Who Is an African Jew?

The gently sloping campus of Semei Kakungulu High School, named for the founder of Uganda’s Jewish community, lies in the shadow of the imposing Mt. Wanale, a volcanic massif which rises dramatically from the surrounding plain of Africa’s Rift Valley and offers breathtaking views of the valley below.

Last July, in the city of Nabugoye, in Eastern Uganda, the group of Jews known as the Abayudaya (“People of Judah” in the native Luganda language) convened for the installation of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Uganda’s first chief rabbi and the first black sub-Saharan rabbi to be ordained by an American rabbinical school.

For the past five years, Sizomu has studied to be a Conservative rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, sponsored by B’chol Lashon, a non-profit group dedicated to encouraging Judaism among non-traditionally Jewish groups; he was formally ordained there in May.

Preparations for this event have continued for some months in Nabugoye, roughly 20 minutes outside of Mbale, the largest town of eastern Uganda, itself located some 4.5 hours by car or bus from the capital of Kampala. The border with Kenya lies just beyond Wanale and, to its north, the more distant and more famous Mt. Elgon, perpetually swathed in mist.

Many of the visitors to today’s celebration have passed through Mbale and have ascended to Nabugoye via rickety minibuses or noisy motorcycle-taxis, along the dusty roads of rural Uganda, passing the little shops and markets, flocks of goats and herds of cattle, and fields of cassava, sesame and millet from which the local population makes a subsistence livelihood.

Colorful striped tents have been erected around the school’s central courtyard and an energetic band is performing traditional driving African rhythms. Then, as the music quiets, the overflowing crowds look to the flowered gate. Walking slowly, surrounded by members of his extended family and colleagues and mentors from America, Sizomu approaches the center to be formally greeted by the Abayudaya. Tearful, yet smiling, he and the other dignitaries take their seats.

The assembled guests include local religious leaders, political council members from the eastern region, numerous American volunteers and Israeli travelers, and the Abayudaya themselves, sitting in chairs carefully set up in the shade of the tents; dozens are standing outside because there is not enough room. Everyone seems to be wearing their finest clothing, and many of the women are wearing traditional colorful dresses.

In an atmosphere of inter-religious cooperation, integration and mutual understanding, numerous local dignitaries speak about Sizomu. A well-known imam conferred a humorous African name on each of the visiting rabbis, much to their delight. A local Christian leader thanked “Brother Gershom” for his part in providing medical clinics, boreholes and mosquito nets to some of the local neighborhoods, irrespective of the faiths practiced there. They all spoke in English, learned during the years of the British colonization, spiced with African expressions.

“Thank you, rabbi,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School. “Bless you for the inspiration you have provided. Let us pray for a world of peace and love, justice and compassion. Let it pour forth like the waters, shine like the sun.”

Musical performances between the speeches energized the crowd as a professional Ugandan dance troupe – accompanied by a raucous band of musicians – performed in traditional brightly colored costumes. Several of the dances were explained as representing, by costume and movement, specific tribes and regions of Uganda.

Concluding, the three Los Angeles rabbis, who had accompanied Sizomu throughout his studies, presented him with a cup filled to overflowing with wine, which all the inducting rabbis had helped to fill. Sizomu received it gratefully, beaming and teary-eyed at once. In unison, the rabbis recited the traditional priestly blessing from Numbers 6:22-27.

Sizomu then spoke of the emphasis Judaism places upon education and his hopes for the newly constructed yeshiva – the most recent addition to the Nabugoye community center – and spoke for religious ties across boundaries: “We set aside our differences and unite around our common beliefs… I am willing to work with all religious denominations here in Uganda.”

Later, Sizomu would tell The Jerusalem Report, “The moment I walked in and stood, I felt the kedusha (holiness) flowing through my veins. I felt a deep sense of obligation grasp me, obligation to my people.” Seeing Sizomu’s tears, Artson had said, “This means? that he holds the community’s future in his hand, he is strong enough to carry them and he is aware of what needs to be done.”

The installation of Sizomu was the central event of a weeklong series of significant events for the Jewish communities in Africa, and especially in Uganda, that took place this summer.

The festive installation was preceded by a two-day-long Beit Din (religious court), in which some 250 individuals, who had been living as Jews, were formally converted into Judaism.

