A Rabbi’s Sermon About the Beit Din
I stood leaning against the eastern wall of the synagogue at Nabugoye Hill, listening intently as one of my colleagues began to read the Ketubah. It was, I think, the fifth of the weddings. Still, I was mesmerized by the flow of the service. Then came the line B’Minyan she’anu monin kahn biMbale Bimedinat Uganda, figuratively translated "according to the calendar here in Mbale, Uganda.” I shook my head in disbelief. Just then, I caught sight of the young man standing across from me, watching me carefully. Fearing that my reaction would be misunderstood, I crossed the room and said quietly, "You know, Samson, every time I hear those words "Mbale, Uganda,” I can hardly believe that I’m here. That’s why I was shaking my head.” He smiled and replied, "You’re right, Rahbee, it is a miracle.”
It has been a long road since I received the invitation in late November. I waivered for about a week and then, in early December, a group of us were invited to gather at the Cohen-Rosenthals’ for a healing service for Ed. He had asked me to organize the service but, of course, there were just a few things Ed wanted to do his way ; a reading, a song, a few words; That night, Ed said to us, among other things, "I wish you the blessing of fullness. I hope that you will all find ways to fill your lives meaningfully;”
He wanted us to seize opportunities, take chances, live life to the fullest, just as he had. As he had so many times before, Ed inspired me. With his words ringing in my ears, I made the decision to embark on an adventure that would take me to Israel and then to Africa.
And the month just passed has been a month of miracles. I hardly know how to begin to talk to you about these past four weeks. There is so much to share. It has been an emotional roller coaster unlike any I’ve ever experienced.
But I will have many opportunities to speak to you. Amusing anecdotes will come to mind, occasions will serve to trigger wonderful, poignant recollections and you will hear a great deal more about this past month over the course of time. My trip to Israel at this critical juncture was one of the most important I’ve made in many years. The three days in Ethiopia at the end of this month were most significant as well, given the prevailing circumstances.
But it is the extraordinary experience of Uganda that was uniquely historic and therefore deserves immediate attention. No doubt, you will read, or maybe have already read, about this chapter in modern Jewish history. But given your generous support and enthusiastic encouragement of my participation, you deserve to learn about it directly from one of the participants.
My only hesitation stems from the fear that my words will not do justice to the experience. As I said to the members of the Abayudaya community before our departure: "From the first day, I came away with the feeling that I have been working 25 years to inspire my congregation to feel the way that you feel. I will not have words to convey to my community what I found here.”
That first day, Wednesday, February 5, I awoke to the sounds of dueling roosters and dogs barking outside the window of my room in the Mount Elgon Hotel. The night before, I had struggled with the mosquito netting and finally gave up, tying it back into the white cloud of a knot that hovered over my bed. Fortunately, as we would discover, in the dry season mosquitoes were scarce in Mbale. I went to the window and looked out at the well-kept yard of the hotel wondering what this day would bring. Many aspects of each day would be the same: the breakfast of pineapple, banana, dry toast and black coffee; the daily drive into the city for bottled water and fuel for the van; the long, bumpy drive past mud huts and brick hovels until we made that last turn up to Nabugoye Hill atop which sits the main synagogue of the Abayudaya community.
But that first day was different. Although I can only speak for myself, I suspect others felt as I did. In and around this third largest city in Uganda, what we saw were thousands of people living in abject poverty, and although perhaps 80% of the world’s population lives just that way, for many of us, it was our first up-close and personal exposure to their reality. One would have expected, then, the adults to seem downtrodden and depressed, the children morose and unhappy.
On the contrary, everywhere we were greeted pleasantly, people waving, calling out to us. I would later learn that many would point to us and yell “Moozongoo!” meaning "white man/stranger.” Some would call out, with a singsong "howarrreyou?” As we came closer to our destination, a few people would call out "Shalom, Shalom,” the large, crocheted kippot identifying them as Abayudaya. Over the week, many of them we would come to recognize and get to know.
