The Abayudaya Community was founded in 1917 by Semei Kakungulu, a Muganda military general who had distinguished himself as a talented and committed soldier.
After his close reading of the Bible, Kakungulu developed a religious belief that would be similar to that of the children of Israel. A close study of the Bible revealed to them that God’s love is great for gentiles who choose to observe the Torah (Isaiah 56:2, Zacharia 8:23). Encouraged with this revelation, Kakungulu, his sons and the entire community circumcised themselves and promised to circumcise their new baby boys at the age of eight days as God commanded Abraham. This prompted the neighbouring communities to name Kakungulu and the members of his new faith “the Jews, Christ killers,” a derogatory statement aimed at discouraging Kakungulu and his followers, but instead he made a famous announcement( in the Luganda language): “From today onwards, we are Jews (Abayudaya)”; henceforth they proclaimed Saturday as a day of rest (Shabbat) and they started to observe the festivals as outlined in the Torah.
Joseph, a Jew from Jerusalem, stayed with the community for 6 months in the 1920’s, teaching about observance. The community had slightly more than 3000 followers by then.
Semei Kakungulu, before his death, had set up a school where his converts were taught the essentials of Judaism, reading, and writing. The school was situated at Nabugoye hill where Semei Kakungulu High School stands today. The main purpose of the school was to produce teachers of the Jewish law. Semei himself was responsible for ordaining successful candidates.
Unfortunately, after his death in 1928 the school collapsed and there were no more graduates. It was the time when Christianity was expanding to Eastern Uganda. Many of Semei’s converts embraced Christianity because of the better educational services the church was offering. Among them were Semei’s own children. They attended school in the most popular Christian schools, where they were indoctrinated enough to forget Judaism. Worst of all, the church offered jobs to those who passed through their hands.
The Abayudaya survivors resented the Christian schools. In 1960, when the new government of the Republic of Uganda nationalised all schools, some Abayudaya members were encouraged to take their children to school, but many still had the fear that their children would be converted to Christianity. This was true because the influence of the Christian leaders in their schools was still great.
The Abayudaya developed hopes to have their children study in Israel when the congregation was able to make contact with the Israeli Embassy in Uganda in the late `60’s. In 1971 this contact was prevented by Amin before implementation. In fact, Abayudaya children were often not able to go to any school. Not until 1995, when Kulanu members visited with us in Uganda, were arrangements made to send all Abayudaya children to school in Uganda.
Kakungulu’s successor was Kaweke, and his successor was Samson Mugombe. Samson remained the only leader of the congregation until 1986, when secular administration was introduced. I became the first chairperson, whose duty was to organise the congregation. The Rabbi was an ex-officio on the executive committee. Other officials included the vice-chairperson, general secretary, treasurer, secretary for youth, secretary for women affairs and three committee members.
In 1991 a general election was held and members of the congregation voted me unanimously as chairperson. I registered the congregation as one of the non-governmental organisations of Uganda.
In 1996 another Abayudaya general election was held. I was re-elected as chairperson of the congregation. But in 1999 I resigned my administrative duties.
The Idi Amin Era
The reign of Dictator Idi Amin was a turning point in the history of the Abayudaya. He declared a ban on all other religious observances except those of Christianity and Islam. He also banned all pro-Zionist movements. Abayudaya synagogues were closed down and members were not allowed to own any Hebrew prayer books. Synagogue and burial services were banned in order to force Abayudaya into Islam or Christianity. Members of the community who wished to observe had to do so secretly to avoid government agents.
I remember the time when my father was found studying the Torah in his concealed Sukkah behind his house. He was arrested by a government agent and survived only after paying a bribe of 5 goats.
There was a moment of joy after the news of a successful rescue of the Israeli hostages at Entebbe Airport. This news helped to neutralise the prevailing impression that Amin was undefeatable. Indeed the successful rescue mission was an indication that sooner or later, the Abayudaya and the nation at large would be rescued from Idi Amin’s dictatorship.
The Struggle to Develop Judaism in Uganda
After the overthrow of Dictator Idi Amin in Uganda in 1979, the new leadership announced freedom of worship in Uganda. This gave Abayudaya chance to resume their religious activities.
By 1980 there were not more that 50 youths in the entire community. Realising that a religion which my grandparents painfully started 63 years ago was on the verge of extinction, I started a youth movement known as the Young Jewish Community, or YJC, to restore life in the almost-dying community.
At this time I started the struggle for change beginning with my own family members, i.e. with my young brothers Aaron and Gershom, sisters Yayeli and Athalia and my father Jonadab Keki, my mother Kezia Nambozo and my step-mother Deborah Namujehe. I convinced our father to teach us Kakungulu’s songs and I convinced my brothers and sisters to compose tunes for Psalms, to write Jewish revolutionary songs and to begin learning Hebrew language using the Hebrew alphabet books which we had got from Samson Mugombe.
