In 1995, following a trip with a Kulanu delegation to the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, I wrote an article titled Visiting the Ugandan Miracle. A community faithfully practicing self-taught mainstream Judaism in the middle of nowhere, having discovered the religion on their own without benefit of missionaries or role models did seem miraculous. The organization Kulanu, which helps lost and dispersed Jewish communities, could hardly find a more apt group to assist!
But what makes a miracle? Seven years later, on a second Kulanu mission to the Abayudaya with a Beit Din (religious court) to perform conversions, I heard Rabbi Joseph Prouser recite the traditional blessing for witnessing a miracle: Baruch ata Adonai Elohaynu Melech ha-Olam she-asa nisim l’avotaynu ba-makom ha-zeh! (Praised are You, dear God, Who performed miracles for our People in this very place!) What had made him think he had witnessed a miracle? Lets take a look at the 2002 trip and then return to the question of miracles.
The delegation arrived at Nabugoye Hill near Mbale, Uganda, on February 5 to the typical tumultuous Abayudaya musical welcome. We were coming to participate in the halakhic conversion to Judaism of qualified individuals in the 600-member community. The Abayudaya community embraced Judaism in 1919, when their leader, Semei Kakungulu, decided to follow only the laws of Moses which he read about in the Bible that British missionaries had brought to Uganda. The community has been practicing Judaism and upgrading its knowledge and observance ever since.
Among us were three rabbis from the US, one rabbi from Israel, a rabbinical student, two musicians, a journalist, two documentary film makers, a horticulturist, and two Kulanu officers. Among them were community leaders, ululating women, and many, many children.
At the welcoming ceremony, Abayudaya chairman Jacob Mwosuko reviewed the importance of Kulanu to the community. He noted that before the 1995 visit, few Abayudaya were educated, there was no economic development, there was no Torah, and the Abayudaya were isolated: Nobody knew us.
Since 1995, he reported, the community has university students and graduates, as well as more than 40 students in secondary school. A Jewish high school has opened, the main synagogue is larger and improved, Heifer Project International has several animals in the community, jobs have been developed, and a market has been found for handmade Abayudaya kippot and tallitot. Since 1995, many Jews who had left during Idi Amins reign of terror have returned, and the community has grown.
We guests were then entertained with songs of welcome by performing groups from the Hadassah Infant School, a synagogue youth group, and the high school.
The Beit Din was headed by Rabbi Howard Gorin of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland, who had converted two Abayudaya leaders when they were visiting in the US last August. Accompanying Gorin were Rabbi Joseph Prouser, who serves Little Neck Jewish Center in Little Neck, New York; Rabbi Scott Glass of Temple Beth-El in Ithaca, New York; and Rabbi Andrew Sacks, who is a mohel (specialist in ritual circumcisions) and Director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. They were joined by Moshe Cotel, a rabbinical student in New York City who is also a Kulanu board member, and Gershom Sizomu, the Abayudaya spiritual leader, who had been converted by Gorin in Maryland six months earlier.
At an initial meeting between the visiting rabbis and the Abayudaya executive committee, details of the conversion procedures were determined. Two Batei Din would convene in the main synagogue and would take candidates in family groups. Candidates would be referred by Gershom Sizomu based on their observance of Shabbat and kashrut (dietary laws). In addition to screening by a Beit Din, males all of whom had been circumcised in the past would undergo a hatafat dam brit (ritual circumcision). Finally, all successful candidates men, women and children would undergo ritual immersion. Both a nearby river and the community’s kosher mikveh, built 70 years ago in the middle of a sugar cane field, would be put to use.
Over the total nine-day visit, the rabbinic courts screened over 300 members of the Abayudaya community, and the vast majority completed halakhic conversions and thus became officially recognized under Jewish law. Provisions are in place for the rest to complete the process in the near future.
