MBALE, Uganda — The Nabugoya Hill synagogue, the main synagogue of Uganda’s indigenous Jewish population, is tucked away in a village with no paved roads. The paint has faded on the white tin-roofed building, so you can barely make out the words “Abayudaya Congregation Moses Synagogue.”
Goats are grazing outside and local children walk by balancing enormous jerrycans on their heads, carrying water to their homes.
Somewhere in the valley, someone is holding an engagement party and the bass has been thumping for almost 72 hours.
It could be one of a thousand impoverished rural villages in Uganda, with women selling sweet potatoes on the side of the deeply rutted red dirt road and small mud-thatched homes peeking out between the trees.
But close your eyes during one of the Shabbat services, and you will immediately be transported to any Conservative synagogue around the world – the same tunes, the same prayers, even the same prayer books.
For decades, Uganda’s local Jewish community was isolated from the larger world, struggling for survival after the brutal dictator Idi Amin outlawed Judaism and other small religions during his 1971-1979 reign. Since 1995, Jewish groups and rabbis have visited the community in increasing numbers. Rabbi Gershom Sizomu was ordained at the American Jewish University in 2008, and the community is a recognized member of the Conservative Movement. After years of fighting for their own survival, Uganda’s Jews are now dealing with a very different challenge: maintaining their unique Abayudaya identity while following the traditional halachic practices accepted by the wider Jewish world.
Wait, Uganda has Jews?
The Abayudaya trace their roots to Semei Kakangulu, a fierce warrior and spiritual leader at the turn of the 20th century, who allied with the British in hopes of becoming king of eastern Uganda. “He was one of the most famous people in Ugandan government, and every time he led a battle, he won it,” said Dr. Arye Oded, who was an Israeli ambassador to six countries in East Africa and the first Israeli to make contact with the Abayudaya.
In 1919, Kakangulu realized the British were stripping him of his responsibilities because they thought he had become too powerful. Searching for spiritual inspiration, he sequestered himself in a room with a Bible given to him by a Christian missionary. According to Abayudaya history, after spending days poring over the text, Kakangulu emerged from isolation and dramatically tore the Bible in half, insisting that only the first half — the Old Testament — could be the world of God. We are Jews, he told his followers, and he began practicing Judaism based on a literal interpretation of the Torah. At the height of the Ugandan Jewish revival, Kakangulu had 8,000 followers and 36 synagogues. “Aba-yudaya” literally translates as “the Jews” in the local Luganda language. But after the charismatic leader died in 1928, the community dwindled to around 3,000.
In 1962, Oded was studying in Uganda at Mekere University on assignment from Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “One day in the cafeteria, a friend told me about a group of Jews in eastern Uganda,” Oded recalled by phone from Jerusalem, where he retired and still teaches at Hebrew University. Oded visited the community and was surprised to see a small but vibrant Jewish community scattered around the city of Mbale.
But when the brutal dictator Idi Amin came to power in 1971, he outlawed Judaism and other “small religions.” Synagogues were shuttered and appropriated by churches or mosques. Jewish children were forced to attend Catholic schools, and communal prayer was outlawed. Many converted out of fear and left the Jewish community.
Amin was overthrown in 1979. “It was the first night of Passover when the government declared freedom of worship,” Abayudaya Rabbi Gershom Sizomu wrote this spring. “For us, it was a true Passover miracle.”
A 1980 community census revealed there were less than 300 Abayudaya left. In the mid-1980s, a small but dedicated group of young Jews founded what they called their “kibbutz” – the Young Jewish Club, which rebuilt their synagogue on the same hill where Kakangulu had his original synagogue.
Slowly, through a Jewish Peace Corps volunteer and a synagogue in Nairobi, the Abayudaya began making connections with the outside Jewish world. The nonprofit Kulanu organization, which supports small Jewish communities scattered across the globe, started assisting in 1995. A similar organization for isolated Jewish communities called B’chol Lashon began planning development projects in 2002. Richard Sobol and Jeffrey Summit wrote a book about the Abayudaya, accompanied by a recording of their local versions of Jewish prayers in both Luganda and Hebrew. In 2002, a Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) from the Conservative Movement came and officially converted 300 Abayudya community members.
The past decade has seen explosive growth. There is now a primary school and a high school, a computer lab, and a small yeshiva led by Rabbi Sizomu. In December, the community hopes to start construction on a $250,000 community center and synagogue.
Today, the Abayudaya community numbers around 2,000 people after it incorporated a small, 250-member indigenous Jewish community in Kenya. Nearly every Shabbat they host guests and rabbis from around the world in a guesthouse they built in 2008. They send their children to United Synagogue Youth Conventions in America, and some young people are learning in yeshivas in Israel. The community has already grown enough to start arguing, perhaps the most authentic badge of Judaism. As JTA reported in March, one community in the village of Putti is trying to become Orthodox with the intent of moving to Israel, meaning that even in rural Uganda, there’s the synagogue you don’t go to.
