Uganda and the Jewish Question

THE NAMANYONYI synagogue doubles as a center for educational and cultural activities.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

‘How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places, O Israel.” I’d never appreciated the power of these words until pronouncing them a few days ago overlooking the village of Nabagoya, center of the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda. I was there for its centennial celebrations, offering congratulations on behalf of the Jewish Agency. After spending four days in the area, I’d come to understand that the Biblical “goodliness” has far more to do with “godliness” than with anything tangible.

The homes of the Abayudaya are modest, to say the least. With precious few exceptions, they have no electricity or running water. Simple brick blocks or wooden shacks with earthen floors – barely furnished and, by Western standards, also unfinished, often lacking windows and doors. The unpaved roads turn to mud when it rains. Children run about barefoot. Next to most, maize, mangoes and matoka (a local plantain cooked like potatoes) grow on tiny plots of land. The overwhelming majority of the villagers survive on subsistence farming. Here and there, a few chickens, an occasional goat and a scarce cow roam freely.

Yet in the midst of what we in developed countries would call abject poverty, there is a richness of spirit, a passionate pride, an embrace of life with all its tribulations and a devotion to Jewish tradition that permeate their homes. How goodly, how godly are thy dwelling places, O Israel.

HIGHLIGHTS OF a week in Africa:
Thursday. I join the daily minyan for a very special occasion: the bat mitzvah of two 12-year old girls from the community. When called to the Torah, they exhibit skill and exude confidence surpassing that of most youngsters whose bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies I’ve attended.

Following services, I spend the day observing conversion proceedings for some 25 adults and a good number of children. A Bet Din has been convened with rabbis from the United States together with their native colleague, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who was ordained after graduating the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. (Since then, he has also been elected to the Ugandan parliament.) One by one, the candidates are asked questions about their commitment to Jewish practice and their knowledge of Jewish tradition. All but one are deemed ready for conversion and late in the afternoon we trek down to the nearby river for the ritual immersion that will complete the process.

Friday morning. The day begins with a visit to the Jewish primary school. Of the 460 students, only 102 are Jews. The others are Muslim or Christian. I discover that the Abayudaya are a minority in all nine villages in which they live, but everywhere dwell in complete harmony with their neighbors. In the school, all the children learn Hebrew and the fundamentals of Shabbat and holiday observance. The words of “Hatikvah” and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are emblazoned on the exterior walls.

From the school, I continue to the neighboring village of Namanyonyi. I meet with the leaders of the community in their synagogue, permanently draped with Israeli flags. They proudly tell of the rich educational program they maintain for their members, even as they speak of the harsh financial hardships they face. They are also proud of the rudimentary solar energy system they’ve acquired, which provides some dim lighting. Before heading out for a stroll around the village, I am treated to a musical interlude, a distinctly African and particularly melodious composition of Hebrew and Luganda lyrics sung to the beat of quiet drums.

Friday, mid-afternoon. I head back to Nabagoya in time to witness the final preparations underway for Shabbat. Women squat around outdoor fire pits, the typical “kitchen” situated alongside each of the homes, peeling a vast amount of vegetables and winnowing huge quantities of rice. Lacking electricity, which also means no refrigerators or warming plates, cooking for Shabbat is always complicated, but today more so than usual, as the village has taken upon itself to feed some 300 guests from Israel, the United States and neighboring hamlets who have descended upon it for the special occasion. Standard fare here is vegetarian as meat is simply unaffordable. But today, in honor of the festivities – and with the help of an overseas donation – they are also preparing chicken and goat, freshly slaughtered by a local who has been meticulously trained in the rituals of kashrut.

Friday evening. The synagogue is packed and a very special Kabbalat Shabbat ensues. The unique medley of African and Western melodies beautifully bridges the different worlds we come from, reinforcing our sense of belonging to one another – and to one people – indifferent to differences in color and the countries we call home.

SHABBAT MORNING. The synagogue, full the evening before, is now overflowing. With daylight, dozens have made their way from neighboring communities by foot, sometimes walking upwards of two hours. The two bat mitzvah girls take an even more active role in the service than they did on Thursday, reading from the Torah with presence and precision that would make any parent proud.

Late Shabbat afternoon. Some 50 people assemble on the lawn outside the synagogue to learn together. I am one of the teachers. I worry that the text study I have prepared on the imperative of creating an exemplary society in the Land of Israel might be too sophisticated and too distant from the lush, rolling hills of Africa to be of any interest. Within a few minutes I am embarrassed that I had unfairly underestimated my audience. They care just as much about what is going on in the Jewish state as Jews anywhere – and are just as well equipped to offer interpretations of the sources we are reading together.

Sunday morning. I awake to an email informing me that entry visas to Israel have not been approved for two Abayudayans who’d been accepted into a leadership training program for young Jewish adults from around the world that they were to begin today. This is not the first time I’ve had to deal with such matters. While the Jewish Agency officially recognized the Abayudaya as a Jewish community years ago, the Interior Ministry has not yet responded to our request that it do the same. I manage to connect with the Israeli embassy in Nairobi, explain where I am and why, confirm the status we have conferred upon the community and request that the two applicants be permitted to join the program. I am asked to send a letter to that effect and do so, hoping it will chance upon sympathetic ears.

Sunday noon. The grounds of Nabagoya are all but unrecognizable. The official ceremony celebrating a century of Jewish life in Uganda will begin in two hours. Tents have been raised, a stage erected, a sound system put in place and 3,000 chairs set up to accommodate the anticipated crowd. By the time 2 p.m. rolls around, hundreds will have to make do sitting on the ground. I’d never have imagined that in these simple surroundings such an event could be orchestrated. The live brass band playing in the background adds to the surreal nature of the happening.

