Visiting the Ugandan Miracle

We are at a hilltop village in eastern Uganda, with breathtaking panoramic views, miles from the comforts of electricity and plumbing. A young African woman named Esther, upon receiving a gift of a scarf from a Western visitor, quietly recites the traditional Hebrew blessing for new apparel, thanking God for clothing the naked (…malbish arumim).

Even with meticulous preparation — reviewing correspondence from the community, interviews with other visitors, a traveler’s home video, a tape recording of their Hebrew and African renditions of traditional liturgy — I was not prepared for the Abayudaya.

I knew that this community of 500 had been leading Jewish lives since 1919, when their leader embraced Judaism. I knew that they didn’t work on Shabbat, that they celebrated all the major and minor holidays, that they davened a complete Shabbat service, Torah reading and drash included. And I knew they were seeking formal conversion to Judaism. What I did not appreciate was their deep understanding of and commitment to Judaism.

I was part of Kulanu’s five-day study/teaching mission to Uganda, a delegation of 15 Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews led in June by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn.

We arrived late one afternoon after a long but scenic drive from Entebbe Airport, passing green hills lush with mango trees, cassava, sugar cane, banana trees, corn, and millet. We stopped in Jinja to see the source of the Nile River in Lake Victoria, and again near Tororo to admire a family of baboons watching the sparse traffic at the roadside. We were in a van driven by a Muslim named Kikomeko Muhammed.

At our destination, the village of Gangama, we were joyously greeted by 50 Africans singing Hevenu Shalom Aleichem and Hava Nagila accompanied by a guitar and the ululations of women. We tried to ululate back, but we could only laugh and sing and just share the emotional moment.

We all piled into the new, almost-completed synagogue, financed in part by Brown University Hillel. The building’s dirt floor is not yet paved, and the open-air windows are not yet paned or shuttered. Balloons decorated the ark, where a simple white curtain hung. A brief welcome ceremony featured more songs and introductions. In his greeting, Cukierkorn commented on the congregation’s singing of Hiney Ma Tov, which translates “how good to sit as brethren together.” He said, “All of us from Kulanu are your brothers in spirit because we are one in faith, one in hope, and one in destiny.” Simultaneous translation into the local language, Luganda, was provided, and we soon learned that the Luganda word for “Jews” is “Abayudaya”.

Our hosts treated us to a feast of home-made bean samousas (Indian filled pastry triangles), hard-boiled eggs, and orange sodas as the sun set over nearby Mt. Elgon.

Our delegation included three graduate students in film at Columbia University who had received a partial equipment grant from Robert Halmey of Hallmark Entertainment to cover “the interaction between American Jews and the Abayudaya community.” They will be seeking further funding to complete the project. In addition one colleague, Lucy Steinitz of Baltimore, took thorough notes throughout the visit in preparation for a cover article on August 11 for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

A Song Called “We Shan’t Give Up”

On our second day, we visited the local “public” school (fees are charged) and witnessed 260 students in uniform, aged 6 to 16, standing in lines singing a medley of songs that included David Melech Yisrael. We were told that 180 of the pupils are Abayudaya.

Next, at an assembly at the main synagogue (there are four in all), a small choir of young adults and a talented soloist, the diminutive 13-year-old Rachel, sang a song called “You are welcome.” This was followed by the Abayudaya “motto song,” which features the refrain “We shan’t give up,” arranged with words from the 23rd psalm, in an infectious African rhythm.

After further introductions of Abayudaya community and youth council officers and local teachers who had come for the ceremony, the congregation staged a Shabbat service (it was Thursday) at our request so that filming could be done.

The service was reminiscent of those in many American shuls, except that cocks were crowing in the background. The leaders were fluent in Hebrew and knowledgeable about davening. Women and older men joined in more often when a psalm was sung in the vernacular, Luganda. In his drash about chapter XII of Numbers, the chairman of the congregation, Joab Jonadab (“JJ”) Keki pointed out that Moses was chosen as God’s leader over Aaron and Miriam, even though he was younger than they. He then commented, partly in jest, that both he, at 34, and Rabbi Cukierkorn, at 28, are relatively young but perform as leaders.