At the Beit Din
At the Beit Din phase, candidates were asked by the rabbis whether they were converting under their own free will, whether they would raise their children as Jews, whether they recognize Adonai as the one and only God, whether they accept the obligation to observe the mitzvot (religious commandments), and whether their children would formally mark their bar and bat mitzvah at the appropriate age. They were also asked to describe the place of Israel in Judaism, and to describe their pattern of religious observance. The rabbis answered questions and counseled candidates about their specific family situations. Questions and answers were punctuated by crowing roosters, a mooing heifer, and/or distant drumming.
The visiting rabbis repeatedly expressed their admiration for the isolated community’s grasp of the practice of Judaism. After the first conversion, Gorin noted, Todays ceremony is not a conversion, but a strengthening of what you have always believed.
Although most of the candidates had been born into Judaism, there were some exceptions. One 66-year-old woman told the Beit Din that she had become interested in Judaism when her Abayudaya boyfriend introduced her to the notion of one God. When she was 15 she and her parents embraced Judaism. One of the rabbis responded, If youve been practicing Judaism for 50 years, thats good enough for me.
When asked what he would do in the coming year to increase his knowledge of Judaism, one young man replied that he planned to be a rabbi. A 14-year-old boy responded to one question with The land of Israel is the holy land for the people of Israel, and I am part of it. An 80-year-old candidate was the son of the community’s first mohel. When asked what Judaisms most important teachings are, he replied, The Ten Commandments and the story of the Exodus, which tells us that God saves his people. Another elder said he had been practicing Judaism since 1920.
Most Abayudaya have biblical names, but those candidates who didnt were given Hebrew names by the rabbis. Usually a choice was offered between a few names popular in Israel that begin with the same letter sound as their given names.
Among the candidates were Israel and Abraham Kakungulu, respectively 76 and 80 years of age, the sons of Semei Kakungulu. They hid their Judaism for years, were educated at Christian schools, and passed as Christians, although they never claimed to be Christian or denied being Jewish. But when he furthered his education in London and Bombay, Israel Kakungulu attended synagogues and interacted with the Jewish communities.
Abraham Kakungulu returned to Judaism three years ago when he decided to accept my father’s God. He served as the chief of Mbales municipal council for 22 years. He expressed gratitude that we have been given time to correct the mistakes we have done and to convert. He said he has time to study now, and expressed the desire for teachers to come. In addition to educational connections with Jewish institutions all over the world, he seeks Jewish business entrepreneurs for Uganda to settle there and help build up the economy with their capital and expertise. He wants to see the land of Israel before he dies, but thinks it is too late for him to settle there.
Israel Kakungulu, a civil engineer, described his belief in a true God, who wasnt created, who always was and will be, and who is directly accessible to a believer without an intermediary. He cited their need for the agricultural knowledge of the nation of Israel.
Israel Kakungulu reviewed some of the Abayudaya history he recalled. In 1926, when his father Semei was asked the question What will happen to us? he prophesied that the white Jews will come here in airplanes and teach you, so stay firm in your belief. According to his son, Semei built the first synagogue in 1913 and bequeathed 16 acres of land to the synagogue in perpetuity. He says that a few years ago his family increased the land to 50 acres.
At the Kakungulu’s Beit Din screening with their children, Gorin told them, It is a great honor to meet the grandchildren of the man who is responsible for all this. It is an honor to be the grandchildren of such an important man, but it is also a big responsibility, so that the Jewish heritage will go from you to the next generation.
At one point, one of the Batei Din was interrupted by members of the other, and a side conference occurred over an older man with two wives and two families. Gorin, the Av Beit Din, resolved the question citing a precedent used when Yemenite refugees came to Israel in the 1950s. A man would not have to choose between his wives; all would be accepted into Judaism with the proviso that no further bigamous marriages were to occur.
The rabbis said they were moved by the way families have taken on the care of orphans. One young candidate named Moshe appeared before the panel with his younger brother and four orphan boys he is raising.
Some Abayudaya were not able to come before the Beit Din because they were ill or too old and frail to travel. Others were too far away, in other parts of Uganda. One five-year-old girl attending the Beit Din with her family was crying intensely, in pain. She had an extremely high fever, and was immediately driven to the local hospital, where she was admitted for treatment of malaria.