“Isolation used to be our biggest challenge, but we are no longer isolated,” explained JJ Keki, Rabbi Sizomu’s brother. “Nowadays we are showered with love by fellow Jews around the world. It’s a blessing.”
“There is an Orthodox community coming from Israel which doesn’t recognize us, but if the majority recognize us, it’s a blessing,” he added.
A delicate balance
Before the Abayudaya learned the traditional Hebrew liturgy for daily prayers, they set Psalms translated into Luganda to their own music. Even without music, the Luganda language rises and falls like a melody. When Sizomu pauses during his English sermons to let Keki translate into Luganda, Keki sounds as if he is singing rather than speaking.
After adopting the prayer structure of the Conservative synagogues laid out in the Sim Shalom siddur, community leaders had to decide: What prayers will be in Hebrew? What will they keep from their traditional songs?
“We can teach them Hebrew and also preserve some Abayudaya things,” said Keki. “Like when we call people to the Torah for an aliya, we say Psalm 93 and we decided to speak it in our own language. We are always worried about what makes us unique. We are from Uganda, so we should also include some things from our culture. We decided it would be OK if we do the haftorah reading in Luganda because we have to preserve the Luganda culture.”
Shabbat services illustrate this blend: the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service is almost entirely in Luganda, except for a joyful version of “L’cha Dodi” with dancing, while the Shabbat morning services are conducted mostly in Hebrew.
Keki pointed out that even the traditional Hebrew service blended the local dialect of Aramaic with Hebrew in the Kaddish prayer. “Since 1995, we’ve hosted several rabbis, and most of them advise us to preserve our culture. They even want to copy some of our culture to take to their communities, like L’cha Dodi… They encourage us to preserve our Judaism, to include it in the world of Judaism.”
Keki said he cried the first time he visited a synagogue in America for a speaking engagement and they used the Luganda tune for L’cha Dodi during Friday night prayers.
An exuberant Simhat Torah
The structure of holidays like Simhat Torah came to them after contact with Jewish communities increased, because the tradition of dancing “hakafot” rounds around the Torah does not appear written in the Torah itself.
The Abayudaya’s Simhat Torah service follows traditional Hebrew liturgy, but the passionate dancing is uniquely Ugandan. They move all of the chairs out of the synagogue, and the whole room joins the dancing around the Torah, singing, clapping, ululating and hollering. Smiling faces bob up and down in a swirl of brightly colored kippot. After every one of the seven rounds, at least one child is crying from exuberant dancers accidentally treading on small toes. Because the community is associated with the Conservative movement, both women and men carry the Torah and everyone dances together.
“Africa is very musical,” said Sizomu. “In order to create a balance in Africa, you need this music, or people will leave… Celebration with dance is a very African thing. That’s why on Simhat Torah everyone loves it; everyone throws their hands up and is excited. It is human; human beings need that moment of happiness.”
Throughout Jewish history, every community around the world has struggled with issues of national identity versus Jewish identity. Generations of Hebrew school teachers at Conservative synagogues in America have taught the same lesson: are you an American Jew, or a Jewish American? But the Abayudaya struggle is happening in fast forward, since the isolation dissipated so quickly.
“We are always learning. All these visitors are bringing knowledge that is enriching our Judaism,” said Aaron Kintu Moses, the director of the Hadassah Primary School, Uganda’s only Jewish school, which has 300 students. “For example, we used to think when a woman was on her monthly cycle, anything she touched was impure, because that’s what is written in the Torah. Then we learned that that isn’t true. Also, we used to have a tradition of taking off our shoes outside the synagogue, because our predecessors read in the Torah that Moses took off his shoes in front of the burning bush because he thought he was standing on holy ground. So this is improving our Judaism.”
Moses wants to increase this exchange as much as possible. He hopes an Israeli volunteer will come to the village to teach Hebrew to the students for at least six months, and would love to become sister schools with an Israeli school to promote greater integration.
But Keki’s daughter Rachel Namudosi, who studies conflict resolution at the Islamic University in Mbale, is still worried about the challenge of safeguarding Abayudaya traditions as the community grows and is influenced by other Jewish communities.
“I am worried we are losing Luganda. You see now that my father is the only one who reads it in the services,” she said at Shabbat dinner of makote (mashed plantains), beans, and salted fish. Namudosi pointed to her daughter Ranita, splayed out sleeping on the couch. “Do you think that Ranita will learn the Luganda songs? Or just the Hebrew and English? They need to teach the Luganda songs over and over, so children learn them too.”
