I first heard of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda at a talk given by Ed Similjan at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, California, in 2004. When I learned about their history, I was fascinated and said to myself, “I must meet these amazing people.” The first opportunity came in January of 2006, when Kulanu told me about the annual Jewish Life in Uganda Mitzvah Tour and Wildlife Safari. I participated in the trip and it was an inspirational experience. Our time was spent mostly learning about the Abayudaya community and becoming acquainted with the people, their customs and culture. I wanted to return at a future date so that I could contribute whatever talent I had to their lives.
I arrived in Mbale on Thursday night, July 5, 2007, after a tortuous 12-hour drive from Nairobi, Kenya, and stayed at the Mt. Elgon Hotel, where I was warmly welcomed by some of the staff who remembered me from last year’s visit. It’s comforting to see people who know you in a foreign place, especially if you are traveling alone and are a bit wary about it. I settled in with my mosquito net, ready to go up to Nabugoye Hill the next morning.
My dear friends Samson and Dinnah came to the hotel and drove me up to the Hadassah Primary School, where I met with Headmaster Aaron Kintu Moses to discuss my program and to leave all the books and supplies that were donated by the children of Temple Adat Shalom’s religious school… (More about that later.) It was so good to see Samson and Dinnah and Aaron. I feel as if I’m part of this community.
In the afternoon, I went up to Nabugoye so as to get there early enough before Shabbat services in order to meet all my friends from last year, and to catch up on how their lives were progressing. It’s heartwarming to see the growth in individuals and the development of the community. Of note, Sarah, a teenager whom I met last year who was instrumental in the publication of the girls’ teen magazine at that time, has grown into a poised young woman with ambitions toward the study of law at the university. Also, Israel’s wife, Tihira, is studying nursing, which she had mentioned to me as a goal last year; Samson Wamani finished medical school last year and now runs the new local clinic. His main focus is taking care of malaria problems and teaching about family planning and AIDS. Rahel is now a full-fledged teacher in a school in Mbale. Dinnah, Samson’s wife, wants to study catering to be prepared when the new guest house opens in a few months. I could hardly believe all the changes and progress that had occurred since I was in Nabugoye last year.
When Shabbat services began, as usual, the women gravitated toward the left side and the men sat on the right side of the synagogue. The services are mesmerizing to me—thrilling! Such “ruach” (spirit), and the voices are magnificent—they harmonize and sound professional. Seth beats out the rhythms with his hands on a table. The congregation all joins in with several of the psalms sung to African music. All the women and children together said the blessing over the Shabbat candles. Aaron had all the guests introduce themselves—there were a few Americans and three men from the Ugandan village of Apach—about 200 miles north—who were here to represent the 90 people of their community who are in the process of converting to Judaism. All told, over 200 people crowded into the unlit synagogue. Samson, with his characteristic kindness, brought me a more comfortable chair and I sat next to Dinnah, his wife. I felt as if I’m one of the extended family—enfolded in their love and warmth. The whole service and the singing moved me to tears. On the way to the car, Samson came to hold my hand and help me navigate the uneven ground in the dark. I returned to my hotel room exhausted with emotion.
The next morning, I was driven up that rut of a road to the synagogue for Shabbat services. Again, such a moving service—all the men wearing talesim and kippot, the singing and drumming of the rhythms on the table. The Torah service was long—the whole parasha of Pinchas. A young man chanted most of it, then a visiting American chanted some and lastly, an American Cantor Weiss chanted the rest. All chanted from the Torah. Rahel read the Haftorah portion in Lugandan—Samson translating into English. I was honored with the third Aliyah.
It tugged at my heart to see the little ones coming to their fathers, who in turn would pick them up—sometimes one in each arm—and continue praying, without losing a beat. There are so many children—all of them dressed up for Shabbat. Most of them are so quiet and respectful. I was told that each family averages 7 children, plus the ones who are adopted from parents who have died. After Kiddush outside, guests were invited to Rabbi Gershom’s house for lunch, which consisted of plates of rice, matoki (green banana-like fruit), avocado, cooked greens, pineapple, bananas and bread. The Abayudaya are mostly vegetarians, have only one set of dishes and observe the laws of Kashrut. On the grounds, there were small groups gathered to discuss or study various topics—much like an open-air yeshiva. I returned to the hotel for a short nap and a walk, then dinner of grilled tilapia and chips.