Answers to the rabbis questions were direct. When asked What has God done for the Jewish people? one answer (translated from the local language of Luganda) was, He gave them the land of Israel.
One woman had walked several miles with her five children on the hot day. She told the Beit Din her husband had to work but would find another time to come. She had been Protestant, but married an Abayudaya and is raising their children Abayudaya. She said she herself wanted to practice Judaism faithfully and to learn as much as she could about how to do it. The rabbis told her they expected her to continue learning about the mitzvot and holidays, and Gorin gave the family one of his bottles of water. After the husbands appearance at the Beit Din and the needed hatafat dam brit and immersions, the family was ultimately converted.
A man named Joshua, who works 150 kilometers away in the town of Jinja, arrived a day after the rest of his family. He has 14 children and has been an Abayudaya all his life, observing Shabbat and kashrut.
One elderly woman identified herself as the widow of Nimrod, who was Semei Kakungulu’s successor. When asked what her husband would have thought of all this, she told the rabbis that her husband was committed and would have been happy to undergo this process. Also, he would have wanted to live in Israel, since it is the home for the Jewish people and the source of the Jewish people.
The questions and answers continued every day except Shabbat. Answers continued to be impressive. Why do you want to be part of a persecuted people? Because, as my father taught me, this religion is the path to righteousness and God. What is the essence of Judaism? The Ten Commandments, Shabbat, festivals. Describe one festival. On Passover we eat matzah and bitter herbs, and no leaven; it commemorates the Hebrews slavery in Egypt.
Twenty-two-year-old Eytan, a hotel attendant, was an unusual case. His grandfather was Abayudaya, but he was raised Protestant. He has become part of the Abayudaya community, observing Shabbat and declaring the unity of God every morning. He observes festivals, and identifies God as the creator of heaven and earth and all human beings. He renounced his former religion and committed to furthering his study and understanding of the mitzvot.
Eight years ago Sarah, a lifelong Abayudaya in her 30s, named her newborn son Rabin because I love Israel, so I named my son after the prime minister.
Not all candidates for conversion were accepted by the Beit Din. Some are not prepared, have not studied enough, said Gorin. We wont pass people simply because they are Abayudaya. The Beit Din counseled a family they deemed not ready, but encouraged the family to study and practice and demonstrate a firm commitment, and predicted that in the future a Beit Din would be favorable to it.
In an exceptional case, a family that had been turned away asked to be reconsidered by the Beit Din. Although the family, formerly Catholic, had been practicing Judaism for only six months, the young daughters in the family recited the Shma prayer for the rabbis. When asked about their motive, the father replied that he wanted to join the Jewish people because they are the most precious children of God. The rabbis had witnessed this family at the various synagogue functions over the previous week, noting their exceptional devotion and interest, and assented to their conversion.
The mitzvah of tevilah (immersion), which is required for halakhic conversions, demands some preparation, especially for women. Nothing should be worn that will interfere with the water touching the skin. Thus jewelry, bandages, and contact lenses are not worn in the mikveh. Also, hair must not be braided, since the water must be able to run through the hair freely.
This last requirement had not reached the Abayudaya in time. Some of the women, in anticipation of this great occasion, had had their hair beautifully and professionally braided in salons or by friends. Some of the hairstyles were very elaborate and had required a great deal of time and expense. The rabbis were heartsick about the situation, and it fell upon me to inform the women of the sad news the braids would have to be undone if they wanted to undergo ritual immersion. There were no tears; there was no griping. For many hours, women sat on a mat in Gershoms back yard helping each other unravel the scores of tight, perfect braids. There was never a question that this was what they wanted to do.
The ritual immersions in the river or mikveh were a source of great celebration. On the first of many trips to the nearby river, a group of women and children huddled in the back of the truck belonging to the community’s high school. Following a slow ride on tortuous roads in very poor repair, the group faced a long, hilly hike through croplands. Since the path was very narrow, the party proceeded single file in a colorful procession.