The group with whom I had the privilege to travel was as diverse in background and talent as one can imagine. In addition to the four rabbis who were, at best, friendly acquaintances to this point, there were two musicians, a horticulturist, a photographer, a journalist, a rabbinical student, two documentary filmmakers and the extraordinary volunteer organizers of our trip from the Kulanu organization. In retrospect, it is, as many of you who have traveled with a group know, an incredible feat to assemble a tour party that is compatible. You will appreciate, then, the great good fortune of this assemblage that despite our differing backgrounds and our various talents, we functioned as a well-oiled machine. Every single individual contributed mightily to the success of the Kulanu mission.
As our van climbed the hill that first day, the buildings that are at the center of Jewish life in Uganda came into view ; the synagogue, the offices of the Semei Kakungulu High School, the home of the community’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershom ; and in the clearing outside the synagogue entrance stood a large group of people, already singing joyously as we approached. The warmth with which we were greeted can only be compared to the way one would welcome long, lost friends or family. We weren’t only welcomed with song and dance, but with warm embraces and bright smiles. I found myself loving these people within moments of meeting them. We hadn’t said more than "Shalom, Shalom” to one another (always twice, perhaps to show we were genuine) but I knew, in that moment, that these were my brothers and sisters and I sensed they felt the same way.
That first day we were introduced to much of what we would become more accustomed to over the course of the week: the ever-present, often spur-of-the-moment joyous singing; the surprising formality of their communal gatherings and meetings; the unusual, or perhaps I should say non-existent, sense of time.
The welcome festivities and speeches over, we met with the community’s leaders to develop a plan for the week. It would soon become apparent that virtually all of our plans, however well-devised, would fall by the wayside because, plainly put, we were in Africa. We learned quickly to be flexible and adapt to whatever unusual situation would come our way. For example, the schedule was subject to the whims of people who had been told that the rabbis would be present on a certain day. So, they would come, often walking many miles with little children in tow, to appear before the Beit Din. And how could we say to these same people, "Sorry, it’s noon and we’re breaking for lunch. Come back tomorrow.” There were some major challenges to our backgrounds and also, at least in this rabbi’s case, major challenges to our sense of order, or more honestly put, with my obsessive-compulsive disorder.
That first afternoon, following our meeting with the communal leaders, the consensus was that we were ready to begin to sit as Batei Din. We arranged ourselves into two separate groups of three, one at the front of the synagogue by the Ark, and one near the entrance to the synagogue, each with a translator. After almost 26 years in the rabbinate, I have sat on many Batei Din and brought many candidates for conversion before my colleagues. It is always a moving experience. But here we had sitting before us people who had lived all their lives as Jews. It quickly became apparent that our questions and their answers would be very different. That first afternoon, 90 people came before the Beit Din. The total for the week was somewhere over 300 who appeared to speak with us, but some who did not, for one reason or another, complete the process. By nightfall we were always exhausted but exhilarated.
As I indicated before, we rabbis work all our lives to instill Jewish values and practices. We minister to people who are generally secure, educated and comfortable, and we are so often thwarted by just that comfort, safety and enlightenment. Our people are often hard-pressed to see their tradition as something to be treasured and appreciated. And here, in the poorest corner of the world, under the worst conditions, were people who expressed, with simplicity yet with eloquence, their great devotion to God, Torah, Israel and Shabbat. Nothing I have read, nothing I had heard, could have prepared me for this heartfelt, unquestioning, unwavering faith. There are some who would attribute this to a lack of sophistication, education and literacy. Nothing can be further from the truth. What we would find is that while there were many, especially among the older Abayudaya, who lacked formal education and some who were illiterate, they were, almost without exception, possessing a keen intelligence, unexpected sophistication and a surprisingly high level of Jewish literacy.
