I’m in Uganda volunteering as part of the American Jewish World Service. They are the organization that interviewed me and matched me with a local NGO. As many of you know, proselytizing is not a part of Judaism. Other than the fact that I’m Jewish and that social justice is an important part of Judaism, there is no other religious aspect to my stay here. Still, just because I’m in a different country doesn’t mean you change who you are. If anything, when traveling I’ve noticed a greater draw to the comfortable whether it is finding other Americans or other Jews, even if they are very different from what I know, there is a security in some sort of shared experience.
When I first was thinking about going to Africa, by chance my synagogue had a weekend scheduled with the first black ordained rabbi from Sub-Saharan Africa, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. My synagogue’s rabbi spent a year of rabbinical school in Israel studying with Rabbi Gershom. As luck would have it, Rabbi Gershom is the chief rabbi of Uganda. Once I decided to come to Uganda I was determined to learn more about the Abayudaya Jews.
Over Christmas I traveled to their village in the Eastern part of Uganda along the border with Kenya and spent four days learning about Ugandan Judaism. The story of the Abayudaya is that in the early 1900s a Christian missionary was in town trying to convert the local people. Upon reading both the old and new testament, one of the leaders in the village decided the Old Testament was really true and that there was no need for the New Testament. He heard that Jews were the only ones who followed just the Old Testament and decided to become Jewish. He began by circumcising himself and the sons in his family. Now over 100 years later there is a strong tribe of over 1,000 Jews living in Uganda. There is some controversy in the Jewish community, particularly from very religious Jews, about whether or not the Abayudaya are really Jewish. Speaking from my experience only, I have to say my impression is that they are more religious and engage in practices truer to the fundamentals of Jewish religion than the majority of American Jews I know, myself included.
Not surprisingly, because of the lack of focus on proselytizing, there are not a lot of black Jews in the world. To experience Shabbat, the Sabbath, with a tribe of black Jews in Africa was incredible. The religious services were quite similar to what I am used to though many of the prayers were sung in a mix of African beats and Jewish traditional tunes. I bought a cd and will share when I’m home for anyone who is interested. After Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday night services), I was invited to the rabbi’s house for Shabbat dinner. Shabbat dinner consisted of a traditional African meal: rice, matoke (mashed plantains), meat and gnut sauce. The rabbi’s 13 year old daughter Dafna is a very impressive young woman. She not only made a challah over an open fire for Shabbat dinner but also helps lead religious services. Here is a picture of Dafna with the gift I gave them from my home – snow from MN (many thanks to my boss, Kathy Tunheim for giving this unique gift to me so that I could bring a small piece of home with me to Africa!).
After dinner I retreated to the guest house. At the guest house I met other Jewish visitors there for Shabbat – a Swedish rabbi, his daughter who is working for the UN in Kenya, the Swedish rabbi’s granddaughter and a retired freelance writer from Canada. Apparently, the Abayudaya have visitors virtually every weekend. The draw is understandable. There is an innate curiosity in seeing what it means to be Jewish in Uganda.
The Abayudaya own a few acres of land where the rabbi and various other members of the community live. There is an elementary, middle and high school. A bet knesset (synagogue), a health care center, a few stores, a soccer field where all the village children come to play, a girl’s dormitory and many more. The community is up in the mountains with gorgeous views. The Abayudaya are Jewish and yet still very African. Most speak English and a bit of the local language. Some speak Hebrew. The roads are not paved and are incredibly bumpy. Laundry is done by hand and dinners are cooked outside over an open flame. They asked if I wanted to stay and watch the schita (kosher slaughtering) of a goat – an opportunity I nicely passed on as I had to head back to the city. Click here for a link to photos with some of the people I met and buildings where the Abudaya Jews live.
While I was there, I had an opportunity to talk one-on-one with many members of the community – Isaac -the manager of the guest house (who always greeted me with a big smile and the peppiest Lilah Tov and Boker Tov – Good night and Good morning in Hebrew – I’ve ever heard), Tziporah – the rabbi’s lovely wife, Igaal – the rabbi’s 16 year old son who has a knack for making music videos on his imac (a jarring site to see an imac in an African village), Avraham – the rabbi’s sister’s son’s wife’s brother (J) who is studying civil engineering in Kampala, Noah – an aspiring rabbi studying at the Yeshivah, Naomi-a Jewish woman who works on the land. The people I met here were some of the most friendly and curious people I’ve met in Uganda.
My positive feelings for the community may also have been bolstered by the professions of love I received while there. In retrospect it makes sense. When there are only 1000 Jews in the country (and I thought the Twin Cities were tough), once you eliminate one of the genders and narrow it down to people in your age range, many people are left still “searching” for the one. When a Jewish girl in her 20’s arrives, it is sure to draw some interest While I kid a bit, insights like this are things that you can never read in a guidebook and you don’t think of necessarily until you talk to the local people and hear their stories.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience there and sincerely hope I am able to make a return visit soon!