In a candlelit room in a small eastern Ugandan village, Rabbi Gershom does Kiddush over wine at the beginning of Shabbat dinner as his wife, Tzieorah, removes a cloth covering the challah bread.June 3, 2018 update: As reported by Jewish Telegraphic Agency, May 31, 2018 (links in original):
"Shabbat shalom!" cry the arriving guests. The scene is recognizable to every Jewish family - except the main dish is stewed goat and mashed green banana, with sweet pineapple, fresh from the garden, for pudding.
Gershom is the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya, a small community of African Jews living close to the town of Mbale, where the craggy edges of Mount Elgon mark the nearby border with Kenya.
They hope that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Uganda will mark the beginning of greater ties with the wider Jewish community.
The group's founder was a military officer, Semei Kakangulu, who was converted by Christian missionaries but then switched to Judaism in the early 20th century.
"He discovered the true religion and the true Sabbath day, that circumcision is mandatory, and began to follow the dietary laws of kashrut. He became a Jew," says Joab Jonadab, the local mayor and Gershom's brother.
Kakungulu's influence meant the community quickly grew. "My father was one of the initial followers," says Gershom. "By the end of the first year there were over 8,000 new Jews."
But when their charismatic leader died in 1928, the Abayudaya lost ground to zealous Christian missionaries and their mania for conversion. The community dwindled to fewer than a thousand.
For decades afterwards, Uganda's Jews lived in relative isolation. Cut off from the Jewish world they developed a syncretic form of worship combining, for example, traditional Hebrew songs with African melodies, yet they yearned for a stronger connection to Israel.
Israel Siridi, the community member responsible for circumcising infant boys, hopes Netanyahu's visit will mean recognition.
"Last year, Israel's Jewish Agency recognized us as Jews for the first time. We hope that our prime minister Netanyahu will lift the visa restrictions on us so we can go and study and pray in Israel," he said.
Hope of recognition
Days before Netanyahu's arrival, it seemed Siridi's prayers had been answered. Gershom gathered the community beneath the spreading branches of a large acacia tree to deliver some welcome news: he had received a letter from an Israeli rabbi saying the country's interior ministry "is to formally recognize the Abayudaya as Jews."
The community hopes recognition might also offer protection from persecution of the kind that threatened to wipe them out when the notorious Ugandan leader Idi Amin turned on the Abayudaya in the 1970s.
"When Idi Amin was president, he forbade Judaism and outlawed Jewish practice. His soldiers destroyed our synagogue, our elders were thrown in jail, tortured and killed," said Jonadab. "Amin said 'Africa is for the Africans' and he didn't see us as African enough."
Today the Abayudaya are thriving once again -- a revival Jonadab credits to President Yoweri Museveni, calling him "a good Pharaoh for us."
But the insecurities of a small community remain. "The Abayudaya are a tiny minority," says Gershom, who nevertheless was recently elected to parliament.
"It is not safe for us to live as a small group of isolated Jews in the heart of Africa. That's why recognition by Israel means so much to us. If anything bad happens to the Jews of Uganda the whole world will know," he said.
Israel has ruled that it will not recognize Uganda’s Jewish community, according to an Israeli newspaper report.See my previous posts:
The Interior Ministry denied the request of a Ugandan Jew, Kibitz Yosef, to immigrate to Israel, Haaretz reported Thursday. The ministry said Yosef, who is staying at a kibbutz in southern Israel, had to leave the country by June 14, according to the report.
A representative told Haaretz that the decision represented Israel’s stance on the Ugandan Jewish community, not just the applicant in question. The ministry said Yosef could challenge its decision in the High Court of Justice.
The Uganda community, also called the Abayudaya, numbers approximately 2,000 and traces its roots to the early 20th century, when a former leader read the Bible and embraced Judaism. Most members were converted under the auspices of U.S. Conservative rabbis and thus are not recognized as Jewish by Israel’s mostly haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
In 2016, the Jewish Agency for Israel recognized the community, seemingly opening a path for its members to immigrate to Israel. However, the Abuyudaya have struggled to obtain recognition to do so. In December, Israel denied a visa application by a member of the community to study at a yeshiva in Israel, leading to accusations of racism.
This week, the Chief Rabbinate published a list of draft criteria for religious courts in the Diaspora to have its conversions accepted in the Jewish state. If enacted, Jewish converts in America may face additional hurdles in being recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate, which controls Jewish marriage, divorce, conversion and burial in the Jewish state. However, it does not have authority over who can immigrate to the country.
Jewish populations in Yemen and Ethiopia have distinct histories (December 31, 2010)
20 years ago: Thousands of Ethiopian Jews are airlifted to Israel (May 24, 2011)
More Ethiopian Jews arrive in Israel (February 10, 2012)
Millions of Africans see themselves as Jews (July 20, 2012)
Genetic map of Jewish diasporas supports record of ancient settlement in North Africa (January 8, 2013)