Rabbi Scott Glass gave this description of his trek to the river in a sermon to his congregation after his return: 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.
Flexibility and spontaneity are useful qualities to possess in Africa, and fortunately the Abayudaya women were able to improvise efficiently in this most novel of situations. First, the women dunked their (often screaming) children in the river, and the rabbinic witnesses recited blessings for the children. The water was much shallower than had been anticipated, so the group proceeded further down the river for the women’s immersions. The women crossed to the other side of the river, wading in their long dresses, and gathered in a secluded spot to disrobe down to their under slips or colorful sarongs. They removed these under cover of water. A group of 10 or so would enter the water together, but each woman did the immersions and blessings separately and then received applause and ululations from witnesses. Although some of us Jewish women had been appointed witnesses by the rabbis and were prepared to feed the candidates the mikveh blessings word by word, we discovered that all the younger women had memorized the blessings perfectly, and some under-age children insisted on saying the blessings themselves, even though it was a duty of the rabbis. The women who had not memorized the blessings were coached by Naomi Aaron, president of the Abayudaya Women’s Association, who was the first to complete the tevilah. On successive days, other Abayudaya women assumed this role.
The rabbis remarked that this had to be a novel chapter in the annals of Jewish history.
* * *
During the first women’s trek to the river, Rabbi Andy Sacks, the only mohel, stayed behind at Gershoms house to perform hatafat dam brit on all the males who had been passed by a Beit Din. This procedure, which requires the drawing of a drop of blood in the area of the circumcision, is performed on male converts who have been circumcised in the past. All male babies born as Abayudaya are circumcised at eight days; those who embrace the religion later are circumcised later. The hatafat dam brit needed to be performed before the male candidates could undergo immersion. Glass commented in his sermon, I dont 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 his fellows that everything was fine and it didnt hurt there would be calls of Mazal Tov! to each who completed the ordeal.
A Torah and Other Gifts
The delegation came bearing many gifts, but the greatest was a Sefer Torah that Rabbi Gorin delivered. His congregation donated $6000 for the purchase of this kosher Torah for the Abayudaya. (Rabbi Menachem Youlis of Silver Spring, Maryland, had donated his services as a scribe in reconditioning the Torah.)
The Torah was dedicated in a moving ceremony during which a group of Abayudaya approached the center of the synagogue yard carrying their older, borrowed Torah, singing psalms and prayers in Luganda, the local language. The visitors approached in a group from the opposite direction, carrying the new Torah and singing Hebrew songs, led by the talented singer/songwriter Laura Wetzler with her guitar. The two groups joined in a noisy and joyful procession and circled the sanctuary seven times, carrying the Torahs under a huppah (wedding canopy). Torah portions (about the revelation at Mt. Sinai, including the Ten Commandments) were chanted by Gorin in Hebrew and by Gershom in Luganda. The entire congregation joined in the singing of Hatikvah, which even the children seemed to know.
The rabbis all donated their valuable time for these 10 days. All of us brought gifts for the Abayudaya books on Judaism, school supplies, tape players, toys, clothing. Rabbis brought precious ritual objects such as tefillin and tallitot. Glass congregation, Beth-El, donated $2600. Moshe Cotels friends had chipped in to donate the $3000 necessary for his trip. I carried some children’s vitamins that Noah Mitchel had collected for his bar mitzvah project at Tikvat Israel, as well as $1182 he had collected so that all Abayudaya can have candles every Shabbat. I also brought tapes of Jewish music donated by musicians who had played music with JJ Keki when he was in the US: Norma Brooks, David Shneyer, Robyn Helzner and Larry Robinson.
Laura Wetzler brought very popular presents, including a tape recorder, cassettes, a specially recorded tape of 50 Jewish songs and an accompanying book of song sheets, music books, soccer balls, and school supplies.