The installation was then followed by the first convention, in Uganda, of the Pan-African Jewish Alliance (PAJA), an organization formed three years ago to identify and unite African congregations and integrate them into the wider Jewish world. PAJA has previously convened in Nigeria and the U.S. This meeting, which focused on the widely varied issues with which Jewish Africans must cope and contend, was attended by representatives of the native Jewish communities in Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe – communities totaling many tens of thousands of Jews – together with several African-American Jews from the United States.

In some countries, such as Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, with a Jewish community numbering several thousand, Jewish practice is constrained by its limited representation in societal institutions. There, Jews are involved in efforts to persuade members of the Nigerian parliament to recognize Judaism as an official religion, thus putting an end to state ostracism and bureaucratic disenfranchisement of the country’s Jewry. They are also attempting to create Jewish pilgrimage boards, parallel to the pilgrimage boards for the Muslim hajj and Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Most of the Jewish communities are also seeking Western contacts and are in need of ritual items such as tallitot [prayer shawls] and prayer books.

The Abayudaya community is a rarity in Jewish history. Comparable perhaps to the Khazars of the medieval Caucasus, they make no claims to Jewish lineage, but have adopted Judaism, identify as Jews and observe Jewish laws. Some peoples, such as the Lemba of southern African countries, believe themselves to be descendents of the lost tribes of Israel and DNA testing has confirmed that many of the Lemba do, in fact, share a common Semitic ancestry. And there are other scattered Jewish communities across Asia, Europe and Latin America, whose traditions claim descent from the lost tribes or other similar Jewish ancestry.

The Abayudaya community traces its Judaism to 1919, when a charismatic local leader named Semei Kakungulu, a wealthy landowner and military adviser to the occupying British, abandoned Anglican Christianity in favor of Judaism, which he believed to be more authentic to the Bible. It would appear that Kakungulu’s rebellious spirit was directed not only at the missionaries but against the colonial rulers in general. The British refused to recognize his self-bestowed nobility status, to which he felt he was entitled because he had assisted the British in their conquest over the numerous tribes in the region. His conversion may thus have been strategically and politically, as well as religiously, motivated.

In 1919, Kakungulu led many followers into the faith and, at age 50, underwent ritual circumcision, together with his son, and convinced the males under his leadership to do so as well. For a number of years he conducted prayer services, gleaning what he could from his only Bible. Initially, his practice was an eclectic combination of Jewish, Christian and traditional local beliefs, but gradually he began to eliminate other influences, focusing on literal interpretations of Biblical injunctions. In the mid-1920s, two Jewish traders who happened through the area instructed him in tradition and ritual, including ritual slaughtering of animals. From then on, the Abayudaya ate only meat that they had slaughtered and began to give their children biblical names.

Over the ensuing decades, the Jews saw their numbers rise and fall. Uganda gained its independence from Britian, but Uganda remained politically and economically unstable. By the end of the 1970s, after Idi Amin’s decade-long rule, the community had dwindled to 300, a tenth of its previous number, and more than thirty synagogues had been destroyed. The first synagogue, Kakungulu built on the hill, which decades later became Sizomu’s Moses synagogue and now also includes the school campus, had been transferred to non-Jewish hands.

Amin was deposed in 1979; over the next decade, the community was re-established and revitalized. In recent decades, Uganda’s government has stabilized – even if the country remains poor, with a per-capita GDP of $300, half of the average for countries of the region. The current democratic regime maintains full religious tolerance and in the capital city of Kampala (population three-quarters of a million), for example, one finds large cathedrals and mosques, a Sikh temple, and even Africa’s sole Baha’i house of worship.

Although not genetically or historically related to other ethnic Jews, the Abayudaya maintain a strong Jewish identity. Following the conversions in July, the community numbers just over 1,000. Nabugoye Hill, the site of community founder Semei Kakungulu’s original estate, serves as a kind of headquarters for the Abayudaya – with their main synagogue, primary and secondary schools, yeshiva and other facilities. Few Jews actually live here, however, and the community is spread among more than half a dozen remote towns in eastern Uganda. Each of these towns – some only half an hour’s walk from Nabugoye, others as much as seventy kilometers away – has a synagogue for Friday night and Saturday morning services, and each synagogue has a distinctive style of prayer.

