Reflections from Uganda Part 1
The following were my remarks for our congregation’s Shabbat celebration of the 100th anniversary of our Boy Scout Troup 14. (Thanks to Cantor Jack Chomsky and Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit, Ph.D. for their background info/wording)
For a few minutes, I want to take us back 100 years to a far different place than Jacksonville Florida. It’s 1919. Religious conversion is a key component to the British colonization of Africa. Tribal chief and military leader Semei Kakungulu, who had founded the town of Mbale, Uganda, was evangelized by Anglican Church missionaries. He hoped to use his connections with the British so that he might be recognized as ruler of Uganda’s eastern region. When the British didn’t give Kakungulu what he desired, he returned to Mbale and rejected the Anglican church. He joined a group known as the Malakites who took a literal reading of the bible- Saturday was the Sabbath, they would eat no pork; eventually breaking from the group to follow an even stricter reading of the text, all while studying the Luganda translation of the Hebrew bible. In 1919, he and his followers embraced circumcision. Kakungulu created a Sabbath liturgy that included reading selections from the Hebrew bible in Luganda, chanting selections from the Song of Moses, the penultimate section of the Hebrew bible. The community, known as the Abayudaya, persisted for some years with little contact with the outside Jewish world, at first not even aware that there WAS such a world.
In time, though, they crossed paths with a few Jews who were living or working in Africa and shifted their practice to resemble the outside world. A quantum leap in their connection to the Jewish world came in the 1960’s when an Israeli graduate student named Arye Oded learned about the community and established connections with it. He later became Israeli ambassador to a number of countries in Africa, including Uganda. Oded died two weeks ago at age 89, a Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University.
When Idi Amin outlawed other religions during the 1970s, the Abayudaya community suffered as most of its population converted out of Judaism. Beginning in the 1980s, the community revitalized under the leadership of one family in particular, brothers JJ, Aaron, Seth and Gershom, who infused new music and energy into the community. There were more connections with the rest of the Jewish world, especially through the Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (Reform) Movements, and the international Jewish organizations Kulanu and B’chol Lashon.
In recent years the community has been led by one of those brothers, now RABBI Gershom Sizomu, who trained for the rabbinate at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Rabbi Sizomu not only leads his congregation and the organized Jewish community of Uganda, he is also a member of the Ugandan Parliament, serving as a minister in the opposition party. Rabbi Gershom, a true mensch, gives much of his state salary to provide for his community. His brother Aaron Kintu Moses runs the Hadassah Primary School. Another brother JJ is leader of another community in the village of Putti. Brother Seth Jonadab runs the Semei Kokungulu High School and played in most of the services we attended.
Recently, the community has finally been recognized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, although there are those in Israel that questioned their Jewish identity because of their community’s conversion through Masorti/Conservative rabbis. And while most of the community do not speak about making aliyah, there are a number of individuals who have fought to obtain study VISAs in Israel.
Our Cantors Assembly mission began as two part solidarity and one part musicological: to record not only the music of the community, but to hear their story through personal interviews and recordings. We recorded these interviews under the framework of the Haggadah- a retelling of the journey from the slavery of Idi Amin to the modern freedoms they have to express their Judaism. This was a listening tour- a strange endeavour for cantors, similar to a silent retreat for rabbis. I also felt the need to follow what the series Star Trek referred to as the “prime directive”- to not disturb people in their element- to just listen and observe. Knowing full well that Rabbi Gershom and his family lived in the States for a few years, that visitors have brought in their own melodies, we had some idea that the music was already a hybrid of what came before western influence and the melodies that we hear each and every Shabbat here in the U.S.
As we prepared to board our 15 hr flight to Nairobi, each of us was interviewed about why we chose to come along for this journey. I spoke about this notion of about a miracle- how I was looking to figure out how this tiny group in the most remote of places is not just surviving but thriving. How 2500 Jews make a name for themselves amongst 40 million Ugandans. We think of ourselves as a minority at 2.5 percent in this country. Imagine being .00006% of the population.
Our time was spent meeting with many of the community leaders. I spent a few hours each day doing in depth interviews learning about the collective experience being Jewish in Uganda. We talked to the generation who had revitalized the community in the 1980s and the younger leaders who have a great thirst for knowledge. Uganda, and this community, are young. Very young. 77% of Uganda falls into the Generation Z range. Walking into services, the average age of the congregation may have hovered in the low 20s. For while the community is 100 years old, they have seen a rebirth in the last 10-15 years.
We found the answer to this miracle. We found it in the beaming joy of our hosts who wore large, beautiful, colorful kippot that community members had hand knitted.
While we were warned not to wear our kippot in public, we were greeted in Entebbe by our guide and head driver who wore their kippot with pride. And so we, in turn, felt proud to wear our kippot throughout our trip. As a heads up, I brought back a number of kippot that will soon be on sale in the Center gift shop, proceeds going to support the Abayudaya.
We found the miracle in the depth of the questions and answers of the Abayudayan youth. We interviewed a few 20somethings who are starting a community in the capital of Kampala. We asked each of them what questions they had about Judaism. One of 20somethings thought for a brief second and asked, “Why isn’t Tisha B’av, a day in which we mourn the loss of our temple, a more prominent holiday in the Jewish world?” I could ask any 20something from our community what questions they have about Judaism, and I’m fairly certain Tisha B’av would not crack the top 100 questions.
