Trip to take Sefer Torah to Uganda pays spiritual dividends
Since as far back in history as the first millennium before the Common Era, the Jews have been an international people. Following the conquering of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the biblical book of Kings tells us of the dispersion of the Jews at the hand of Assyria in 722 BCE. But, in truth, Israel was a diasporic nation before it was ever established in its own land, a nomadic tribe-family that found itself in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and Egypt before it finally arrived in Canaan (the biblical Land of Israel).
One only has to walk down Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem or through the Upper West Side of Manhattan to encounter Jews who have originated from multiple and varied regions of the globe, with different skin tones, spoken tongues and cultural tropes that, taken together, describe the richly diverse reality of world Jewry.
Less than a hundred years ago, a new community decided to join this global Jewish community. Their story is both an inspiring one and – somewhat unexpectedly – one that is emblematic of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century. They are the Abayudaya – the native Jewish community of Uganda.
Having met the charismatic leader and rabbi of the community, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, at a conference in San Francisco just weeks before his ordination at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, I was eager to learn more about this community. Sizomu was invited to come to Phoenix with his brother and son for a night of unforgettable music and stories. It was on that evening that one of the truly special (and anonymous) members of our community offered to donate a Sefer Torah to the Abayudaya community, and so I began to plan my trip to personally deliver the scroll.
During the two-week winter break from teaching at Jess Schwartz College Prep, I traveled to Uganda to present a Sefer Torah to the Abayudaya on behalf of the Phoenix Jewish community. By the end of the trip, I realized that I had received so much more than I had given.
The Abayudaya (“Jewish people” in the Luganda language) today number just over 1,000 members. They are located in the hills near Mbale, the third-largest city in Uganda. Unlike many other native African communities that claim an ancient connection to the Jewish people, the Abayudaya chose to become Jews in 1919. The famed warrior and political leader Semei Kakungulu was the first Ugandan to identify himself as a member of the Jewish people. After studying the Bible given to him by Christian missionaries, Kakungulu concluded that the “Old Testament” was authentic and that the New Testament was a corruption of much of biblical law. In 1919, Kakungulu decided to circumcise himself and his children, and instructed his followers to do the same. For the next nine years, until his death in 1928, Kakungulu continued to study the Hebrew Bible and, as a result of contacts with a handful of Jews traveling and working in the region, continued to add to the Jewish practices of the community.
One of the highlights of my trip was visiting the grave site of Semei Kakungulu. I recall thinking that I do not know of another Jewish community in the world where I could visit the grave site of the founder of that community. To stand at the grave of the Abraham of the Abayudaya was a powerful and inspiring moment.
Since Kakungulu’s death, the Abayudaya have managed to maintain their Jewish identity and practices, despite the loss of their founder and the violent suppression of Judaism during the reign of Idi Amin Dada from 1971 to 1979. Beginning in the 1980s, the community started to build a stronger connection to the rest of world Jewry, culminating in a communitywide affirmation ceremony (the Abayudaya do not consider themselves converts to Judaism – only that they performed the rituals of conversion as an affirmation of their Jewish identity) under the auspices of three American rabbis in 2002.
During the week that I visited with the community on Nabugoye Hill where Sizomu lives and around which much of the Jewish life of the community revolves, the Abayudaya were visited by two families from the Bay Area, a synagogue group from Chicago, two medical volunteers and a handful of Israelis traveling across Africa, among others.
In many ways, Nabugoye Hill felt no different from other Jewish centers around the world and yet, it could not have been more different: On Friday when we welcomed the new Sefer Torah, the songs were sung in Luganda and had a distinctive African rhythm; during Kabbalat Shabbat, the Psalms were sung in Luganda while we played guitar and drum to an irresistible beat (all before sunset); on Shabbat morning, the words of Torah I was asked to share were simultaneously translated into Luganda, reminding me of the Meturgamon who used to translate the Torah portion into Aramaic after the Babylonian exile.
Each of these experiences reminded me how similar and yet how different the international Jewish people truly are. In the 21st century, Jewish identity is a choice alongside an almost infinite number of other choices. Young Jews are no longer “guilted” into feeling Jewish. Israel and anti-Semitism are no longer surefire ways to ignite Jewish passion. Whether we are born to a Jewish mother or father or not has no bearing anymore on the life we will choose to live. Hopefully, with positive role models, it is up to each of us to choose whether or not Judaism demands something of us. Nearly 100 years ago, Semei Kakungulu chose to become a part of the Jewish people and today his descendants are continuing to choose Judaism.
We should all be inspired by their choice.