Celebrating 100 Years of Judaism in Uganda

Touring the Parliament of Uganda with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Uganda’s first Jewish MP. (Andrew Esensten/Be’chol Lashon)

This summer, the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda are celebrating 100 years of existence. The community held a centennial celebration at their main village of Nabugoye on June 30, and members of the Be’chol Lashon team were among the thousands in attendance.

The Be’chol Lashon contingent included members of the organization’s staff, longtime supporters of the community, rabbis and Jewish leaders, as well as young American Jews who see themselves as part of a global Jewish community.

“We have had the honor of working with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and the Abayudaya community over the last 18 of their 100 years,” Diane Tobin, director of Be’chol Lashon, said during the celebration. “Having grown up during the time of Idi Amin, one of Rabbi Sizomu’s goals was to never again be an isolated, persecuted religious minority. We are here today to congratulate the community on successfully achieving that goal.”

In the days leading up to the celebration, the group visited Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i sites around Kampala; toured the parliament building with Rabbi Sizomu, the first Jew elected to Uganda’s legislative body; and celebrated Shabbat and a joint Bat Mitzvah—that of Rabbi Sizomu’s daughter, Naavah, and niece, Mia—at Stern Synagogue in Nabugoye.

Participants described the trip as inspiring and transformational.

“One of the highlights of the trip was being able to spend Shabbat with the Abayudaya,” said Lindsey Newman, Be’chol Lashon’s director of community engagement. “Listening to the melodies of Kabbalat Shabbat while the sun set over Mount Elgon, I was reminded of how much light and joy Judaism brings to every corner of the world and how special it is to experience that light in the unique expression of each distinct Jewish community.”

Jill and Steve Edwards, longtime supporters of the Abayudaya from Southern California, traveled to Uganda for the fourth time to attend the Centennial celebration. “It is so heartwarming to see that Jewish values and practices transcend cultural divides and are not limited to the traditional white, Ashkenazi community which is most familiar to us,” Steve wrote after the trip. “The situation in Uganda also highlights and informs the ‘who is a Jew’ controversy which so involves American and Israeli Jewry; here are people more committed to our tradition than most American Jews but they don’t look like many of us. Finally, it is always fascinating to see folks with so little materially yet so rich spiritually. We have a much to learn from the Abayudaya, and they are in need of our support.”

It was the second visit to Uganda for Marc and Marci Dollinger and their daughter Shayna. “For us, the Centennial Celebration Trip showed us how important the Abayudaya have become on a national level in Uganda,” Marc Dollinger said. “We enjoyed a private tour of parliament with the Honorable Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and witnessed the country’s most-important national leaders speak from the stage on Nabugoye Hill. The Abayudaya are setting examples for inter-religious cooperation across all of Uganda.”

Marci Dollinger added: “The joy and commitment of the community was evident throughout our time there. They brought us in with their moving music, dancing and prayer as we celebrated some joyous milestones: Shabbat, conversions, two Bat Mitzvahs, and the 100th anniversary. It was a trip we will always remember, and we are grateful for the opportunity to connect personally and globally with this amazing community.”

Be’chol Lashon trip participants at the Abayudaya village of Nabugoye. (Andrew Esensten/Be’chol Lashon)

Diane Tobin first traveled to Uganda in 2010 for the opening of Tobin Health Center, named for her late husband, Gary Tobin z”l. Her sons, Aryeh Weinberg and Jonah Tobin, joined her then as well as on this trip. “Among all that Gary accomplished in the Jewish world, it is in this corner of Uganda that his optimism for a vibrant Jewish future is best represented,” Weinberg said. “Seeing his vision play a part in the growth of the Abayudaya is an honor to his legacy and a comfort to his family.

The group also included a recent convert to Judaism, Shekhiynah Larks, who said she felt at home among the Abayudaya. “Last August when I completed my conversion ceremony, the rabbis on my beit din told me I had a home in their respective communities,” she said. “When Rabbi Gershom said this to me it seemed the most far fetched. When would I find myself in Uganda? But being in the Abayudaya village in Nabugoye felt familiar, safe, instinctual, like home.”

For Andrew Esensten, Be’chol Lashon’s content manager, “it was encouraging to see how involved the younger generations of Abayudaya are in the life of their community. There was Enoch, who very enthusiastically provided translation between Luganda and English, and Samson, who served as a gabbai on Shabbat, and Dafnah, who skillfully read Torah, and Isaac, who helped with logistics. Their energy and investment in their community give me hope for the Abayudaya’s next 100 years.”

Since 2002, Be’chol Lashon has worked with the Abayudaya community to facilitate long-range planning and build capacity. We are currently raising money for a microcredit fund that will provide grants to entrepreneurial community members facing poverty. The grants will help them solve local problems through sustainable economic projects. To donate, please visit https://globaljews.org/explore/abayudaya/microcredit-fund/.

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