Our first performance in the synagogue on Purim of 1980 aroused a lot of interest from community members, who strongly encouraged us to continue.
In 1984, I was encouraged by the YJC leadership to visit the synagogue in Nairobi, Kenya, in an attempt to curb our isolation problem. The news about the presence of a synagogue in Nairobi had reached us through reading the church service column in the Daily Nation Newspaper of Kenya.
Using the administration structure that Rabbi Amit had showed me in Nairobi, members of the congregation accepted to have the executive committee comprising the chairperson, assistant chairperson, secretary, treasurer, and 3 committee members of the community.
During my administration as a chairperson of the Abayudaya Executive Committee, we suggested building a permanent brick synagogue at Nabugoya, where our founder Semei Kakungulu had proposed to set a permanent brick synagogue. In 1987 we decided to make bricks.
At a fund raising function, we managed to raise thirty thousand shillings (about $30). This money was used to buy ten bags of cement which helped in putting up the current Moses synagogue foundation.
But before the setting of the synagogue foundation I had organised the youth who had formed a Kibbutz at Nabugoye hill. This Kibbutz was officially opened in the year 5748 (corresponding to 1988). This group helped to make bricks and compose songs, and they learned and taught Hebrew and Judaica. They helped to dig the synagogue foundation, fetching water from the well which is almost a mile away from the synagogue.
Also before we could begin the foundation of the permanent synagogue, I made another trip to Nairobi with our Rabbi Gershom to visit the synagogue, where we copied the site plan for our synagogue.
As I said, in 1988 we started a youth movement with a major aim of making bricks for the construction of new synagogue. We used the staff houses of the Primary School as dormitories for the youth who chose to stay while working both day and night.
It took many people to make the synagogue a reality. Many people donated money and hard work and time.
We faced a problem of harassment from local authorities who never wanted us to continue with our programs. We were ordered to vacate the school houses and to stop construction of the synagogue immediately. When we resisted, Gershom, Aaron, and I were imprisoned without trial.
We had the help of a lawyer, Isaac Kakungulu, the grandson of our founder Semei Kakungulu. He helped us report the harassment at the hands of local authorities, to the District Security Officer. This officer had a meeting with our local authorities and he warned them against any further interference with our activities at Nabugoya. This helped to reduce the harassment.
How We Observe Judaism
The Abayudaya Torah observances are based on the provisions laid down in the Chumash.
Brit Milah is conducted on the eighth day after birth. We have two Mohels, Gershom and Uri.
Saturday is our day of rest (Shabbat). The day commences at 6:45 pm on Friday and ends on Saturday at 7:15 pm. On Shabbat, we are forbidden to do any kind of work apart from going to and from the synagogue. No cooking is allowed; food is prepared on Friday. We eat rice, posho (corn meal mush), fish and boiled bananas. We conclude Shabbat with the Havdalah service.
Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are the 3 major festivals on which all Abayudaya Jews are required to appear before HaShem.
During the 8 days of Pesach, we don’t eat any leavened bread. A Seder is held on the 15th night of Nissan.
Shavuot, which commemorates the receiving of the Ten Commandments, is celebrated by eating mangoes, oranges, new beans and maize.
Sukkot is a remembrance of the booths the children of Israel dwelt in during the Exodus. We construct booths covered by banana leaves.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Abayudaya calendar. On the 10th day of Tishre we observe a 26-hour fast when we abstain from food, water and pleasure. Members stay at the synagogue praying and confessing sins all day. Most are dressed in white.
On the 1st day of Tishrei is the festival of blowing the shofar and Rosh Hashana. Members attend services and a shofar is sounded. Previously a drum (which in Africa acts as an instrument of mobilization) was sounded to signify the sound of the shofar.
Other fasts observed include the 17th Tamuz, the 9th of Av (Tish B’Av), and 13th of Adar. The 17th of Tamuz and 9th of Av are a remembrance of the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temple, while 13th of Adar is a joyous remembrance of the salvation of the Jews of Persia when Haman’s plot to exterminate them turned against him.
Purim itself is celebrated on the 14th of Adar, when the youth act out the megillah Esther story. There is a lot of singing and dancing.
Chanukah is celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th day of Kislev. We remember the miracle of the purification of the Temple by the Macabees after it had been defiled by the gentile forces. We light candles for eight days.
We celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah at the age of 13 for boys and 12 for girls. This is the time when the young adults are initiated into adulthood and into full responsibility for their actions.
We keep Kosher. We eat proper meats, slaughtered in the Kosher way. We soak and salt our meat. We eat chicken and turkey and we also soak and salt that. The Abayudaya consider ducks unkosher because they resemble swans.
