The Face of Jewish Uganda

J .J. Keki looks very much like his Ugandan neighbors. He grows coffee, bananas and maize on his farm; travels on dirt roads by bicycle-taxi and pumps water from the ground several times a day to carry home to his family. But no matter what he is doing or where he goes J.J. always has a kippah on his head, eats only kosher foods and on Friday nights and Saturdays, he walks to synagogue for Shabbat. “That is because I am Jewish,” J.J. explained. He and his daughter, Rachel Namudosi Keki, will be in Detroit on Friday through Sunday to share experiences of Jewish life in Uganda at three area synagogues and the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park.

The Kekis and other members of six eastern Ugandan villages are descendants of a group of Christians who left the church in 1919 and became Torah-observant Jews. Under the leadership of Semei Kakungulu, an elephant hunter, military leader and once-devout Christian from the Buganda region of Uganda, 3,000 Ugandans, including J.J.’s father and grandfather, began to observe Jewish dietary laws, hold Jewish religious services and perform Jewish circumcisions on their sons. Locals referred to them as Abayudaya, a Luganda (language) word meaning, “people of Judah” or “Jews.” Kakungulu and the Abayudaya left their homes in Kampala and formed their own community in Mbale, where J.J.’s family still lives. There, Kakungulu began a sect called “the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord.” He began construction of a synagogue that, upon his death, was overtaken by Christian missionaries. The group continued to be observant Jews but, because of limited methods of communication and travel, they remained out of touch with other Jewish communities. Only in the 1960s were they able to reach out to the outside world. “We even were visited by the first Israeli ambassador to Kenya, Arye Oded,” J.J. said. “He wrote about us in Hebrew and in English.” But soon after, in 1971, Idi Amin came to power and outlawed Judaism in Uganda and destroyed all the synagogues. “None of the children could go to school unless they were baptized as Christians,” J.J. said. “So, many people allowed their children to be baptized so they were able to go school.” Others went underground, remaining true to the Jewish tradition and educating their children themselves.

Continuing On
In 1980, when Amin’s dictatorship fell, religious freedom was restored in Uganda. The Abayudaya community that once included 2,500 members with seven synagogues was now a strong, but much smaller group of 500 – and they had no synagogue. During the next 12 years, the community was re-established under the leadership of three brothers: Joshua Jacob “J.J.” Keki, Aaron Kintu Moses and Gershom Sizomu. (In Ugandan tradition, blood siblings did not share a common family name, although in more modern times, J.J.’s children have his name of Keki.) Calling themselves “the kibbutz movement,” the Abayudaya lived in a kibbutz-like environment. They reclaimed the hill lost after Kakungulu’s death and built the synagogue he began, calling it the Moses Synagogue. In 1992, Matthew Meyer, then a 21-year-old junior from Brown University studying in Kenya, introduced the world to the Abayudaya community. “I attended Yom Kippur services in Nairobi with Julia Chamovitz, a peer of mine from Pittsburgh on my study abroad program,” said Meyer, a Bay City, Mich., native raised in Delaware. “I sat next to the one black African in the synagogue,” Meyer said. “Julia – who was sitting in the women’s section – encouraged me to talk to the guy, find out what was up. I did, and that set me off on a pretty amazing journey.”? Matt had been watching Gershom following the prayers in Hebrew,” J.J. said of the chance meeting with his brother. “He asked him if he was Jewish and Gershom told him ‘yes’ and invited him to come to our village for Shabbat. When he left, he promised to tell everyone of the Jews of Uganda.”

Telling America
Armed with photos and tapes of Abayudaya music, Meyer spent months trying to spur American interest in the community, even creating a Web site about them. “I spent many college nights writing letters about my Ugandan friends with little or no response,” Meyer said. “I sent out, over the course of a month, about 40 or 50 letters about the community, many including tapes of their music.” It was six months before someone contacted him. “My letter somehow landed on the desk of a rabbinic student researching dispersed Jewish communities,” he said. “A few months later, a rabbi called me because he had gotten his hands on the cassette and their music amazed him. “From those two contacts, next thing we knew, there were Shabbat visitors on Nabugoye Hill [where the Moses Synagogue is located] nearly every week and national news stories. A rabbi who visited expressed his disbelief at having spent a week in an African village with a community he said he often thought was “as Jewish as his own family.”” Finally, Americans were responding with visits and gifts, including a new Torah and money from the Brown University Hillel in Providence, R.I., to help build a synagogue. Others visited, coming to teach and donate resources and prayer books. Within a couple of years, Meyer went back to visit the Abayudaya villages. “I returned after college with a grant and, along with a Kenyan peer, started a small sandal-making cooperative that has done quite well at,” Meyer said. The project was created to provide work and income for impoverished residents of Korogocho in Kenya. The work earned Meyer the Samuel S. Beard Award for the Greatest Public Service by an Individual 35 Years or Under. He is the recipient of the American Institute for Public Service Jefferson Award for excellence in public service. Meyer’s ties with the Abayudaya community remain strong. “In Nairobi, all East Africans have what they call a ‘ushago,’ a rural homestead where they go for holidays and when they get enough bus fare to go home,” he said. “For a year, I treated Mbale, Uganda, as my ushago. To some extent, I still do. On Nabugoye Hill, it is so green and scenic and peaceful. I once saw a rainbow in the sky there that was a complete ring.” Meyer, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, now lives and works as an attorney in New York.

