It is Friday evening. The sun has recently set, and a cool summer breeze sweeps through a small synagogue on top of a foothill. In the distance, lush green mountains are visible, and the smell of food cooked before sundown fills the air. A beautiful rendition of L’cha Dodi dances from the mouths of the congregation, and all present know that they are experiencing the truest sense of the Shabbat spirit.
Though these words could easily describe Kabalat Shabbat in any of a number of familiar locales, this scene was one that I experienced last summer in eastern Uganda. For 14 days I lived with the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”) Jews, a relatively small community of 700 who have been practicing Judaism since 1919.
Recently, in 2002, the community underwent a formal conversion at their own request, overseen by a beit din of Conservative rabbis led by Rabbi Howard Gorin of Tikvat Israel, Rockville, Maryland. The community’s spiritual leader, Gershom Sizomu, is currently studying at the University of Judaism in California, earning his ordination as a Conservative rabbi. While studying in Jerusalem this past year, Gershom and his wife Tziporah gave birth to their third child, the first and only Abayudaya to be born in the State of Israel.
My journey to Uganda began last year, in the auditorium of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. A representative from a Jewish community my peers and I had no idea existed came to speak to us about Jewish life in Uganda. He spoke about their founder, Semei Kakungulu, a group of committed people, and a culture that seemed very different, yet somehow familiar to the Jewish community of Washington, DC, in which I was raised.
What began, as a vague interest in a little-known Jewish population became a philanthropic project that I became passionate about, investing my time, efforts, and funds to help realize a goal of raising $3000, the amount needed to purchase textbooks for one of their schools. My initial drive to raise money opened the door to the opportunity to be the youngest volunteer to travel to Uganda in order to work and visit with the Abayudaya.
With the full support of my family and the help of Kulanu, I departed home for Africa in late July. Although I have traveled overseas with organized groups, this would be my first solo experience. I was a little nervous, but the idea of Shabbat in Africa released a calm and confidence that stayed with me as I boarded three planes over two days, stopping in London, Nairobi, and finally Entebbe.
The two weeks I spent with the Abayudaya were the most remarkable of my 17 years. I was humbled to be included in a committed and loving Jewish Community as an honored guest, especially when I consider how much I gained in comparison to what I was able to give. I have learned much from the students I tutored, and am proud of my efforts to help purchase textbooks for one of their village schools — the first in Eastern Uganda to have a book for each student.
Despite the inconveniences of a program of pre-trip vaccines, bathing with a bucket, and sleeping under mosquito netting, I know I will return, because the memories of debating with Rabbi Gershom over Maimonides’ thoughts on free will, interacting with the young children and the village elders, and breaking the Tisha B’Av fast with the entire community make me committed to continuing my efforts to assist these remarkable Jews, who live in such abject poverty.
I will diligently respond to email (the school has one computer), and write to my new pen-pals so they can practice their English, and try to raise more money, as there is still so much the students need. I have gained life perspective and an even greater love for Judaism because of the time I spent with the Abayudaya.
I want to thank all of the people who contributed to the textbook project, my family and community, and Kulanu. I would also like to thank the Shaare Torah Social Action Committee for its contribution to my project, and the support it offered. Most of all, however, I would like to thank the Abayudaya people for their generosity, warmth, and friendship.
Max Yadin is immediate past president of Simon Atlas AZA, and is currently in his senior year at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD.