Moses Synagogue in Nabugoye Hill. The Abayudaya live in five villages; each has its own synagogue.
Last night J.J. Keki of Uganda‘s Abayudaya Jewishcommunity shared his community’shistory, music, and current situation atPark Slope Jewish Center in Brooklyn, an event I mentioned in my previous article. After his talk kippot knitted by Abayudaya craftspeople and CDs of their music were sold.
Uganda’s Jewish community dates to 1919 when retired military general and statesmanSemei Kakungulu became disenchanted with the Protestant Christianity to which he had converted in the 1880s. Kakungulu is also an important figure in Uganda’s formation. There is a certain irony in the fact that in the late 1890s when the British were offering Herzl Uganda as a homeland for the Jews an indiginous army was conquering the country on Britain’s behalf led by general who two decades later would abandon Protestantism for Judaism. When Kakungulu’s miliatry and civic career ended he spent his retirement studying scripture. By 1913 he had left mainline Protestantism for the Malekites, a religious movement that observed the Sabbath on Saturday, followed Christian doctrine, and like Christian Science relied on prayer instead of doctors and medicine. Kakungulu was struck that Christians do not observe the commandments with regard to circumcision, diet, and observing the Sabbath on Saturday, and noted the absence of commandments in The New Testament. When he asked missionaries about these commandments they would reply, “Oh that’s for the Abayudaya (the Luganda word for Jews).” And Abayudaya is what Kakungulu called the new religious community he formed to follow the laws of the Hebrew Bible after leaving the Malekites. He published a 90 page theology and prayer book in the Luganda language from which he was editing out New Testament references when he died in 1928. The community then numbered 2000 souls.
Over the decades Jewish travelers and colonial civil servants visited the Abayudaya and taught them Hebrew prayers and Jewish rituals. The main threats to the community were intermarriage, poor education, and isolation from Jewish communites worldwide. Students who attended Christian schools often converted to Christianity. Many Abayudaya parents kept their children out of school which educationally disadvantaged the community of subsistence farmers. In the 1960s there was some positive contact with the Israeli embassy, but in the 1970s Idi Amin bannned Jewish observance and the Abayudaya had to practice their Judaism in secret. After Amin was deposed in 1979 the community reconsituted itself in the 1980s. Since the Israeli embassy reopened in Uganda it has turned a cold shoulder to the Abayudaya, probably reflecting the influence of Orthodox coalition partners in various Israeli governments. In the 1990s the community established ties with Kulanu, an organization that reaches out to dispersed and isolated Jewish communities worldwide, and with the Conservative movement. The Abayudaya’s first ordained rabbi and spiritual leader,Gershom Sizomu, graduated from the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles in May 2008. Several years earlier a delegation of Conservative rabbis converted the Abayudaya. Keki did not mention that members of one of the five Abayudaya villages are holding out for a hoped for Orthodox conversion and eventual aliya to Israel.
After relating his community’s history Keki sang Lecha Dodi and Hinei Ma Tov to melodies of his own composition accompanying himself on guitar. He then related the Abayudaya’s current circumstances, illustrating his remarks with a slideshow. Today the Abayudaya number over 1000 souls in five villages spread out over 70 kilometers in eastern Uganda near Mbale the country’s third largest city. Each village has its own synagogue. The community has a primary school, and the Semei Kakungulu High School, both of which have dormitories for students whose villages are too far away to walk to school; both also admit Christian and Muslim students who study together with the Abayudaya children. There is also an Abayudaya yeshiva whose students include Jews from other African countries. In the interest of good relations with their neighbors the Abayudaya also include Christians and Muslims in their sustainable development projects which include micro-lending and a coffee cooperative, Delicious Peace Coffee. Like their neighbors the Abudaya are farmers who earn an average of $300 per year and whose homes lack electicity and indoor plumbing. The Abayudaya also sell crafts such as the kippot I mentioned earlier. Development projects in the community, which include disease prevention and building ahealth center, are supported by Kulanu and Bechol Lashon. When my wife and I make our year end charitable donations we will not forget the poor Jewish farmers of Uganda.