Deep Questions on Shabbat
On Shabbat eve, visitors attended services in the main synagogue on Nabugoye Hill, which was lit by candlelight (the community has virtually no electricity). The Kabbalat Shabbat service, featuring beautiful Abayudaya voices singing in Hebrew and Luganda, included, of course, the now-famous Abayudaya melody for Lcha Dodi, featured on their commercial recording (available at the Kulanu Boutique). Kiddush was held at the home of Gershom Sizomu and his wife Tziporah Naisi, who made excellent challah over a flame (they have no oven). About 60 attended the Kiddush, which was followed by an intimate dinner for the guests chapati, white beans, matoke (plantains), cooked greens and a chicken slaughtered according to shkitah (Jewish law on slaughtering) by Gershom. Glass commented, I haven’t spent 10 minutes here that weren’t extraordinary.
Shabbat morning services, which past visitors recalled as always being high-spirited, were especially so on the Shabbat the Beit Din visited, in part because many of the Abayudaya had already been fully converted to Judaism by that time. The concept of the aufruf was explained, and Gershom and Tziporah approached the Torah and received a special blessing because their wedding would be in the coming week. The concept became popular immediately, and six other couples crowded onto the bimah for a second aufruf. Now their weddings would also occur in the coming week.
During the afternoon, rabbis and Abayudaya congregants engaged in informal teaching sessions. The rabbis expressed surprise and delight at the depth and complexity of the questions. For example, someone asked why the 5th commandment in Exodus begins with the words Zakhor Et Yom HahSabbat… (“Remember the Sabbath day”) while that in Deuteronomy begins Shamor Et Yom Ha Shabbat (Observe/keep the Sabbath day).
The final two days of the visit were devoted to huppah ceremonies for the community’s already-married leaders. To prepare, my husband Aron and I, as the Kulanu representatives (Aron is vice president and I am secretary and a board member), went shopping for smashable glasses (Aron bought one to test outdoors on the sidewalk), ceremonial wine, brass rings which we would sell to the grooms, and cases of requested sodas.
On the first wedding day, Gershom and Tziporah were united in a traditional Jewish ceremony with all four rabbis officiating. Glass, who had already surprised and delighted the Abayudaya and his fellow travelers with his world-class tenor voice, adapted the opening words (Baruchim habaim) to an African melody. The chief officiant was Gorin, but the ketubah (wedding contract) was read by Prouser in Aramaic and English. The Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) were chanted by Cotel, Prouser, Sacks and Glass. For the first time in history so we believe an Abayudaya hatan (groom) in Uganda smashed a glass with his foot to commemorate the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem.
Gorin told the couple that it was an especially joyous day because it was also Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the most joyous month in the Hebrew calendar. He told the congregation, A wedding is not just a joyous occasion for the bride and groom, but for the Jewish people everywhere. And he addressed the couple, As long as couples like you unite under a huppah there is hope that Jerusalem will be rebuilt. He added, The presence of four rabbis at a huppah is only the beginning. Blessings will come in the way you treat each other and the way you let God into your lives.
At the close of the ceremony, Siman Tov and Mazal Tov and other Israeli standards were sung and played and danced, and chairs holding the bride and groom were lifted into the air it was just like Jewish weddings everywhere. This was followed by Abayudaya songs such as Tunafuraha sana, (We are very happy) and native drumming and men’s break dancing all before the seated couple. Original songs were written by Laura Wetzler and by the 20-year-old Abayudaya singing sensation Rachel Namudosi. And did I forget to mention that ululations by old and young women accompanied the entire celebration?
In an address following the ceremony, former Abayudaya chairman JJ Keki said, The Abayudaya have witnessed something they have never seen before, the first huppah ceremony in our community. To begin something is not very simple. So Gershom and Tzipora have begun this practice for us. In addition to friends and relatives in the synagogue, the proceedings were witnessed by scores of school children crowding outside the windows and doorway.
