Ugandan Jews

It’s hard to remember that once, a very long time ago, there was a kernel of a plan to temporarily settle the world’s Jews in east Africa, specifically, Uganda. Imagine what would have come of that idea…would, for instance, the Raid on Entebbe have taken place? Tough to say.

In the meantime, Uganda seems to be popping up on my personal radar lately. A nephew and his girlfriend spent a month there this summer as part of their travels through Africa, and my stepdaughter’s friend is planning on spending four months there this year volunteering for the Jewish community. Because, yes, there is a Jewish community in Uganda, known as the Abayudaya. They are a community of former converts from Christianity, founded in the early 1900s by a Muganda military general, and live a rural life, one of struggle both economic and religious.

Why do I mention them? A woodworker who I know, originally from Seattle and now Israeli, who specializes in ritual objects, just told me that he’s heading to Uganda this week to install a ner tamid and menorah that he created for the tribe’s synagogue. With a community of nearly 400 people in their village in rural eastern Uganda, they have not only a synagogue, but a school and kosher store.

Gabriel Bass, the woodworker, used the wood of a single Israeli cypress tree that had been carefully seasoned for three years in his studio.
According to Bass, “the Ner Tamid was lathed and carved into a hollow wooden mould. Glass was blown into the mould to obtain its shape, then opened on the opposite side. The red, black, and yellow are the colors of the Ugandan flag. The menorah includes glass fittings throughout to join the work and serve as oil lamps on the top.”

Bass was commissioned by a Los Angeles couple, Jill and Steven Edwards, to create the pieces for the Abayudayan community. They had met Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the Ugandan rabbi, when he was studying at the Conservative seminary in LA. According to Bass, “They basically fell in love with the concept of black Jews living in Uganda by choice and took them on as a type of tzedakah project. They have built a connection with them over the years visiting and supporting a range of projects for the community.”

As for Bass, he runs Custom Carving, his Judaica woodworking business with his wife, Gabriella, after moving to Israel from Mercer Island, Washington. His work back in the U.S. had Native American influences, as he was trained as a totem pole carver on the Musqueam reserve in Canada. After making aliyah, he went on to study glass at the Bezalel School for Art and Design in Jerusalem and focuses on individually carved Judaica and synagogue furnishings.

Next stop, Uganda.

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