Abayudaya men wear attractive kippot with six-pointed stars knitted in. They look remarkably like head gear worn by Muslims — not surprising since they are knitted by one of the Abayudaya’s Muslim neighbors. The Abayudaya are on very good terms with all their neighbors, Christian and Muslim. Muhammed, our driver, had known the Abayudaya previously and attended many of the sessions with the Kulanu delegates.

Moving Discussion at the Flat Rock

After a lunch of sweet bananas, pineapple, and bean samousas, the leaders of the congregation and of the Kulanu delegation settled down on a flat rock for a frank discussion about Abayudaya beliefs and motives.

The Abayudaya have a certification of registration from the Uganda government as a nongovernmental organization formed for the “propagation of Judaism” and other charitable purposes.

In response to Cukierkorn’s question, “Why do you want to be a Jew?” Aron Kintu Moses, secretary of the community, voiced the opinion that Jewish traditions are very preferable to the African traditions practiced around them, such as female circumcision, demeaning dances done in the nude by older males as a circumcision ritual, and the indiscriminate ritual slaughter of animals. He said that embracing Judaism is in part a way to reject the “harsh” environment.

Cukierkorn continued the exchange, referring to periodic outbreaks of Ugandan antisemitism: “I assume Uganda is not the best place in the world to be Jewish. Why would you want to take upon yourself such troubles? Judaism doesn’t say that to go to Heaven, to be saved, you have to be a Jew. If you are a good person, that’s enough.”

Keki reminded the listeners that he was born into Judaism, since his father was a follower of Semei Kakungulu, the Baganda warrior leader who had embraced Judaism 75 years before. “I was raised Jewish; it was already in my environment. Now I realize that someone might question my Judaism. I read in the Bible that it is possible to convert to Judaism and that God treats those who convert as Jews.” He also cited Isaiah 56 concerning the acceptance by God of the mitzvot of strangers and the ingathering of the dispersed of Israel.

Cukierkorn: “What do you hope to gain?”

Keki: “When you die there is eternal life.”

Gershom Sizomu, 24, who leads most of the services, observed, “In Jewish observances there is civilization. If you practice Judaism you become civilized. Shabbat is a benefit, too. If you rest, there is refreshment for your body.

“The Bible shows that God loves Israel very much, more than any nation and language in the world.”

“Another benefit is that precious instrument, the Torah. To be Jewish is to submit to the Torah. There is no physical benefit that you get from observing Shabbat directly. But we hope that in the world to come we shall have a share in the good that God will bestow on His people, and we shall share it together. We shall also be called God’s people. That’s why we have chosen not to miss that.”

Cukierkorn: “Would you want to move to Israel?”

Sizomu: “I can only speak for myself. The land of Israel is significant in the eyes of every Jew because it is the land of freedom. It is the land in which the Jew gains his freedom to observe the mitzvot. Given the fact that the land of Israel was so, so important that the whole Bnei Yisrael who came out from Egypt didn’t even have entrance there — because of their misconduct they had to die in the wilderness — if I got the chance to go to the land of Israel, that would give me a lot of joy.”

Keki: “When we became Abayudaya in 1919, there was no State of Israel, but our founder knew there would be an Israel, and he talked about going.”

Sizomu: “I love Judaism because it is a religion of people who are hated all over the world without reason, people who are just blackened, smeared. Any person who is sensible sympathizes with a person who is hated and mistreated without cause. As we sympathize we are called Jews, and we want to be Jews.”

