer service and wished him well. Wearing a mustard-colored dress shirt and gray slacks under a black windbreaker, Aaron did not remove his jacket inside the synagogue. With a quick smile and an easy laugh, he reminded me that East Africa’s tropical climate is considerably warmer than here. Outside, it couldn’t have been more than 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s not the only difference between the countries, not by a long shot, although Aaron’s mission over the past month has been to garner American Jewish support to sustain the projects of its Ugandan counterparts. (That is to say, all 753 Ugandan Jews, including Aaron’s two-month-old baby.)

It’s a critical mission. “We are actually trying to fight isolation, which we have been living in for a long, long time,” he tells me. At this point, I admit I’m a novice when it comes to Ugandan Jews. “Ah yeah,” he says, knowingly. “That’s why I came.”

As the face of the Ugandan Jewish community, Aaron himself says he followed the footsteps of his father, who served as a spiritual leader in Abayudaya (Ugandan for “Children of Israel”), until his death in 1986. Two decades later, Aaron calls his father one of the biggest influences in his life. Aaron recalls riding to synagogue on the back of his father’s bicycle, and singing Jewish songs with him. “He would tell us stories about Israel,” Aaron says. “So these stories influenced me to love his ways.”

Today, Aaron reflects on the fact that life as a Ugandan Jew is not, and has not, been easy. In a country where more than 80 percent of the population is Christian, Jews have been an extreme minority since the community’s inception there in the late 19th century. Currently, the Ugandan government does not recognize Jewish holidays, so government employees who are Jewish must work on those days, Aaron says. Similarly, there are no Jewish representatives to the national government, effectively eliminating their public voice. “They don’t treat us badly,” he says, but “we don’t have much influence. We don’t have people in the central government, but we are not oppressed as such.”

Historically speaking, it’s a familiar role. The Ugandan Jewish community traces its origins to founder Semei Kakungulu, who rejected Christianity brought by missionaries in the 1880s. Instead, he sought Jewish principles he learned in the Old Testament (which the same missionaries also gave him). In 1919, Kakungulu circumcised himself, his sons, and a group of followers, practically declaring themselves Jews. Over the next hundred years and counting, community life has ebbed and flowed: faltering after the patriarch Kakungulu’s death in 1928, growing to 3,000 members under new leadership, diminishing to 300 during the regime of the dictator Idi Amin, and enjoying an upswing after he was overthrown. Perhaps most significantly, the community was bolstered in 2002 when a panel of Conservative rabbis converted the Ugandans to Judaism, authenticating their Jewish status in the eyes of many (excluding the Israeli government, which only recognizes Orthodox conversions).

Today, Aaron says most Ugandan Jews live in Mbale, himself included. In addition to several synagogues, two schools are the centerpieces of the Abayudaya community. In general, many in Abayudaya are observant, and Aaron tells me his family keeps kosher and observes Shabbat: eating challah, reciting kiddush, attending synagogue. As far as community relations go, the Jewish community – once shunned – has partnered with a Muslim and Christian coffee-producing cooperative. Although it sometimes hinders their ability to observe their Jewish rituals, many who are not subsistence farmers are employed at municipal jobs; Aaron himself was a public school teacher in a former life.

It’s no stretch to imagine, therefore, that Aaron considers education to be something of a thread of hope: It sustained the Jewish community in Uganda more than a hundred years ago when the community got started, and he hopes it will sustain the community in the future, via Jewish schools. As such, one day six years ago, Aaron quit his public school job. He had no salary, three children to feed and a wife to support – but he says he was fueled by the (until then) foreign concept of a Jewish school. Initially, Aaron attracted no more than 15 students to a small, two-room schoolhouse where the children received Judaic and secular instruction. Today, there are 200 elementary school students, and 260 high schoolers. In fact, the growing student body and a desire to build more dormitories propelled Aaron to the United States this year.

As our meeting winds down, Aaron and I leave the synagogue together; he has been asked to participate in one more study session with local rabbis before flying to Entebbe later that night. He hands me promotional material for the school, pointing out his daughter’s smiling face on a postcard. I ask if he gets angry that Israel won’t recognize them as Jews. He maintains a calm demeanor. “It should be repealed,” he says of the policy. “We are Jews.”

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