Tziporahs intricate wedding dress, a kitenge (African style) with gold appliqué and matching headscarf, was a gift of Debra Gonsher Vinik and David Vinik, the documentary film makers with us. Their week of amazing highlights filming Batei Din in progress, immersions (modestly) in mikveh and river, school classes and cooking scenes culminated in this, the first huppah ceremony of the Abayudaya. Following the wedding, the Viniks were off to the airport and home, to prepare a film record of the Abayudaya Beit Din experience for Dutch television and hopefully other outlets as well (A preview can be seen here).
The following day saw the separate and complete weddings of six couples. Wedding dresses for the brides were purchased by Kulanu. We explained that providing for a bride is a mitzvah, and that the mitzvah would be extended if these dresses were freely lent out to future brides in the community. All assented. It was my special privilege to spend an unforgettable morning shopping with brides. Each selected a special kitenge with embroidery or other trim or detailing.
The participants, all Abayudaya leaders, read like a biblical Who’s Who: Aaron was wed to Naomi, Joab to Miriam, Enosh to Shirah, Samson to Dinah, Uri to Zerida, and Moses to Esther. Each couple had a separate ceremony, complete with the reading of the ketubah in Aramaic (sometimes with Luganda or English translation) and chanting of the Seven Blessings. Officiants participated in various rotating roles. At one of the sermons, Gorin commented, This week has taught me a lot about our religion. Prouser said, We are thankful to God that he brought us to you and preserved you all these years. It was here that he recited the blessing one recites when witnessing a miracle. He concluded, I will carry all that I have experienced this week in my heart for the rest of my life. You have taught me how great and powerful God is.
At the last wedding, that of Moses and Esther, Gershom chanted all of the Sheva Brachot in a melody he had composed for and chanted at the wedding of Jay Sand and his wife Lauren in America last November.
The huppah had been made from a white tallit supported by four long stalks of fresh sugar cane. After the final ceremony, the sugar cane poles, which had been supporting the huppah through all seven weddings, were hacked into pieces and distributed to the children of the congregation so that they could savor the sweetness of the occasion. This turned out to be a wonderful new tradition that should be adopted in all Jewish communities where fresh sugar cane is available!
Music and Friendship
On the Sunday following Shabbat, a concert was performed by hosts and guests. An Abayudaya choir, accompanied by Gershom on guitar, Yigal (Gershoms 8-year-old son) on drums and Jon on keyboard, sang three Psalms in Luganda and two in Hebrew. Aron Primack, representing Kulanu, presented the visiting rabbis with a gift of Luganda Bibles so they could learn the Psalms themselves in that language. The second half of the concert featured the popular vocalist and recording artist Laura Wetzler. Her short program was designed to demonstrate musically how the Abayudaya fit into the various strains of world Jewry. She sang Jewish songs from Israel, Yemen, Ethiopia (in Amharic), Spain (in Ladino), and Eastern Europe (in Yiddish). The American visitors will long remember the African audience joining in enthusiastically on repeated choruses of that last song with Oy! This was followed by two songs she had prepared with Abayudaya children, and then a real crowd-pleaser: Wetzler, Gershom, and JJ Keki sang the Abayudaya version of Lcha Dodi, which they recorded together in a New York studio last August, and which will appear on Wetzler’s next CD.
On the final day, Wetzler gave her guitar to Namudosi, for my sister in song. She also left a different legacy to the teen-agers by encouraging an oral history project. The teens would record the stories of the elders about the history of the Abayudaya. She supplied a tape recorder for collecting the interviews. Wetzler also urged a project to preserve the Jewish music of Abayudaya women. Wetzler was accompanied by her long-time percussionist Robin Burdulis, who is also a health educator and played both roles beautifully on the visit. Burdulis had a constant stream of drumming hopefuls following her and begging for lessons (she always complied). Stacey Schultz, who was covering the trip for Hadassah Magazine, felt she had been there before, since her brother Kenny had lived with the Abayudaya for a few months in 1994. While he was there, JJ’s wife Miriam gave birth, and the baby girl was named Stacey after Kennys sister. The adult Stacey and the 8-year-old Stacey were inseparable. Schultz spent two nights with JJ’s family on their coffee farm. (JJ’s home, which he built himself with his own home-made bricks, contains a Shabbes oven that he learned to make a few years ago when Rabbi J. Hershy Worch visited the Abayudaya). Ed Samiljan, a Kulanu activist who had flown all the way from his home in San Diego, joined the group with the assigned role of making a photo record. A retired businessman, Samiljan also consulted with budding Abayudaya entrepreneurs such as Israel Siriri, who recently founded Chaim Lebatim Construction Ltd. (Dealers in Construction works, Compound designing, Spring protection, Borehole casting, Road building, General renovations and General merchandise).