Life is hard for the Jews of Uganda. The only area schools in the early 20th century were started by Catholics and Protestants. They required conversion for entry. This meant that those who chose to keep their Judaism public, that entire community, lagged some 20 years behind the rest of their neighbors. Today, some 90% of the population is unemployed, making ends meet by selling crafts or produce. A teenager attending one of our morning learning sessions was asked why he wasn’t in a rush to get to school- he mentioned that his family couldn’t afford the fees.
Many do not have access to drinkable water, often making long treks to the local unclean water tap. You’re lucky if you have two meals a day. Most do not have access to electricity. Yet we saw an example of the extraordinary work of the Tobin Health clinic when we met a youth who attended Kabbalat Shabbat who had just received an IV for Malaria treatment who was up and around after just 24 hours. We visited with amazing NGOs connected to the United States and Israel who are slowly bringing access to clean water and electricity to communities one by one- and you can see the palpable difference it makes- you see it in the schools- in improved test scores, in enabling girls to continue schooling because they have private and clean bathrooms.
We found the miracle in the faith of the community. It didn’t matter if some of the synagogues lacked electricity. In one case, in the small village of Nalubembe, the synagogue, a brick structure with no roof, doesn’t survive from season to season. We asked what would it cost to build a synagogue- a brick building with a roof, no electricity: the equivalent of $2000. $2000 for a prayer space. In another synagogue in the village of Namatubma, as they await approval for a new clean water source, we asked the community’s spiritual leader, Shadrach, what his community needed most. Shadrach, for context, is studying to be a rabbi under the ALEPH program. He came to his role as leader when the elder of the community stood up one day and proclaimed that he was retiring- he looked to find a new leader who fit 3 criteria- someone who was engaged or married, over a certain age, and had a college degree. Shadrach was the only person in the community who checked all the boxes. So we asked him this question, what do they need?…and he replied “A Torah.” A community that does not have access to clean water, wants a Torah. Torah is water.
We found the miracle in the joy of a group of singers in the village of Nasenyi, home of the chairman of the Abayudaya. We were greeted by such beautiful music and dancing wherever we went, but the face of one of these singers stayed with me (show picture). The featured singer of their “choir” began losing her voice as the group sang Psalm after Psalm in their native Luganda, but as I filmed and photographed, I’ve never seen a more passionate singer in my life- it was a full body experience, and her full smile brought all of us to tears.
Most of our prayer experiences took place in the main village of Nabogoye Hill. Services were often co-led by Cantors and the local community. We heard familiar melodies, new melodies, and new languages. We listened to an entire congregation sing. Sing well. Sing in hebrew, in Luganda. We saw cultural differences, as most of the torah and many of the psalms were chanted in Luganda, shoes were removed outside the synagogue,
and women often chose to sit separately- however, this was a cultural difference, not a religious one, as each community is extremely egalitarian.
We found the miracle come full circle during a special ceremony on Super Bowl Sunday. Following a World Wide Wrap Shaharit service, our delegation assembled by the village guest house. One of our colleagues,Jerry Berkowitz, a cantor serving a congregation in Manitowic, Wisconsin, had procured one of his congregation’s five torahs to be donated as a gift to future generations of Abayudaya.
Jerry stood under a chuppah as we processed towards the synagogue singing and dancing with the Torah. From the other direction, members of the community processed towards our group singing their own songs of welcome and celebration. As two separate colleagues said, “it was right out of the musical Music Man.” A seemingly random reference, I’ll be performing as Salesman #5 in the Martin J Gottlieb Day School production of Music Man Jr during the first weekend of April.
As we came together, our voices joined in one song as we took the torah into the synagogue to be read. Rabbi Gershom chanted the penultimate chapter of the book of Devarim in Hebrew, the same chapter that Semei Kokungulu had memorized in his native Luganda (this had been memorized by the early Abayudaya as a song since the Torah says we are supposed to memorize it. Their minhag had been to recite it in Luganda by memory). The cantors shared an aliyah. Our hosts shared aliyot. It was a morning filled with expressions of pride, depth, faith, joy and passion.
And, as you might expect from a cantorial mission, they brought us the miracle of music. In between each aliyah, the Abayudayan congregations welcome the person taking the aliyah with a Halleluyah song. Not only does it celebrate the individual having an aliyah, it reminds those in the pews that they are very much a part of the torah service, when often it can seem like a very frontal portion of our worship. Throughout our time in Nabogoye, our hosts prayed, prayed well. They were insightful and inspiring. I’ll be speaking more about their music next Friday night.
All the Abayudaya are searching for is what any community or really any individual ever wants from others: acceptance. It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever questioned this group’s commitment to Jewish life and practice. As we taught them about Jewish practice and song, we learned ten fold on how to bring community to life. Abayudaya is Luganda for “Jew”. We are all Abayudaya. We all have the potential to bring these attributes into our own practice of Judaism. The torah portion during our visit was Mishpatim, a section in which we read the words, Naaseh V’nishma, “we will do and we will listen.” This is the story of the Abayudaya. They created unbelievable traditions and are ready to listen, thirsting for a greater understanding of Judaism. And, in turn, by listening and learning from this remarkable community, I hope that I and we can do Judaism as well as they do.