Most Jews attend synagogue services on both Friday night and Saturday morning; entire families often walk for miles to pray together. Sizomu is the rabbi at the Moses synagogue, located on Nabugoye Hill, a large brick structure, with a concrete floor, an elegant ark for the Torah scrolls and several bookcases full religious books. The services here follow the Conservative tradition; some prayers are recited in Hebrew while others have been translated and are sung in Luganda. Many of the melodies are clearly African in origin, some composed for the purpose by members of the congregation and are accompanied by thumping drums and acoustic guitar. Other synagogues hold their services exclusively in Luganda; some are quiet and solemn; others more boisterous.

Most of the Jews survive from farming and are as poor as most of the rural Ugandans. Family size is generally large, with some families having ten or more children. Many, but not all, of the Jewish children attend the schools in Nabugoye, as do some non-Jewish children. The Abayudaya maintain close relationships with the other religions in the region; one local coffee plantation is run as a Jewish-Christian-Muslim collective. Jewish homes are often decorated with Jewish symbols, such as the magen David (Jewish star), since the Abayudaya feel no need to hide their identity.

Many children have been orphaned by AIDS, and rely on a relative or other benefactor for support and school fees. While sub-Saharan AIDS rates are among the world’s highest, Uganda’s have been declining in recent years. Roughly 4% of Ugandans are infected, but all Ugandans continue to be affected by this and other health issues, such as a high frequency of malaria. Access to health services is limited and expensive; doctors are few.

Strict observance of the dietary laws, prayer and Shabbat are observed as part of daily life among the Abayudaya. Unlike the majority population, who circumcise their male children at a much later age, the Abayudaya perform the ceremony when the child is eight days old, according to biblical injunction. The festival cycles are maintained, and the community comes together during the high holidays. Rabbi Sizomu hopes to restore bar- and bat-mitzvas and traditional Jewish weddings to the community.

In the 1960s, with the opening of the Israeli Embassy, contact was established with Jews abroad. This contact came to an abrupt end with the rise of Idi Amin in 1971; Amin expelled the Israelis and persecuted the Abayudaya, imposing forced conversion among all religious minorities to Islam or Christianity.

Since the mid-1990s, however, with a more politically and economically stable regime, the Abayudaya have increased their contacts and relationships with other Jews, particularly in the American Jewish community. Numerous American Jewish organizations have done much to aid the community with running-water systems, public-health education programs and classroom facilities.

Rabbi Richard Camras, rabbi of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, California, where Sizomu did his rabbinical internship, and Sizomu’s mentor, says that Sizomu brought an “increase in joy, generosity of spirit and devotion to the Los Angeles community. Gershom is a man who dreams large and has the capability, fortitude and personality to achieve those dreams. He has a deep love for both Africa and Judaism and is very open to learning and self-improvement.”

Sizomu, 39, is a fourth-generation Abayudaya. He grew up in Nangolo, a tiny community some five miles from Nabugoye. His grandfather and father before him were spiritual leaders of the community; it was in the caves near Nangolo that Sizomu and other Jews discreetly observed rituals during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. He and his family always seemed to believe that he would grow up to be a leader of the community.

Artson remarks, “The adjustment of moving from Uganda to Bel-Air [where Sizomu resided with his family during rabbinical training] could be a made-for-TV movie. But now everybody in L.A. has an Abayudaya kippa!” Sizomu and his wife Tziporah have three children. Readjustment to village life will be, Sizomu realizes, challenging. Yet, Artson says, Sizomu “never considered going elsewhere but back to his home community. He came back here every summer.”

Sizomu acknowledges that the liturgy and rituals that he brings from the Conservative movement in California are very different than the local traditions. The Abayudaya, isolated for decades, practiced a more primitive, nearly biblical form of Judaism, the result of much guesswork and African interpretation. However, he says, the adjustments will be ongoing as the Abayudaya slowly shake off African traditions, such as women’s inequality, and evolve into a community with a more Western outlook.

Sizomu tells The Report that he wants “to make Jewish learning accessible for everybody and to teach Hebrew, so that the people will understand every aspect of our tradition.” He intends, he says, to have students from all over Africa, who will eventually go back as spiritual leaders to their communities and to develop a curriculum specifically tailored to suit the needs of Africa.

He then adds, “But in the meantime, I also need a healthy community, well-nourished? So we will also focus on improving our health center and expanding economic opportunities. And academics must be emphasized – we will constantly try to improve our schools.”