Madelaine Zadik, a horticulturist and craft artist, spent hours discussing ecology topics with community leaders. She also encouraged some community members to develop ideas for creating a cottage industry producing new Judaic objects in metal, clay, or grasses.
Aron Primack lent his support both as a physician and as an ambassador with local electricity officials and medical offices.
None of the rabbis had been to Africa before, but all are anxious to return. Was it the warm weather, the fresh air, or the deep spirituality of the Abayudaya? Whatever it was, everyone was uplifted and transformed. Rabbi Andy Sacks confided, Here I haven’t been tense, annoyed or angry for a single minute. I didn’t know one could live like this! Gorin voiced the desire to return to teach and spend time with the people and form friendships.
At a formal farewell meeting attended by Abayudaya leaders, rabbis, and Kulanu leaders, Keki exclaimed, Three-quarters of world Jewry now recognizes us!
Uri Katula, one of the leaders, commented that the Abayudaya are growing stronger through the educational efforts of Kulanu. He noted that previously the community’s poor children were adopted by Christians who could educate them. He says the Kulanu education also makes it possible for the community to defend Judaism better against messianic groups that frequently come to proselytize.
Glass announced, 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 you feel. I will not have the words to convey to my community what I found here.
Prouser, who served for a number of years as director of the conversion institute of the Connecticut region of the Rabbinical Assembly, said he was inspired hearing and seeing the deep commitment the community has to Shabbat and their love for Shabbat. He exhorted the community to extend their love for Shabbat to the other festivals.
Glass encouraged the community to realize the great value of their own traditions and to continue to develop their own melodies and sing Psalms in Luganda. (Kulanu produced a commercial recording of Abayudaya music in 1997, available through Kulanu Boutique.) Glass urged the community to retain a special imprint on Jewish practice, as every community in the Jewish Diaspora has done.
Sacks had a different perspective: I have never had the experience of trying to teach children when they are hungry and malnourished. I don’t have a concept of sharing these things when people are just trying to survive. Most Abayudaya live, as their neighbors do, in mud huts with no electricity or running water. Annual per capita income has been estimated at $600.
Gorin urged Kulanu, which has been involved with the Abayudaya for seven years, to help individuals and congregations assist the Abayudaya by coordinating aid efforts. The rabbis vowed to find a way to send an Abayudaya to learn in Israel and then come back to teach and lead. It was also hoped that a young Israeli could come and live with the Abayudaya to teach Hebrew and Judaica.
Gorin told the hosts, Now the responsibility has shifted and it is yours, but you can still receive guidance from people who have more experience. He asked the community to determine how the Beit Din could assist the Abayudaya in reaching its educational and spiritual goals. There was much praise for the community and the level of practice it has achieved in isolation. Gorin remarked, I expected to find some individuals who practice Judaism. What I found was a Jewish community. With that comment, I represented the Kulanu board in formally transferring ownership of the community’s borrowed Torah to the Abayudaya in perpetuity. The Torah, donated to Kulanu for the Abayudaya by Rabbi R Portal and Congregation Beth Abraham in Auburn, Maine, was carried to Uganda five years ago by Lucy Steinitz and her family. It was on loan for educational purposes because a Torah may not be given to a non-Jewish community. At this point, it had been determined that the Abayudaya were indeed a Jewish community, and the Torah could be given to them.
Gorin summed up the outcome of the 10-day mission: We convert individuals, not communities. This is not a mass conversion. We convert individuals as individuals. The rabbis say they have more paper work to do before they can give an exact number of converts.