Parenthetically, our Shabbat discussions were as intellectually stimulating and as Jewishly literate as any I’ve ever witnessed at any synagogue in the United States. That first day was just the beginning. As the week would progress, we would meet and get to know some truly amazing people, individuals who inspired us with their unquenchable thirst for knowledge, devoting as much time to the pursuit of Jewish study as secular learning; their generosity of spirit, adopting 3 or 4 [or more] children so that in this country with virtually non-existent health care and a still-serious AIDS problem, the children will grow up safely in a Jewish household; their devotion to the God of Israel, who they described with the eloquence of the great poets and liturgists; their wholehearted commitment to the Jewish people and the Jewish state as evidenced in the fact that in a place where most live without electricity and running water, they knew as much, if not more about current events in Israel as most American Jews; their understanding and appreciation for the beauty of Shabbat which one might find in the poetry of the medieval paytannim or the philosophical writings of the likes of Heschel.
They would come before the Beit Din, where we would question them and they would teach us. This was followed, in the case of the eligible candidates, by Hatafat Dam Brit for the men, the drawing of a drop of blood from the site of the Brit Milah, and Tevillah, immersion, for both men and women. After the initial meetings of the Batei Din, Hatafat Dam Brit and Tevillah were supposed to be carried on simultaneously ; my Jerusalem-based colleague, Andy Sacks, a Mohel as well as director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, performing the Hatafot, while two others went down to the Mikveh or the river for the immersions.
I don’t think I will ever forget the line of men and boys snaking down the hill waiting, warily at first, outside the home of Rabbi Gershom. After a short time, however, as each person emerged and assured their fellows that everything was fine and "it didn’t hurt” there would be calls of “Mazel Tov!” to each who completed the "ordeal.”
More memorable still were the scenes at the water. We decided it would be good to check out the possible sites for the immersions. After all, we were working with a large number of people and wanted to be both Halakhically correct and efficient. The van drove us to a location relatively close to the river, another area where the Abayudaya reside. Imagine trekking through fields of cassava trees, sugar cane and banana trees and there, in the middle of nowhere, coming upon a cement and tile Mikveh! Then, we checked out two locations on the river bank. Now, I expected some aspects of this trip to be rigorous. I wondered how I would manage with the insects, the accommodations, the food, but I hadn’t thought about honing my mountain-climbing skills. I quickly learned the value of a well-placed banana tree which served as an anchor going straight down a ten-foot drop, and climbing straight up that same hill on the return trip; And if you think you’ve seen me in funny situations, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen me lowering myself straight down the side of a hill clinging to a banana tree, surrounded by ululating women. We settled on the river as the more appropriate, convenient and efficient immersion site, though we did use the Mikveh for about thirty people. There was more cover by the river where people could modestly disrobe, there seemed to be a little more privacy from curious neighbors and, as it turned out, there was even a convenient "blind” where Rabbi Sacks could perform the Hatafot just before the men immersed.
There was playful giddiness going down to the river. Some of it was, I’m certain, a measure of embarrassment and some was genuine joy at the completion of the process. Perhaps the most touching aspect of the immersions was the alacrity and the fluency with which people learned the blessings and the proper process of immersion. No, I take that back. The most touching moments were in the van [packed to more than twice its capacity] returning from the river, when people spontaneously broke into song, celebrating their new status and their strong love for, and connection to, Israel, singing out their own melody for L’shanah Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim.
So, the question arises: Do these people expect to make Aliyah? And the answer, I think, is the same as it might be for any Diaspora community;some may and others do not. But it is important to state that the Abayudaya are as eligible and appropriate candidates for Israeli citizenship as any Jews by choice anywhere in the world. They are fully aware of the prevailing policies of the Israeli government and of the fact that some may not accept their (or should I say "our”) conversions. Yet, they feel validated, recognized and at one with Jewish people everywhere.
