History of the Abayudaya and Be’chol Lashon
Learn about our work with the Jews of Uganda.
The Abayudaya, whose tribal name means “People of Judah,” trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the twentieth century. The Abayudaya began their journey to Judaism under the leadership of Semei Kakungulu, a powerful leader who was selected to be a Christian missionary for the British. However, Kakungulu favored the Hebrew Bible and in 1919 the community began practicing Judaism. After Kakungulu’s death in 1928, some members drifted away. In 1971, Idi Amin Dada came to power, and banned Jewish practice. Many in the community were forced to convert to other religions.
After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remnants of the Abayudaya community gathered to rebuild the community. Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, grandson of community elder “Rabbi” Samson, lives near the Moses Synagogue in the village of Nabagogye which he and others from the community’s early 1980s “Kibbutz movement” built with their own hands. He was youth leader of the Abayudaya community from 1988 to 1998. Their goal was to gather what was left of the Abayudaya community back together after the devastating reign of Idi Amin Dada ended in 1979.
Even though the Abayudaya regard themselves as Jews, they realized that their isolation from the Jewish world was both dangerous and an obstacle to gaining a deeper understanding of Judaism. Beginning in the spring of 2002, at the community’s request, four Conservative rabbis from the United States and one from Israel joined the community’s spiritual leader, Gershom Sizomu, in supervising the conversion or “affirmation” of most of Uganda’s Jews in the community’s mikvah, a process that continues today. In 2002, Gershom Sizomu attended the Be’chol Lashon International Think Tank for Jewish community leaders around the world. Sizomu and the democratically elected Abayudaya Executive Council requested that Be’chol Lashon help with long-range planning and financial resource development.
It was the dream of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the current Abayudaya leader, to better understand ancient and modern Judaism and connect his community with the global Jewish people. Through the support of a Be’chol Lashon Fellowship, Rabbi Sizomu attended the five-year Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, including 1-year spent in Israel.
Be’chol Lashon conducted feasibility research that resulted in the Abayudaya Health & Development Plan to implement health care delivery and support systems. Research was conducted by a JDC engineer and a tropical disease specialist. Mbale Hospital was severely overcrowded due to lack of disease prevention. Lack of clean water and mosquito nets cause diseases such as dysentery, amoebas, infections, tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS to flourish, resulting in high morbidity and mortality rates. The report revealed that the most vital Abayudaya community needs were improved disease prevention, healthcare, and developing a sustainable economy.
Education about preventing disease significantly reduces a variety of health concerns, particularly malaria, the primary cause of death in Africa. The feasibility report revealed that the only available source of clean water was from wells located long distances from the villages, and the villagers often resorted to getting water from polluted ditches, lakes, etc. Additionally, women and girls were primarily responsible for getting water from the wells and carrying it back to their homes in “jerry cans” or 20 kgs (44lb) water containers. Water, a basic human right, is at the heart of a daily crisis faced by millions of the world’s most vulnerable people, therefore, the first step was providing clean water. Be’chol Lashon launched the Abayudaya Community Health & Development Plan in March 2007 with the drilling of the first well in Nabagoye, followed by Namanyoni, Nangolo, Nasenyi and Namutumba.
At the same time, the report revealed distributing mosquito nets was another critical component of disease prevention. Thousands of mosquito nets have been purchased and distributed through the local synagogues and a constant supply of mosquito nets is needed to replace those that are old and/or have holes. A 2007 study featured in the New York Times cites “…insecticide-filled nets, when used by 80% or more of a village, create a barrier that kills or drives off mosquitoes, protecting everyone in the area, including those without nets…” Overall, the wells and tap stands have had a significant impact on reducing the mortality rate.
Be’chol Lashon built the Abayudaya guest house to capture a desperately needed stream of revenue given the expanding tourism. The Abayudaya community members had been hosting individuals in their homes, providing food and lodging without compensation. The guest house and other projects provide business opportunities that help movethe community towards economic self-sufficiency. Another economic development project is Abayudaya Crafts made by the women including jewelry and kippot. The jewelry is made from recycled magazine beads strung with colorful wood or elegant metal accent beads. The women take a tremendous sense of personal accomplishment and pride knowing the work they do helps their families and their community.
Sizomu studied to be at rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and after five years, he returned to Uganda where he was formally ordained. He returned to Uganda to continue his goal of bringing the Ugandan community into mainstream Jewish life and to open a Yeshiva to train teachers and rabbis to serve Jewish communities throughout Africa. 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 next step in Abayudaya Community Health & Development Plan was to build a health center. It was decided that it would be centrally located in Mbale providing accessible health care to the most villagers. In June 2010, the Be’chol Lashon team and major funders traveled to Uganda to dedicate the Tobin Heath Center, named in honor of Dr. Gary Tobin z”l. The 4,000 sq ft facility has two stories with 20 rooms licensed by the Ministry of Health. Unlike many clinics in town, there is a generator to handle the frequent power outages in Uganda. The Tobin Health Center is making a significant contribution to the health and well being of not only to the Abayudaya but to the larger community as well. As a minority in the region, improved healthcare and community development provided by the Abayudaya Jews to their Christian and Muslim neighbors promotes peaceful co-existence and helps combat anti-Semitism. At one net distribution the district health officer remarked, “I have been in office for over 12 years working with different NGOs but I have never seen services like the Abayudaya: providing education to over 400 orphans, providing safe water to the community, distributing treated mosquito nets, and unrestricted access to affordable medical care has provided hope to so many. The Abayudaya community is an example to the whole Namanyonyi sub-county. Let us look at each other as brothers and sisters.” Since Tobin Health Center opened, deaths from malaria have been reduced by 90%.