Rabbi Herber finds Judaism ‘thriving’ in Uganda group

Rabbi Jacob Herber of Congregation Beth Israel in Glendale had only one regret about his recent trip to Uganda. He didn’t get a chance to try kosher-slaughtered goat meat.

“I was hoping to, but it didn’t happen,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “Maybe next trip.”

Otherwise, Herber had “a once in a lifetime experience” July 8-17 in Uganda.

During that time, he and four other U.S.-based rabbis helped convert to Judaism some 250 new Jews, from the Ugandan Abayudaya (“people of Judah” in the Luganda language) community and other African countries – Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania, according to an article in the July 25 Forward.

He also helped to celebrate the installation of the first black rabbi in sub-Saharan Africa, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who served on one of two three-member betei din (rabbinic courts) for the conversions.

Finally, Herber also participated in Shabbat services and, with his colleagues, taught classes on a variety of Jewish topics.

“Perhaps it was most memorable because, despite the different liturgy and customs and some traditions, to know that Judaism not only exists but is thriving on the continent of Africa and is poised to grow even more, is very inspiring,” he said. “And to be a part of that for me is profoundly rewarding.”

‘Incredible moments’

Herber heard about the plans for these events from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles. Artson recently was scholar-in-residence at Beth Israel; moreover, he and Herber are long-time friends.

“We were going to be in close quarters, so we had to be comfortable” with each other, said Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean of the Ziegler school and the only woman rabbi in the group. Of the other two U.S. rabbis, one came from the Los Angeles area and the other from Washington, D.C., she said.

Herber and the group left the U.S. on July 6. They stayed in the community’s guesthouse and mostly ate “fish, cooked vegetables and fruits,” though the community did kosher slaughter some chickens, he said.

The conversions happened over the course of two days, Herber said. Prospective converts had to meet with a beit din of three rabbis, of which two operated simultaneously, he said.

The ritual included immersion, with women going to “an outdoor mikvah” that, according to the July 25 Forward, is “a pool in the middle of a cornfield,” and with the men going to a local river, he said.

In all of this, Herber said, “It’s really difficult to pick one particular experience or moment” that was a highlight. “The entire visit was filled with very emotional, inspiring, incredible moments.”

But he said he particularly remembered the “beautiful, uplifting melodies” that the Abayudaya sing in their services – some of which are available on a commercial CD (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings; see Nov. 21, 2003, Chronicle) – plus “the remarkable welcome from the community. They’re just extraordinarily hospitable.”

And Herber’s participation could be the beginning of a relationship between the community and Beth Israel. Herber said a member of the Abayudaya community will be coming to speak at the synagogue sometime this fall at an event that will be co-sponsored by the Milwaukee American Jewish Committee (MAJC).

As The Chronicle reported when Abayudaya primary school headmaster Aaron Kintu Moses visited Milwaukee (Nov. 17, 2006, issue), the Abayudaya community is not quite one century old, and can trace its creation to one man.

At the turn of the 20th century, Uganda was a British protectorate, and many Christian missionaries were in the region. One of the missionaries’ students, a soldier named Semei Kakungulu, began to puzzle over what he perceived to be contradictions between the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible.

Semei Kakungulu decided he wanted to become a Jew around 1919. By the time of his death in 1928, he had established a community that at its peak included 3,000 people and 27 synagogues. It also had a relationship with Israel during the 1960s and received some books and other materials from the Israeli embassy.

However, anti-Israel dictator Idi Amin took power in 1971 and persecuted the Abayudaya. The government took over the synagogues, destroyed Jewish books, declared Friday and Sunday but not Saturday to be official rest days, and even arrested people for Jewish observance.

Yet some persisted with Jewish observance in secret; and now the present Ugandan government allows freedom of worship, speech and association. Today, the Abayudaya number around 1,000 people.

A previous beit din from the U.S. Conservative movement worked in the community in 2002, leading it to practice that form of Judaism. Sizomu is the first member of the community to become a rabbi; he studied at the Ziegler school, where he was ordained this past May.


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