The Abayudaya’s rapid exit from isolation over the past two decades mirrors a similar shift across all of rural Africa, as cellphones, TV, and internet cafes thrust rural villages into a new interconnected reality.
Rabbi Sizomu is not worried. “We still have this power in our hands, because a rabbi can interpret Torah and give unique direction,” said Sizomu. “We have the power to get assimilated, and we also have the power to preserve some of our unique traditions. We have tried to create a balance where in order to be part of the larger Jewish community, we need to do things that everyone does in the larger Jewish world. As we do things that everyone does in the larger Jewish world, we actually insert our traditions, which are still a mix and a balance.”
‘That’s what is so wonderful about Judaism: it is always changing’
“When we had the ‘Kibbutz,’ we came up with our own songs, and now the younger generation is learning their own songs,” Moses said. “That’s what is so wonderful about Judaism: it is always changing.”
Pondering questions of identity is intriguing for a visitor still trying to wrap her head around the incongruity of hearing a shofar in the middle of rural Uganda. There are so many surreal moments: glancing out the window during the Amida to see goats grazing on the synagogue lawn, or ducking when a bat flies into the synagogue during the rabbi’s sermon, prompting a digression into the laws of kashrut.
But the Abayudaya have other, more pressing needs: clean water, food, healthcare. There is no running water or electricity in the village. Though various initiatives from Jewish organizations, including mosquito net distribution and building a health center, have helped the community develop, the area is still mired in poverty. Most of the community members are subsistence farmers, and some barely make enough to eat.
“Now the biggest challenge is poverty,” said Keki. “To be Jewish, you cannot be in abject poverty.” Imagine trying to keep Shabbat – or a three-day holiday – when you must fetch and boil your water, or when you cook over a fire, or when you don’t have enough income to buy or prepare food in advance.
During services, Sizomu’s sermons focus on two main themes: the perils of intermarriage, and economic initiative. “We’re encouraging people to innovate, we’re thinking of starting a microfinance bank in the community,” said Sizomu. “They don’t have to think big, they can start just by selling eggs, start small and make their own independent production.”
Intermarriage is a serious threat to the small community, while the complaints that come in are the same as those of teenagers everywhere. The girls said the boys were too shy; the boys said they were scared to date in the community because it’s so tight knit that everyone knows everything. “We are a small community that is not influential or affluent, so in an intermarriage, we’re generally the loser,” Sizomu said. But the Jewish primary and high school, as well as the strong Abayudaya Youth Association, are providing young people with a strong base in their Jewish identity, Sizomu added.
Seven Bar Mitzvahs in Africa
On Shabbat Breishit, when Jews around the world restart the yearly cycle of Torah reading, the Abayudaya celebrated the bar mitzvah of seven boys. The Abayudaya celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs when they think the child is ready, not necessarily on their 13th birthday. On this day of mass bar mitzvahs, five of the Bar Mitzvah boys were Keki’s sons. Keki has 10 biological children and 15 adopted children, some of whom were abandoned and others who were orphaned by AIDS.
Moses, the director of the Hadassah school, where all seven boys study, wore a smile that rivaled even Keki’s. “I’m excited they’re all my students, they all passed through this school, and this is the only school that can give them this education,” he said. “They’re building a basis of Judaism and it’s being built here.”
One by one, the boys approached the Torah and read the full portion in Hebrew accented with a trace of the Lugandan melodic tones. Grandmothers cried, fathers embraced, the congregation fidgeted when candy was distributed too early and then had to be distributed again because everyone ate the candy they were supposed to throw.
When it came time for the speech, Aaron, the youngest and smallest of the bar mitzvah boys, followed in his father’s footsteps and provided the translation every few sentences from English into Luganda. He inserted jokes into his translation, and by the end the Luganda-speaking congregants were roaring with laughter. He then read the haftorah in Lugandan, just like Keki does every week.
When he finished, only stumbling over a few words, the community broke into applause. They were thrilled and proud of all of the bar mitzvah boys, but even happier that the next generation was learning their traditions, especially the complicated Lugandan translations of the Haftorah.
After the service, the community brought the chairs from the synagogue underneath an enormous shady mgavu tree. Before Shabbat, the rabbi’s wife Tzipporah and a number of women from the community spent the entire afternoon cooking 70 kilograms of rice over three fires.
Usually the rabbi leads a short Torah discussion before the meal, but the sky threatened rain, and seven bar mitzvahs take a long time, so the food came first. As we dug into the rice and peanut sauce, someone asked Aaron what he hoped to be when he grows up. “I want to be a rabbi,” he said, shyly. And everyone clapped.