We don’t eat meat together with milk and we do not mix eggs and chicken. Rules of separation of women during Nidah are observed and men are supposed to take up household work including cooking. Sexual contact is prohibited and women are not allowed to enter synagogue for services nor are they allowed to touch the Torah during this period.
Why the Abayudaya Chose to be Jewish
The following reasons help to explain why members of the Abayudaya congregation have persisted in their practice of Judaism despite the various constraints which make it difficult to do so.
- The lack of firm and independent foundation of belief in other religions; for instance:
- African traditional religion believes that the dead, big rocks/trees, certain animals have influence over life, which is not true.
- Christianity’s doctrine of the trinity is not only confusing to a simple mind but even to a logical one. We don’t agree with their emphasis on salvation.
- Some of the Islamic doctrines seem to be a misconception of Judaism. For instance, Islam is not clear on the characteristics of Kosher and non-kosher animals; camels and rabbits are “Kosher” to Muslims. This is a consequence of the misconception of the idea of a divided hoof and chewing of the cud. The idea of Jihad (“Holy War”) eliminates the possibility of peace from Islam.
- The other reason is that the Torah protects individuals who observe it from behaviours and conducts that might be dangerous to their life, both spiritually and physically. For instance, the prohibition against adultery/promiscuity protects people from contracting HIV and from family instabilities. The prohibition against marriage with a close relative protects individuals from genetically transmitted illnesses. Circumcision is somewhat protective against the spread of HIV. Proper observance of Shabbat reduces exhaustion and body wear and tear; while the numerous festivals are times of joy, happiness and spiritual relaxation which are necessary for mental health.
- The Ten Commandments are a great gift to world peace and harmony without which men would “eat” each other in broad daylight.
- Lastly, the world of Judaism is a world of brotherhood, where, despite ideological and doctrinal differences, every Jew is responsible for the other. Judaism is the fabric that is common to many different cultures. We wish to be part of the people who over centuries have faced the most ugly hatred, mistreatment and attempted extinction but have persistently continued to exist. To be part of a People whose existence is miraculous in itself. To be part of a People whose doctrine served as the foundation of faith for the world’s major religions.
Problems of Maintaining a Jewish Community
The most serious problem is religious prejudice. In Uganda a Jew is referred to as Christ killer. On several occasions, some of us have failed job interviews just for being Jews.
The fact that Kakungulu converted from Christianity to Judaism made Christians unhappy with him. After his death, the Abayudaya continued to suffer persecution.
The Muslims regarded Abayudaya as abandoned people by God and they often referred to members of our congregation as monkeys, with intent to suppress the idea of Judaism in Uganda.
As already noted some individuals have attempted to use political power to eliminate the foundations of our community, but government policy is tolerant to all religious beliefs. The poor relationship between Israel and the Arabs sometimes spills over to our relationship with our Muslim neighbors.
Under the above conditions we live in anxiety and, since we have not been wholly accepted in the family of Jews, we are neither here not there. We therefore want to be part of the Jewish world, but not isolated Africans who simply claim to be Jews.
We also suffer all dangers of being a minority.
However, we feel very unique in Africa, where almost no other person is Jewish. We are the chosen few.
Our luck changed in 1992 when an American college student named Matt Meyer spent a Shabbat with our community. He publicized the Abayudaya and the organization called Kulanu picked up our story and sent a delegation of 15, including a rabbi, to visit us in 1995. They have helped us since then.
None of the Abayudaya members is economically successful to offer employment opportunities to the rest. Most of us are unskilled and therefore not competitive in the job market.
Non-Jewish employers force Abayudaya workers to work on Shabbat and on Jewish festivals, which has prompted the most observant members to abandon such jobs.
The effect of all the above is untold poverty. The sale of our handicrafts and our music helps us greatly.
We are also greatly assisted by the organization Kulanu which sends us religious books and ritual objects and teachers.
How the Jewish Community is Accepted in Uganda
Today our congregation is registered as a non-governmental organisation in Uganda. We have obtained a 5 year operation permit, which expires in 2002 and after which we shall apply for another 5 year operation permit.
We have 50 acres of land, which was passed to us by Semei Kakungulu way back 1919. Preparations are being made to survey it.
We have a milk-cow project, from which we obtain milk to drink, to sell at the market, and to give to our neighbors. We also work together with our neighbors on this milk-cow project. This has helped to develop good relationships between Abayudaya and our neighbors.
We have developed the Kakungulu High School and the Hadassah Nursery School, both of which serve non-Abayudaya and Abayudaya alike.
Our Kohavei Tikvah choir is a popular attraction and is invited to perform at many public functions.
Government policy is another indication of acceptance of Abayudaya congregation in Uganda. The policy grants freedom of worship and guards against oppression of minority groups.
A talk given by JJ Keki at the JCC of Greater Washington on August 6, 2001 (10 days before his official conversion to Judaism)