On Sunday, my day off, I tried to relax, catch up on some chores, write in my journal and take a short walk. Then, out of the blue, a young volunteer from the East Coast, David Eleff, showed up at the hotel. He had walked here from Nabugoye Hotel. He informed me that after he had heard about my interest in teaching beginning Hebrew to adults, he had set up a class for 4 days, 3 hours each day, from 2 to 5 p.m. The class will include the three visitors from Apach and two from Nabugoye. It was “basherte” (fated). They wanted to learn Hebrew and I wanted to teach and here we were together!I’m so excited. Now I have to refresh my lesson plans and get ready for my first class tomorrow—Monday.
While I was waiting for my drive, Dinnah came to visit, ostensibly to straighten out my concept of who is related to whom in the community, so I made up a list that has helped me keep track of those people that I know. However, I think that Dinnah really wanted to let me know that she would very much like to enroll in a vocational course to learn the catering business, so that she would be prepared to service the new guest house when it opens for business in a few months. I told her that I would contact Kulanu in order to see if this can be done.
I’m holding my classes in the Nabugoye Synagogue. Of course, it’s not a real classroom, so I had to adapt and substitute. I found a rather dull chalkboard and some chairs. No desks, but I brought paper and pencils and, most importantly, the books. I am using Derech Bina (Way of Wisdom) which I’ve used quite successfully for the past 11 years when teaching adults at Temple Adat Shalom. Since the books are to be used over again, my students had to do the writing exercises on separate sheets of paper. The work that I placed on the chalkboard was difficult to see, but my class tried very hard to absorb what I was telling them and showing them, so that at the end of the four days—three hours each day, I felt as if I had come close to achieving my goal of teaching them all the letters, vowels, and enough vocabulary, and important prayers and blessings to give them a good foundation from which to grow. They were even able to read some of the blessings and prayers from the prayer book—in unison, as a group. The three students from Apach intend to continue learning Hebrew when they return to their village, and also to teach others what they’ve learned. In order to do this, I felt it necessary to allow them to take back with them the books and many study sheets that I had brought along. I felt as if I had given birth to a whole new blossoming Jewish community in Uganda. I hope that I hear about their progress in the future.
One morning, I visited the Hadassah Primary School. As I had mentioned earlier, I had brought gifts from our religious school to the students at Hadassah Primary School. After Aaron Kintu Moses introduced me—and kindly mentioned that I had bought the desks that they were using when I visited last year—I talked a bit about the students at Adat Shalom and suggested that they write thank you notes in three languages—English, Hebrew and Luganda (their language). Well, the enthusiasm with which these 5th graders tackled the assignment was heartwarming! They did indeed say thank you in three languages, and they used their newly acquired gifts of colored pencils and crayons to decorate their charmingly enhanced art work and designs. I walked around the room as they were working, making genuine complimentary comments and, after more than 30 minutes, was rewarded with some lovely mementos to take back to the children at Adat Shalom. Perhaps this will elicit some future pen-pals?
I took many pictures—the lovely grounds at Nabugoye, people on boda-bodas (bicycles used for carrying a passenger on the back), people that I know, children in school and out of school, buildings and new construction, the synagogue, interesting sights such as a woman washing clothes by bending over several pans filled with water on the grass, and of course, my class. Students wanted a photo take back with them, and since they didn’t own a camera and I don’t have a Polaroid, I promised to send copies in care of Aaron so that when they next return to Nabugoye, he would the copies to them. They were so appreciative of me and what they had learned that week that I was overwhelmed with emotion when we said our good-byes.
I wish that I could say that I will return to the Abayudaya at a future date, but at age 85, one has to let the future be in God’s hands.