Among the many gifts that were brought to Uganda was a Sefer Torah presented by the members of Tikvat Israel in Rockville, Maryland, the congregation of my colleague, Howard Gorin, who served as the Av Beit Din. With the Abayudaya community and the able assistance of the very talented musicians from the Kulanu delegation, Laura Wetzler and Robin Burdulis, we organized a spirited, joyous Hakhnasat Sefer Torah. The new Torah was carried under a Huppah by Rabbi Gorin, in procession with the Kulanu delegation, up the road to the synagogue, to be met by the representatives of the community carrying the Torah that had been on loan to them from Kulanu. Dancing and singing together, the two processions entered the synagogue, returned the Kulanu Torah to the ark while the Tikvat Israel Torah was carried to the Bimah. There, Rabbi Gorin spoke very movingly of the gift of this Torah. The responses from the leaders of the community were no less touching. Then the new Torah was carried in seven circuits around the Bimah. Symbolic of the community’s acceptance of the Torah, Rabbi Gorin chanted the account from the Book of Exodus of Ma’amad Har Sinai, the Revelation at Sinai, and the Aseret HaDibbrot, the Ten Commandments. The reading sent chills up my spine. With ceremony commensurate with what came before, the Torah was placed in the ark. The singing and dancing continued for some time.
Ahad Ha’am wrote, "more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Central to the Abayudaya way of life is the scrupulous and universal observance of Shabbat as a day of rest, study and communal togetherness. I think Rabbi Joseph Prouser expressed the collective feelings of the Kulanu group when he told those assembled in the synagogue on Shabbat that tears filled his eyes all through the davening. It was so spirited, so soulful, so moving ; to listen both Friday evening and Shabbat morning as the people chanted the Psalms in Luganda and sang the traditional liturgy in Hebrew. The Abayudaya have a strong oral tradition so that even those who couldn’t follow in the Siddur joined in. Kabbalat Shabbat was chanted by candlelight and by the time the service was over, it was pitch black outside. Yes, the stars were beautiful, but this Moozongoo had a hard time not breaking my neck as I made my way to Rabbi Gershom’s house for Kiddush and dinner.
While the Friday night attendance was large, Shabbat morning the service was attended by many more people, filling the synagogue to overflowing. It’s much easier to make the several kilometer trek from the other villages in the light of day. It was my great honor to serve as the Shaliach Tzibbur from Seder Hotza’at HaTorah through Musaf. I also read the Haftarah along with Aaron, the community’s secretary, who read the blessings in Hebrew and recited the Haftarah in Luganda as I chanted each verse in Hebrew. It reminded me of the ancient custom of the Meturgeman who would translate verse for verse for the congregation who didn’t understand the text in the original.
Before the end of the Torah reading, I explained the custom of an Aufruf, the Aliyah to the Torah of a bridal couple before their wedding. The plan had been to have a wedding for Rabbi Gershom and his wife, Tzipporah, to serve as a prototype for the community. Well, after explaining the customs and the meaning of the prayer and showering the couple with sweets symbolic of our wishes for a long and sweet life for the pair, suddenly, there were six other couples making their way to the Bimah for a Mi Shebayrach. They, too, wanted the blessing, and, as it turned out, there would be seven weddings over two days to usher in the joyous month of Adar.
And while every wedding is special, the first Jewish wedding in the countryside of Uganda was unique. Just to make sure, there were a few elements specific to the location. Much of the service was explained in Luganda; all of the rabbis participated with Rabbi Gorin as the Mesader Kiddushin, the primary official (and as was the case all through the week, he was eloquent), and for a special touch, the Huppah, a white Talit, was held aloft on four long stalks of sugar cane which, after the week’s celebrations were hacked up and distributed to the children to allow them to share in the sweetness of the moment.
There is so much more to tell you about: the impromptu study sessions, the conversation about names, the politics inside and outside of the community, the glorious music, the race issue, the passion and personality of the individuals I met, all there is for us to do to help the Abayudaya, and my sincere resolve to make a return trip to this wonderful community to spend time teaching; I am, I’m sure you understand, experiencing emotional overload. My heart is so full and my head is still spinning. But you have a sense of just how amazing this time in Uganda was. It was, as my young friend, Samson, put it on that last day, a miracle; a miracle from God with a good deal of help from some remarkable people ; the Mitzvah heroes who made this mission possible, the sponsors and talented volunteers from Kulanu, my learned and gifted colleagues, and most of all, the incredible Abayudaya community who are a testimony to the triumph of faith and goodness in the world.