The July religious court was the third such court that U.S. Conservative rabbis have conducted in Nabugoye since 2002, when the Abayudaya community first decided to undergo official conversion. For many, that first conversion of 700 people was more of a confirmation of their belief, since they already felt themselves to be Jewish but recognized the importance of recognition from outside of their own community. In 2005, an additional 50 individuals were converted, and at that time, in addition to the conversions, Sizomu organized a general teaching seminar and health clinic from abroad.

During this two-day religious court, some 250 individuals chose to convert, bringing the total number of “official” Jews to approximately 1,050. Prospective converts arrived from their villages in eastern and northern Uganda, as well as some from Kenya, Nigeria and even from Ghana.

Most of the converts were young and some families arrived with ten or more children. Six rabbis from the United States, in addition to Sizomu, divided into two teams of three and four. Speaking English, with frequent translation by Sizomu or other members of the community, the rabbis asked the parents and children questions about spiritual faith and religious practice. Yet some of the rabbis were concerned about the subtleties of translation. Rabbi David Kalender, of Fairfax, Virginia, outside the District of Columbia, told The Report, “It’s difficult to ask something like ‘What is the presence of God in your life?’ and be sure my meaning is understood.” Artson concurred, expanding the anxiety to include a deeper cultural background: “As Western Jews, we can rely on common reference points. But when I speak to Rabbi Gershom, I can’t always be sure that what I’m saying is what he’s hearing.”

Camras then performed the hatafat dam ritual, a symbolic circumcision, since most Abayudaya males are circumcised even before conversion. The last stage of the conversion involved a trip by all converts to the nearby mikve (ritual bath). But the organizers decided that the modest mikve was too small and trucks were rounded up to take the families over to the nearby Namatala River.

Observing the proceedings, Artson commented, “These days have been messianic for me. The vision of mashiach [the messiah] is a world where all people recognize their brotherhood, where borders and divisions fall away. I will tell everyone who will listen that we have brothers and sisters in Africa, and we have responsibilities in Africa.”

Added Rabbi Jacob Herber of Milwaukee, president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, “Jews in the West have much to learn from the Abayudaya. They have a keen sense of what [renowned Jewish philosopher] Abraham Joshua Heschel called radical amazement, a sense of awe that we should all try to rediscover. Their expressions of the covenant with God and the theodocy of God’s justice are biblical, rather than contemporary.”

And yet, despite their awed enthusiasm, the U.S. rabbis acknowledge that the conversion process presented religious and philosophical dilemmas. The Abayudaya, it could be said, present an African twist to the contentious, often politicized question: Who is a Jew?

“No American Jew would see their Judaism in terms similar to these people,” Artson acknowledges. While insisting that the conversions are religiously valid, he also tells The Report that certain adjustments had to be made, given the recent development of their Judaism and their limited access to resources. “In America, people often think that you can be Jewish without being observant – so we educate first and only then do we convert. But here, the Talmudic approach [we have applied], according to which loyalty to God’s rules and God’s commandment is tested, seemed appropriate. This is the one true requirement to Judaism, both in antiquity and in contemporary times.

Kalender adds, “Three things ought to be tested during the Beit Din: education, commitment to mitzvot, adherence to ritual. At the Beit Din, the people expressed their love for Torah and explained how Judaism organizes their lives and brings them closer to Torah? So to meet people here, embracing this religion, with no resources but the purity of their faith, is… an inspiration and a wake-up call.

Kalender explained that these people ought to be rewarded for their accomplishment despite their distance from resources, rather than punished for their lack of access: “Here there is simply a hunger for growing Jewishly. Here, we find a commitment to God, in a community that interacts with God, so we must look into our history and our tradition, to the converts in our tradition. Yes, Judaism has transformed itself over the course of 3,800 years, but to set aside those aspects of our heritage and make it about politics, or details, is to do a disservice to the community and therefore to God.”

Rabbi Ruven Barkan, of Chicagoland High School in Illinois, arrived several weeks in advance of the ceremony to familiarize himself with the community and prepare for the conversion process. “Even though we interviewed every family individually, it was clear that their commitments are reinforced by their tribal ties,” he tells The Report. And, tribally and individually, he said, “their repudiation of ties to other religions was complete. Many have been practicing Judaism for years.”

