Wisconsin rabbi to aid in Ugandans conversion

Villagers in eastern Uganda who adopted Jewish beliefs and rituals on their own nearly a century ago will continue their faith journey next week with help from a Milwaukee-area rabbi.

Leaves for Uganda on Sunday 6 to attend installation of the first black rabbi in sub-Saharan Africa.

Uganda native ordained a rabbi in May

Rabbi Jacob Herber, president of the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, will leave for Uganda on Sunday to attend the installation of the first black rabbi in sub-Saharan Africa and to assist in the formal conversion to Judaism of at least 200 Abayudaya men, women and children who already live and pray as Jews.

Other Conservative rabbis formally converted about 300 or more people in 2002. Herber is one of eight United States rabbis who will be there for the latest conversions on Wednesday.

“What makes this trip so very meaningful for me is that, as a Conservative rabbi, I really feel that I’m doing a great work on behalf of the Jewish people to be able to participate in this important decision in the lives of these people, who are so earnest about wanting to be Jewish and living in a community where every day they aspire to live in a way that is of the highest ethical and moral values of Judaism,” said Herber, of Congregation Beth Israel in Glendale. His trip is being funded by congregation members and the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

The Mosaic

The Abayudaya, whose name means People of Judah, are part of a human mosaic that reaches across the world.

Some peoples, such as the Lemba tribe in Zimbabwe and South Africa, follow Jewish customs and have an oral tradition of being descended from one of the lost tribes of ancient Israel. DNA testing has confirmed that many Lemba people share a common male Semitic ancestor. And Tudor Parfitt, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has written that they are direct descendants of the ancient priesthood founded by Aaron, the brother of Moses.

The Falashas, or black Jews of Ethiopia, also practice Judaism, but DNA research has not found any links to ancient Israel.

Then there are other scattered Jewish communities in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America with varying traditions and stories that are reported on the Web site of Kulanu, an organization dedicated to finding and assisting lost or dispersed remnants of the Jewish people, at www.kulanu.org.

When the Abayudaya came to the attention of Kulanu, it found “this amazing community,” said Karen Primack of Silver Spring, Md., its secretary. Kulanu, which means “all of us” in Hebrew, now supports more than 20 programs that assist these Ugandans.

Conversion ceremony

Herber is going to the Ugandan village of Nabugoya for the ceremonies at the invitation of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, a friend, colleague and dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, where Gershom Sizomu, a native Ugandan from the Abayudaya Jews, was ordained a rabbi in May.

Herber will serve on a bet din, or court of at least three rabbis, to oversee the conversions. The essential components of conversion are: education in the traditions, observances and beliefs; questioning of the candidates by the court to determine their motives, knowledge and observances; and immersion in a ritual bath known as a mikvah or in a living body of water such as a lake or river.

Males also must be medically and ritually circumcised if they have not undergone that ritual, said Herber, who thinks that boys of the Ugandan tribe routinely undergo that at 8 days old.

Jews do not proselytize, but the Abayudaya sought help to formally convert and to become connected to Jews internationally, Herber said. Their conversions, done by Conservative rabbis, are accepted by Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist denominations, he said. The Orthodox do not recognize them, though Orthodox volunteers are among those assisting the Ugandans.

The story of the Abayudaya began about 1919 with Semei Kakungulu, a renowned former military leader in Uganda who became disaffected with both British colonial rule and Christianity. His study and meditation on the Christian Old Testament – including the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – led him to adopt the Jewish commandments, rituals and customs described in those texts.

Others in and near his hometown of Mbale followed.

By the time Ugandan dictator Idi Amin rose to power in 1971, the community had grown to about 3,000 people, said Harriet Bograd of New York City, president of Kulanu.

The number declined sharply under persecutions by Amin during his eight-year rule but rose to about 600 people by 2002 and now is estimated at 800 people living in five villages, she said.

Sizomu, a son and grandson of religious leaders in the community, began to rebuild the community after Amin was overthrown. In 2003, he and his family came to the rabbinical school in Los Angeles on a scholarship that led to his ordination as a rabbi on May 19.


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