Visiting Groups
Soon after Meyer’s trip to Uganda, a group of Conservative rabbis from Israel and the United States traveled to the Abayudaya villages to perform a mass conversion for the group who for so long had been living as Jews. J.J. attended the ceremony, but said, “I don’t like to think of myself as a converted person. I was a Jew already. I was raised by Jewish parents, and I always lived a Jewish life.” In 1995, the Abayudaya community was visited by a delegation organized by Kulanu, a Baltimore-based organization involved in research, education and donations to those in developing, but unrecognized Jewish communities around the world. Jerry and Sharon Knoppow of West Bloomfield learned about the Abayudaya from Kulanu’s Web site and invited J.J. and Rachel to Detroit to speak about their community. “I learned about a world of non-mainstream Jews who just did not fit the Ashkenazi-Sephardi mold,” said Jerry Knoppow, who hopes to visit the Abayudaya in their villages. “We connected with them through Kulanu and the Institute for Jewish and Community Research (JCR) in San Francisco, which is sponsoring their trip.” The pair is in the United States to raise funds for their community, Knoppow said. “I personally hope our community learns that we are ‘One People’ and that they support their causes.”

What Would Help?
J.J., Rachel and Gershom are the only ones from the Abayudaya villages to travel to America to speak about their community. This month-long trip marks J.J.’s fourth time in the United States and Rachel’s second, but neither has been to Detroit before. Each American visit has been sponsored by the IJCR. “We need to come to America to tell people about our need for electricity and running water for our six villages and for our schools,” J.J. said. “Right now, only our major synagogue has electricity and every day, we wait in line to pump water from a bore hole in the ground to take back to our families. My wife, Miriam, and I have nine children and 15 adopted children. Rachel, who is 23, is the oldest.” The Abayudaya community has one high school, but it is too far from home for many potential students to attend. “We want to build a dormitory so more students can come from other villages,” J.J. said. “We have books that have come from donations and are in different synagogues, but we need a library, to sit and study.” On this trip, they have visited Washington, Baltimore, New York and Los Angeles, where members of a synagogue donated funds to help the Abayudaya high school build a science lab.

In Los Angeles, they also visited Gershom, the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya, who is a second-year student at the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. “Gershom is the first person from our village to go to rabbinical school,” said J.J., whose other brother, Aaron Kintu Moses, is acting rabbi of the community and head of Hadassah Infant School, the Abayudaya elementary school. “He did not go to rabbinical school, but he is very educated,” said J.J., whose father and grandfather also were rabbis without formal rabbinic education. “After my ordination, I hope to serve my community and other emerging communities in Africa as a rabbi,” Sizomu said. “I hope to start a yeshivah in Uganda that will help prepare new African Jewish religious leaders to cater for the numerous congregations springing up on the continent.”

Speaking And Singing
The Kekis came to America primarily to speak at the third annual Be’chol Lashon conference in San Francisco, an initiative of the IJCR. “Be’chol Lashon [In Every Tongue] is devoted to racial and ethnic diversity of Jews throughout the world,” said Dr. Gary A. Tobin, president of the IJCR, which serves as an international think tank providing policy research to the Jewish and general communities. “The conference brings together leaders from Jewish communities around the world,” he said. “Our goal is to work with the ancient and emerging Jewish communities, some of which have historic Jewish roots and some, like the Abayudaya, who are relatively new.” Be’chol Lashon is overseen by Diane Tobin, IJCR associate director.