During the reign of Idi Amin, who was president of Uganda in the 1970s, Jews were forbidden to attend services and most of the Abayudaya synagogues were destroyed. Sizomu muses, “I think if Amin’s power had continued 10 years more, the community would not have survived. But God saved it.” The community has experienced more recent problems with local politicians, who harass its members as “god killers,” and in 1988 four of its leaders were imprisoned. Although the harassment is “because of being Jews,” Keki judges the ulterior motive to be seizure of their lands.

In response to Cukierkorn’s questions about the feasibility of being converted to Judaism, Sizomu says, “We have survived because we were not willing to give up. If Jews came here and told us to stop being Jews, we can refuse because we are not willing to give this up. It is part of us.”

“Persecution can come again, but now we shan’t perish in isolation. Once we are given recognition, if a force was directed against us, Kulanu could get concerned. If we perish, Kulanu can at least write something — it would not be like dying like a snake in the field.”

Another young leader, Israel Ben Shadruk, noted, “Our beginning wasn’t precipitated by a Jew from the outside, but from discovery in the Bible that the Jew is the only person who is loved by God, even though he is persecuted everywhere and called Jesus-killer. From that discovery we have decided to be Jews and read directly from the books. If they say don’t cook on the Sabbath, we don’t cook.”

“Though we are not recognized anywhere, if they refuse to convert us officially and recognize us around the world, we will still remain Jews and observe accordingly.”

I didn’t see my first letter from an outside Jew until 1987. But I had heard stories about other Jewish communities outside and I kept my faith. But Kulanu has come and brought us encouragement so that I believe God cannot leave us. People can tell us, No, we shall not convert you. Still, the time will come that God will rescue us and we shall be converted.”

Sarah Kaliesubula added another dimension: “Because I am a Jew, I am an example. We are obligated by God with a responsibility. Torah was given to Jews. We are not strong nor rich, but we have hope that God will help us, will convert us.”

Sizomu summed up their position: “A person can observe Judaism, and if not converted, he can keep on observing. But we want world Jewry to have concern over us so that we have concern over them. We want to be united, to be in one circle with all the Jews of the world.”

Those frank exchanges at the flat rock will stay with all of us for a long time.

At an afternoon assembly, Aron Kintu Moses reviewed the history of the Abayudaya, beginning with Semei Kakungulu’s realization of Judaism from reading the Bible in 1919. As Kintu Moses sees it, “Kakungulu presented it and the people seized it with both hands. The Bible provided clear teachings about peace, unity, freedom and so many other things. His followers wanted to live as Jews; they circumcised themselves and their sons and observed the Shabbat. We follow these traditions that make us enjoy Judaism — the leisure we enjoy on Shabbat, the unity we experience during services, the Hebrew language, the original language of the Bible, and the Torah, the book of substance.

“But,” he continued, “much as we enjoy our practices, we are limited by the fact that we cannot perform them properly in isolation. The persecution we face and the low level of education that we possess lead us to worry that acceptance of our community by world Jewry is necessary, and we hope that Rabbi Cukierkorn and the Kulanu delegation will take that position.”

“You Are an Inspiration for All of Us”

Cukierkorn responded: “We have brought you some small gifts. You have given us something much more valuable. The love you have for Judaism, the concern you have, is unparalleled. Very seldom have I seen it. I do feel you care tremendously about your relationship to God, and we are committed to making your case known. You are an inspiration for all of us.”

The Kulanu delegation closed the assembly with the presentations of gifts donated by Kulanu and individuals and groups in America — a student Torah, books, Jewish educational materials, musical tapes, ritual objects, housewares, toys — received by the Abayudaya with joyous songs, applause, and, of course, ululations.

The next order of business was a tour of another synagogue at Namanyouyi, a sister village a few kilometers from the main synagogue. In the modest mud structure decorated with wall drawings of Jewish designs, Israel Ben Shadruk demonstrated his drumming technique as he explained that the sounds were used as a shofar (the synagogue has none) and as notification that Shabbat has come. As we walked around, village women warmly admitted us to their simple mud huts, generally consisting of three small rooms with clothes hanging on wall nails, sparse furniture, and an outdoor cooking area. It is not unusual for them to walk a kilometer or two through corn fields to fetch water from a spring or well.