Among the esteemed guests streaming in are a government minister and several members of parliament. They praise the community and their colleague, Ugandan MP Rabbi Sizumo, with such accolades that it is hard to believe the Abayudaya constitute a community of only 2,000 within a total population of 43,000,000.
When it’s my turn to speak, the matter of the visas is still fresh in my mind. I pledge the Jewish Agency’s support in expanding opportunities for members of the community to participate in Israel programs and in bringing about recognition of the Abayudaya by the Israeli government. These were the only remarks during the three-hour event interrupted by applause, an expression of the community’s fervent desire to be embraced by the Jewish world and welcomed in the Jewish state. That sentiment is further reinforced when the program ends with a resounding rendition of “Hatikvah.” Being in Uganda, I can’t help but wonder what Theodore Herzl would make of the moment.

MONDAY MORNING. Good news. The visas I’d yesterday asked be authorized have been approved. I set off in a good mood for the Semei Kakungulu Jewish High School, named for the founder of the Abayudaya community. Converted to Christianity by British missionaries, Kakungulu, a chieftain, soon came to believe that Judaism was the true religion and, in 1919, circumcised himself and his sons. His tribe followed suit and for years they lived their own brand of Judaism, based primarily on the Old Testament. As exposure to the Western world increased, and with it contact with mainstream Judaism, the Abayudaya resolved to formally join the Jewish people. They were warmly embraced by the Conservative movement, which has been conducting conversions among them since 2002, resulting in a Jewish community today numbering some 2,000. In 2014, a splinter group, now approaching 400 members, began undergoing Orthodox conversion.

But back to the school. In speaking with the headmaster, I learn two things about living in rural Africa that make me realize how little I know of the culture of others. One: Many of the students walk two hours in each direction every day to attend class. Two: The teenage girls more often than not miss a week of school every month. They don’t have access to sanitary pads and prefer to stay home rather than risk embarrassment. Next time I come I know what I’ll be filling an extra suitcase with.

Next stop: The Tobin Health Center in the nearby town of Mbale. It is a facility established in 2010 by Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to reaching out to Jews of color and educating the mainstream community about Jewish diversity. While founded with the Abayudaya in mind, from its inception the center was intended to introduce a new level of health care to the entire region. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of the patients are Muslim or Christian, but an ambulance in the parking lot, painted with the words “The Shifra and Puah Maternity Home” – named for the famed biblical midwives – hints at who is behind this amazing project.
Monday, late afternoon. After a six-hour drive through pastoral countryside, I end up in the ever-congested hustle and bustle of Kampala, the country’s capital. I’ve come to visit the newly dedicated home of the nascent branch of the Abayudaya, founded by students from the community who attend university here. With the support of Marom, the young adult division of Conservative Judaism, and the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Diaspora Activities, they’ve rented a facility that serves simultaneously as synagogue, cultural center, social club and study area. I meet with several of the group’s enthusiastic leaders and learn that they see themselves as a permanent fixture in this urban landscape, with a commitment to social action that will expose their neighbors to the best Judaism has to offer. That turns out to be a perfect segue into tomorrow’s activity.
Tuesday. My last day and my last adventure. After battling traffic through the heart of Kampala for 45 minutes, it’s only a 20-minute drive to Namulanda, home to the Jewish Agency’s Ugandan branch of Project Ten, a program bringing together young adults from Israel and the Jewish world to engage in social action. The ten volunteers I meet there are passionate about the work they are doing with the children in the neighboring schools. The local educators I speak with are equally enthusiastic about – and thoroughly appreciative of – their efforts. Tikkun Olam at its purest.

WEDNESDAY, 4 A.M. I land at Ben-Gurion Airport. Jonathan, one of the young men who received his visa only two days earlier, happens to be on the same flight with me, his first ever. I snap a picture of him as he descends from the airplane, treading for the first time on the Land of Israel, even if covered by tarmac. It’s a very emotional moment for him. One small step for Jonathan, a giant leap for the Abayudaya. I accompany him to border control and the two of us hand over our passports.

“You can go through,” the immigration officer says to me. “The other fellow, he needs to go to the immigration waiting area.”
“Why?” I ask. “His visa is valid.”

He responds that he doesn’t need to give me a reason. I ask him how long it might take. He tells me it could easily be two hours before he’s even interviewed. I ask him what we can expect then. No answer, but another Abayudayan who arrived in Israel last December with a valid visa was held at the airport overnight and deported the next morning without explanation. I was determined not to let that happen again. I tell the officer I’m the deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive and that Jonathan has come to participate in one of our programs. The officer’s attitude changes, but not the rules. He directs me to his supervisor, who, after a brief interrogation, relents. A few minutes later, we are on our way to baggage claim. It happens to be the morning after the massive demonstrations staged by members of Israel’s Ethiopian community and I’ve just had but a tiny taste of what has led to the anger and frustration fueling the explosion. Jonathan feels like he’s been punched in the stomach.I decide to do something to counter his sense of humiliation. An hour later, we are standing on the promenade overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, in whose direction he has been praying since a child. “Ten measures of beauty descended upon the world,” the Talmud tells us. “Nine were taken by Jerusalem.” After a week in another world, I am home. So is Jonathan.

Epilogue. A week after my return, Balak, King of Moab, sends Balaam to curse the Hebrews. Instead, unable to go against God’s word “even if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold,” he utters the immortal blessing, “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob.” May the day soon come when Israel’s ministers will see what I saw and similarly bless the Abayudaya with the acceptance they deserve.

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