In San Francisco, J.J. and Rachel also performed African-Jewish music, as did Gershom and his wife, Tziporah, at a concert that celebrated Jewish diversity and honored Black History Month. Rabbi Baruch Yehuda, spiritual leader of an all-black synagogue in New York, also appeared. “We believe in embracing diversity and growth as a way of avoiding disappearance,” Dr. Tobin said. “What if Gershom and J.J.’s father and grandfather were told, ‘No, you can’t be Jewish?’ “We are eager for North American Jews to understand emerging Jewish communities around the world, hidden or lost – and there are more. We have a responsibility to help those in Africa who want to return to their Jewish roots or to become part of the Jewish people.” To that end, the IJCR has sponsored trips to the U.S. so J.J. and Rachel can make others aware of their lives and their needs. The IJCR along with the University of Judaism also has provided a fellowship for Gershom to study and for his family to live in California for the five years of his schooling. “We know he will go back with a hope to open the first Pan-African yeshivah to train rabbis in Africa,” Dr. Tobin said. The IJCR recently established a philanthropic fund that is administered by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to fund-raise for a water and electricity project for the Abayudaya.

Life Of The Abayudaya
After speaking in Detroit, the Kekis go home to Mbale. J.J. will return to his position as mayor of his village. A former chairman of the Abayudaya community, he is the first Jew to be elected to public office in Uganda. He and Rachel will return to a life where most of the community of 714 Abayudaya work as subsistence farmers. Without electricity, there is no refrigeration, so they will continue their chore of gathering fresh food daily. Like the Kekis, most of the Abayudaya keep kosher and each of the community’s five synagogues has someone trained to slaughter animals according to Jewish law. Shabbat is observed as it is in the United States. Most attend Shabbat services on both Friday evenings and Shabbat mornings, with many walking miles to avoid using transportation on Shabbat. Services may be held in Luganda alone or with Hebrew and English added. In one synagogue, services are solemn, with the congregation removing their shoes once inside. “They follow what the Torah said that Moses was commanded to take off his shoes at the burning bush,” J.J. said. “So they take off their shoes in any holy place.” Another is an Orthodox synagogue founded after an Orthodox American rabbi came to Uganda sharing the Orthodox observance of Judaism and bringing Orthodox prayer books. “But we don’t think of them as being separate,” J.J. said. “We are all Jewish together.”

The community has built an elementary school and a high school. “Our Jewish children are now allowed to go to community schools without being baptized, but only in our schools would they be able to have Hebrew and Judaic studies,” J.J. said. “We have 200 students in our elementary school and more than 300 in our high school, but all of them are not Jewish. We invite everyone.” Even in a remote area of the world, Ugandan Jews have been victims of anti-Semitism, with children sometimes teased and beaten by peers. “People who are not Jewish say we are ‘Jesus killers,'”J.J. said. “But they learn from us that that is not true. We teach them about Judaism.” Rachel will return home with him. She serves on the Abayudaya Jewish community’s executive council. But there is more in store for Rachel. “She is interested in studying at an American university,” Dr. Tobin said. “The Institute will help her with the application process.” And for Rachel there also is music.

Sounds Of Music
A completely unexpected experience has come from Western involvement with the Abayudaya – an astonishing musical success. Two CDs of African melodies emerged from a village with only two old, worn and chipped guitars. Composed of both original lyrics and traditional Jewish liturgy in English, Hebrew and local languages including Luganda and Swahili, one of them was nominated for a 2005 American Grammy Award. The musical recordings began when the delegation from Kulanu visited in 1995. They were so impressed with the music that they returned and produced the CD, Shalom Everybody Everywhere. It features Gershom’s original music and the Abayudaya’s Kohavim Tikvah choir, which included J.J. and Rachel, a soloist, then only 9 years old. “Kulanu put us on the Internet and they are selling our CD [at its Web site] for a fund-raiser for the Abayudaya,” J.J. said.

It was the second CD, Abayudaya: Music from Jewish People of Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Washington D.C., available at, that brought the Grammy nomination in the category of Best Traditional World Music Album – Vocal or Instrumental. “To make the CD, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit from Tufts University near Boston traveled to us with his recording machines and produced the CD,” J.J. said. “We sang and he recorded.” Rabbi Summit, executive director and CEO of the Tufts Hillel Foundation and Tufts’ Jewish chaplain, is an ethnomusicologist who teaches in the school’s Judaic studies program and department of music. Rabbi Summit has conducted research on music and liturgy of the Abayudaya. He also annotated a music CD that accompanies Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, whose text and photographs were created by Richard Sobol (Abbeville Press, N.Y.). Both have visited Mbale.

A third CD is in the works, this time with L.A.-based Gershom as the producer. “Something else we want to have in our villages is musical instruments,” J.J. said. “Our young people love music. If they could learn to play instruments, they could have jobs as musicians.”