The Kulanu delegation held a nightly “debriefing” session at our hotel in Mbale. That night, upon considering the hardships of the 70-100 orphans in the Abayudaya community, we immediately established an Orphans Education Fund to help with school fees and expenses.

For Shabbat most of the Americans decided to move from the hotel, a 15-minute drive from the synagogue, to sleep on mats in snug quarters in small Abayudaya guest houses with mud walls and tin roofs. In a separate, smoky kitchen space, Abayudaya women were cooking over open coal fires, anxious to finish before the Sabbath was ushered in.

On Shabbat evening and morning it was Cukierkorn’s turn to lead services and read the Torah, although the congregation recited the “prayer for the country” (Uganda) in Luganda. At the service Matt Meyer, a young American working in Kenya, delivered a stirring impromptu address (see separate article). Meyer, who first met the Abayudaya over two years ago when he was a student on a Brown University semester in Nairobi, spoke about the gains the Abayudaya have made in achieving construction of a synagogue, possession of a Torah, and recognition by world Jewry.

At various points throughout the five-day mission, the visitors gave presentations on different topics. Aron Primack, a Silver Spring physician who had studied Swahili (another language used in Uganda) in the past, compared Swahili sayings with sayings from Pirke Avot. (The following day, he was asked by the Abayudaya leadership to give an impromptu talk on family planning.) Irwin Burg, a New York attorney, spoke on early Jewish history. Bill Katzenstein, a retiree, assisted with construction projects. A session on halacha relating to women was led by Rhoda Posner, a Jewish Family Services worker from Baltimore. My own talk was on the various branches of Judaism as practiced today.

When it was the Africans’ turn to bestow gifts, no one was disappointed. Kulanu was presented with an Abayudaya bimah decoration, a menorah sculpture made by one of the congregants. Cukierkorn was given a plaque, and some other individuals were presented with baskets made by Abayudaya women. And, as a personal gift, Esther Kaliesubula (see the opening paragraph) gave me a small straw tote basket, which I cherish.

Cukierkorn’s final official act was a moving one — unscrolling the new Torah around the entire congregation, encircling the Africans and Americans together.

Our farewells were tearful ones. But I am confident that the isolation is over. I know there will be future trips by Kulanu visitors and other Jews around the world who want to get to know these astonishing people. There will be media attention. And Kulanu hopes to raise funds to send a rabbi or Judaic teacher to stay with the community for several months (see our “Help Wanted” posting in the Kulanu archives).

Even though I had prepared my talk on pluralism within Judaism before I left the US, I meant these words I spoke at the conclusion of my talk even more than I had anticipated:

“I hope, as you become more Jewish, you are able to accomplish something that most communities are unable to accomplish — that you can somehow accommodate your differences and still accept each other as equals. If you do, it will be a miracle, but not your first miracle. Your very existence is, to us visitors, a miracle.”

As we go to press, I have just learned of the death, on August 2, of my mother, Lorna Margolis, who was 86. Although Mom had Alzheimer’s Disease for the past 10 years and didn’t know about Kulanu’s work, she was a lawyer who felt strongly about human rights, and I know she would have been a charter member. She also loved Uganda; she visited us when we were living there in 1971. Therefore, my husband and I are setting up a Memorial Fund for Abayudaya Education in her name, which will offer scholarships for needy Abayudaya students from primary school through university. In addition, Barbara and Julius Shair, Kulanu’s VPs for New York Outreach, have generously joined in to expand the Fund as a memorial to Julius’ mother, Clara Shair, who died on July 26. Contributions to the Lorna Margolis and Clara Shair Memorial Fund for Abayudaya Education are welcome. Your tax-deductible donation to Kulanu can be earmarked for this Fund. Todah!