Out of Africa (World Jewish Digest)

On a recent rainy Friday night, Aaron Kintu Moses, director of education and acting spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda, stood in front of about 50 people in a makeshift synagogue in the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Ill.

It was his sixth stop on a month-long, nationwide tour of Reform and Conservative congregations; this week, Moses was addressing the members of Congregation Hakafa, a Reform congregation that calls a drab community center home.

“This is so good,” Moses said, surveying the audience of mostly families. “It is so important to have brothers and sisters together from all around the world, to come together as Jews.”

The purpose of Moses’ tour was to teach American Jews about the Abayudaya, a community of 800 Jews in central-eastern Uganda. He said the community is still in need of modern health education, but they had recently installed new water tanks that held, for most of the residents, their first taste of running water.

The Abayudaya have been practicing Jewish customs learned from military and political leader Semei Kakungulu since 1919. Kakungulu refused to follow Christian teachings brought to Uganda by British missionaries in the early 1900’s. Instead, he called for observance of the Old Testament, with practices including circumcision and Saturday observance of the Sabbath.

In 2002, 300 members of the community converted to Judaism under the supervision of Conservative Rabbi Howard Gorin. The community now has five synagogues, a primary school and a secondary school.

Gorin, who has become an American envoy to Africa’s Jewish communities, said he discovered a community of dedicated Jews on his first visit to Uganda five years ago. “One of my biggest fears was that this would be a nominally Jewish community,” said Gorin, the spiritual leader of Congregation Tikvat Israel in Rockville, Md. “But this was an organic Jewish community?they were so powerful in their commitment and it was even more powerful because they were practicing in Uganda.” He says the conversion was especially important to the Abayudaya because it served as a formal introduction to the Jewish community worldwide.

Moses, clad in a green dress shirt, a red tie and a blue Bucharian kippah, wore a face of equal elation and pride as he spoke of his desire to educate fellow Jews on the history of the Abayudaya, collect contributions to help the population grow and advertise for the fifth annual two-week long trip to visit the community, which will take place this January.

Moses said that he discovered his own Judaism during the reign of President Idi Amin (1971-1978), a ruler who was notoriously intolerant of other religions and ethnic groups. Moses told the audience that he was punished by his teachers for not going to school on Shabbat and that his father was jailed and harassed for practicing Judaism.

“I …saw my father be put in prison because he built a Sukkah – the government thought he was building a place for rebels to meet.”

During this time period, Moses said the number of Jews in Uganda fell from 3,000 to 300. Following Amin’s reign, however, Moses helped to build the community to its present day numbers. Today, Moses said, Jewish children go to school alongside the local Christians and Muslims, praying in synagogues made of mud and shells. The Abayudaya women are also encouraged to read and educate themselves.

“We encourage women to study,” Moses said. “Women are labeled as people of the kitchen?not many women are educated in Uganda. So when they get books here, they are so happy.”

– Lindsey Miller

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