The Right Thing To Do?
While J.J. and his community are in awe of what has been accomplished by and for his people, Meyer sometimes second guesses his promise to tell the world about the Abayudaya. “I think, indirectly, what I did has led to some amazing and good things for the community in terms of substantively addressing their basic community needs,” he said. “But I regularly wonder if it did not lead in some way to what may be their destruction.” Meyer still returns to visit the Abayudaya every year or two, often for a Shabbat or Jewish holiday. “I consider myself extremely lucky simply to observe what I have observed, to serve witness to a community that has so blossomed and yet been so destroyed. I, myself, am never quite sure which.” After their initial visit to Uganda, Meyer and his travel partner, Julia Chamovitz, who also has made return visits to the Abayudaya, discussed at length the decision of how much to share with the outside world about their discovery. “We spoke of everything, of how this community wanted us to do everything to help them: to promote awareness of their existence, to keep them safe, to help them build schools, to build a synagogue that was not built of mud and sticks,” Meyer said. “They had never had a permanent-structure synagogue before. “And they wanted their children to be healthy. Disease was rampant. The AIDS scourge was just beginning to hit the community – which posed a particularly acute threat as the community had some success in practicing sexual exclusivity (only marrying within).” He thinks of new risks that came with the notoriety of news media publicity and the Grammy nod.

“The most incredible thing may be the amazement and interest with which American Jewish audiences find them,” Meyer said. “Because that amazement and interest is not too dissimilar from how the Abayudaya view us. “The danger is that the community will disappear or assimilate to such a degree that they do not even exist anymore,” Meyer said. “The community today is as divided as it has ever been. Kids are healthy. Everyone goes to school. But their services today much more closely resemble what you would find in a Southfield synagogue than what you would have found at Moses Synagogue 12 years ago. And I question whether that is a good thing.”

The last time Meyer visited the synagogue was this past Yom Kippur, the same High Holiday that first brought him to the Abayudaya a dozen years before. “The banana porridge at sundown tasted quite sweet,” he recalled. But he has seen J.J and Rachel since that trip. Last Friday night, Feb. 25, Meyer had Shabbat dinner with them and a group of Americans, including their host Rabbi Darren Levine, who have all spent extended time living in the Abayudaya villages. “We are generally less interested in helping the community get religious materials and electricity and dig bore holes and are more interested simply in engaging the community as friends, in challenging them to serve each other better and just try to learn something from them,” Meyer said. He will definitely return to the Abayudaya villages and visit the way he and his dinner companions always do. “Most who go visit the community stay in Mbale’s finest hotel four miles from Nabugoye Hill,” he said. “We stay in the village, often on the dirt and concrete floors of their homes. And we could not imagine doing it any other way.”

Where to Send Tax-Deductible Donations
Send a check to:
1. Abayudaya Fund, Institute for Jewish and Community Research,
3198 Fulton, San Francisco, CA 94118; or
2. Abayudaya Jews of Uganda Philanthropic Fund, American Jewish Joint
Distribution Committee (JDC)
, 711 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10017
(Please write: “For Abayudaya Fund” on the check).

Information About Booking Speaking Engagements
Please contact: Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 415.386.2604 or

Contact the Community: P.O. Box 225, Mbale, Uganda e-mail: (with the words, “For the Abayudaya” in the subject line)

More Information:

Meet J.J. and Rachel
While in the Detroit area, J.J. and Rachel Keki will be at the following venues:

*6 p.m. Friday, March 4, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, West Bloomfield, B’nai Israel Center. J.J. and Rachel will teach niggunim (wordless melodies) during a musical service. A dinner following the service requires prepaid reservations. Cost: $12 for adults; $5 for children; no charge for children younger than age 3. For information, e-mail David Saperstein at:

*9 a.m. Saturday, March 5, SZ B’nai Israel Center. J.J. will speak at the service.

*8 p.m. Saturday, March 5, at Congregation Shir Tikvah. A reception with J.J. and Rachel will include a slide show of their community photos and a musical performance. No charge. No reservations necessary.

*10:30 a.m. Sunday, March 6, at Congregation Beth Shalom. J.J. and Rachel will speak and give a musical performance. No charge. No reservations necessary. For more information, call Danny Kochavi at (248) 547.7970 or e-mail:

*1 p.m. Sunday, March 6, at the Jewish Community Center in Oak Park. The Kekis will make a presentation about their community and give a musical performance. No charge. No reservations needed.


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