Referring to the controversy surrounding conversions in Israel, and the recent decision to annul conversions previously conducted by the official conversion court, the Conservative rabbis anticipate that these conversions will encounter resistance to official recognition in Israel. Kalender tells The Report, “The Chief Rabbinate has decided that the best way to protect and enhance Judaism is to put up one barrier after another, and call that halakha (Jewish law).”

These conversions and the ordination of Sizomu, Kalender continues, are “about the beauty of bringing people closer to their faith. Too often in the United States and Israel, the transmission of Judaism is buried under layers of politics or conflict, without depth of meaning… I am reminded of the concept of heshbon nefesh, of taking stock of our spiritual inheritance, which in the West we’ve come to take for granted. I’ve had to reframe my entire outlook on conversion and see it through the lens of Jewish history as a whole, with the same purity of experience of Avraham and Sarah”.

Yet the tension between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism has already penetrated into Uganda. Sizomu reveals that several years ago, in the town of Putti, half an hour’s drive from Mbale, the congregation was told by visiting Orthodox Jews that their conversion was not valid. The members of the Putti community broke away from the Abayudaya and claim to be Orthodox – but receive no support, Sizomu says, from any Orthodox organization. The leader of Putti did not attend the formal installation ceremony.

Sizomu then says, “I am not worried about recognition as much as I am with halakha, and I am confident about the Judaism of the Abayudaya in terms of halakha? These people are choosing Judaism, so I trust that their desire is pure? Israel would be nice, but, at the moment, the problem is not with us, it’s with Israel. Right now, I am working on expanding and consolidating the community here in Uganda.”

Explaining the appeal of Judaism, Barkan tells The Report that rural Africans “seek a sustaining faith and practice that will strengthen their community and personal relationship to God. Judaism is providing an appealing avenue to realize these religious commitments.”

He continues, “Shabbat is the linchpin for Jewish identity, affiliation, and affirmation. There are a few reasons why this is the case: It is a very visible and communal expression of Jewish identity. It parallels the expressions of faith of their Christian and Muslim neighbors. And Shabbat is a part of the larger commitment of the Jewish covenant through its rich symbolism and the observance of halakha in general.”

Shmuel Odyek, 42, is a leader of the Apaci (pronounced Apatchi) district community, near the northern city of Lira, a day’s travel from Mbale. Apaci is the newest of the congregations in Uganda, having gravitated toward Judaism from the Christian denomination of Adventism. Says Odyek, “We started investigating ways to Judaism around 1995, slowly building up our practice. We did not know of the existence of the Abayudaya when we started out. Most of us work as farmers, but we have no market for our crops, so we remain poor; our homeland region is very slow to develop.”

Most of his community, says Odyek, stayed behind due to the cost of transportation – 12,000-18,000 Ugandan shillings, approximately $10-12. But some 52 people – men, women, and children – did make the full-day trip along badly maintained, often flooded roads. “We have now finished the process of conversion and will head back north. More people from Apaci will come to the next Beit Din. I feel very happy in my heart to have gone through this process of conversion.”

Referring to the reasons that the converts gave to the rabbis about their reasons for accepting Judaism, Camras adds, “The most compelling answer, which was repeated often, was that these Africans were captivated by central ideas taught in our Bible, most particularly, the idea of being an am kadosh, a holy nation, whose task it is to be a light unto the nations.”

And Rabbi Cheryl Peretz of the Ziegler School tells The Report, “Almost all of the people spoke of a real love for prayer and Shabbat, both of which were the major entry points for the members of the communities. This strikes me as different from Western communities, where people often struggle with both prayer and Shabbat.”

Concluding his experience in the religious court, Herber says, “In seeking to determine their knowledge, commitment and motivation, I learned from their wisdom. I now have much intellectual and emotional processing to do with my own congregation.”

And Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of the Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, reflected, “This represents the fulfillment of generations of dreams: to see an African lifted up by his peers as rabbi to serve in his community. We see the respect and admiration paid to him by the deans and rabbis with whom he has worked, and we see the excitement and esteem of the community here – not just Jewish, but Christian and Muslim.

“The native son has come home, with one dream fulfilled, and many more yet to be fulfilled… We will see many more Jews of African descent, cut from Gershom’s cloth, rise to prominence in the future.”

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