Ugandan community boasts five synagogues
Group shot with Israel at The House [David Collin photo]
TORONTO – Israel Siriri, head of the executive committee of the 1,000-strong Abayudaya Congregation of Uganda, hopes that his North American speaking tour will raise awareness and funds to help his developing African Jewish community.
Siriri was in Toronto last week to present a multimedia program to audiences at Darchei Noam Congregation and The House about the community’s sustainable development projects that were made possible thanks to funding from Kulanu, an American organization that assists lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people.
Speaking to The CJN before his presentation at The House, Siriri said he wanted to tell people here about the history of his community and how it has developed since he became the head of the executive five years ago.
As the story is told, when British missionaries came to Uganda in the early 1900s to convert the Mbale tribe to Christianity, Semei Kakungulu, a military leader who was also the community leader, began to study the Bible.
After having read the Old Testament, the Torah, he believed more in the first five books of the Testament and was inspired to live a Jewish life.
He and his three sons were circumsized, and he founded a community that follows Jewish practices and considers themselves Jewish.
Today, with the help of funds from organizations such as Kulanu, the eastern Ugandan community boasts five synagogues, the Hadassah Primary School, the Semei Kakungulu High School, the Sha’arei Refua Medical Clinic, a guesthouse and a yeshiva.
Siriri, who is a construction engineer by profession, also helped install water catchment tanks and the first running water well in the community.
The Abayudaya also now enjoys leadership from an ordained rabbi who completed a five-year graduate program in May at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu received ordination as a rabbi under the auspices of the Conservative movement and has since returned to the community – which observes Shabbat and all the Jewish holidays and keeps kosher – to serve as its religious leader.
While in Toronto, Siriri was not only eager to share news about the development projects but also to seek support from the international community for funds.
“Part of the development project is that we have schools because our mission is to build schools and support them,” Siriri said in his heavily accented English.
“We have two schools which are community based and they are privately funded, so they are available for all students to come there. Those who live very far, they come and live in the dormitories and have a Jewish education together with a formal education.”
Hebrew and Jewish studies classes are offered for the Jewish students, while the Christian and Muslim students who also attend these schools have the option of taking part in these classes, as well.
“We also want to help people who are going for higher education and to plan for the next generation… The biggest challenge now is to continue to support the schools as we build economic activities and develop the economy within the community,” Siriri said, adding that during his tour he worked to promote locally produced goods.
“There are community projects that involve looking for a market for our products that we have already. We would also like people to help us get a market to some of our products that we make.”
For example, Siriri said the Abayudaya community produces handmade kippot and music CDs.
In fact, music is an integral part of the Abayudaya. In 2003, an album titled Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish people of Uganda was released, and it was nominated for best traditional world music album at the Grammy Awards in 2005.
The Abayudaya also developed a fair-trade organic coffee project called Mirembe Kawomera, which means delicious peace. It involves more than 750 Christian, Muslim and Jewish farmers working together.
“We invite people to come and visit with us,” Siriri said.
“They can learn more about the community. People come to Uganda, and they leave without visiting us. By coming there, it can make you want to change something.”