When we left the Abayudaya, we drove to Kampala for a little shopping on the way to the airport motel. While four of us were in a handicraft center, our rental car was vandalized and Arons video camera and my purse were stolen. What was NOT taken was significant.
Still intact on the floor was a blue portfolio that contained the airline tickets and passports for all 12 members of the group! And, miraculously (dare I say it?), the camera had not been in its case, which contained nine rolls of video film Aron had taken on the historic trip. The camera was gone, but the case was still safe in the rear of the car. I was heartsick because my purse contained my notebook for the journey, which had 30 pages of my detailed shorthand notes. Irreplaceable! But wait, the green notebook was not in my purse, where I always kept it. Miraculously, it was in the rear of the car, safe and sound! A small miracle that allowed me to bring this story to you.
So you want a bigger miracle? Well, five minutes after the Beit Din had adjourned for the last time, it started raining, a nice, two-hour downpour. The Abayudaya said it was a miracle since it never rains in this drought-prone area in February.
What makes a miracle a miracle? Although biblical Hebrew has no word for miracle, the signs and wonders it describes are often major occurrences such as the parting of the Red Sea — that defy the laws of nature as we know them and are interpreted as signs of divine intervention.
In the Talmud, the Hebrew word nes is used for miracle, and the concept is expanded to include ten minor miracles that occurred in Jerusalem during Temple times, such as the fact that no one was ever bitten by a snake or scorpion and that rain never extinguished the altar fire.
Talmudic literature also recognizes daily miracles that do not require a breach of the laws of nature. As we know, the daily Amidah expresses thanks for the daily miracles, wondrous deeds and benefits which are with us every day, every hour.
The Talmud also provides for the blessing that Rabbi Prouser recited when one comes to a place where miracles were wrought for the Jewish people. But how do we know when we are witnessing a miracle?
For Martin Buber, a persons attitude is the essential element in the miracle. For a person properly attuned, any event may be considered a miracle, in terms of its meaning for him or her.
Webster defines a miracle as a wonder, and defines a wonder as the feeling of surprise, admiration, and awe which is excited by something new, unusual, strange, great, extraordinary, or not well understood. But an event may be unusual or extraordinary to one person but not to another.
I feel — and I believe everyone on our trip felt that its awesome that the Abayudaya have been practicing Judaism faithfully for three generations in rural Uganda through such difficulties as isolation, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and persecution. I feel it’s extraordinary that four rabbis and a rabbinic student felt strongly enough about the authenticity of the Judaism of the Abayudaya and were courageous enough to come to Uganda and change the course of history by formally recognizing them. I feel that a hundred African women immersing in an African river with the recitation of Hebrew blessings is extraordinary. I feel that hearing the Sheva Brachot at seven totally Jewish weddings in rural Uganda is great. I feel the outpouring of support from congregations and individuals to help in this effort has been awesome. I heard exquisite African voices singing familiar Jewish prayers in Hebrew and in an African language, and it was extraordinary. I feel privileged. In Uganda this year, I witnessed many miracles!
(I want to give you, the reader, an opportunity to participate in and extend this miracle of the Abayudaya. I encourage you to be in contact with this community, to visit, to buy their recordings, tallitot, and kippot—see Kulanu Boutique—. I encourage business owners to supply capital and advice to budding Abayudaya entrepreneurs. I urge everyone to support the following programs:)
Kulanu’s Lorna Margolis Scholarship Fund for Orphan Education pays for tuition and school expenses for primary and secondary school students. The Hadassah Infant School provides a solid Jewish beginning to preschool children, with Judaic and general education, music and the arts, and meals and overnight accommodations for those who live far from the school. The Semei Kakungulu High School, which teaches Judaic and secular subjects and honors Jewish holidays, was founded three years ago by Gershom Sizomu. New wings are under construction, and computers and laboratory equipment are needed. Tax-deductible contributions to Kulanu can be earmarked for any of these projects, or for the Abayudaya generally.)