Yitzchak Goodman

A window into the Jewish community of Uganda

A while ago I was contacted by a woman named Shoshana McKinney. She explained to me that she was an African-American Jew who has been living in Uganda with her family for the past few years. She asked me to write something about the Jewish community in Uganda.

Being myself a recent oleh to Israel, since arriving home I have been exposed to a plethora of Jewish cultures I had never encountered before, which has provided me with a much greater appreciation for the diversity of Jewish life than what I experienced growing up in the UK. I agreed to Shoshana’s request and was fascinated by everything she and her husband Israel shared with me.

Shoshana married Ugandan-born Israel in 2019, and their son was born a few months into the COVID pandemic. They wanted to obtain a visa for Israel to live and work in the US, but since they were unable to, they moved to Israel’s home village in Uganda and have been living there since. While it was quite a change in lifestyle for Shoshana, leaving her hometown of Los Angeles for rural Uganda, she has grown to embrace and love her new life there.

The Jews of Uganda call themselves “Abayudaya”, which means “People of Judah”. They live in a series of villages scattered around the Ugandan city of Mbale. At the time of writing they number around 6,000 in all, but with an average birthrate of 4 children per couple that number is growing. They live in houses that they build themselves – the culture in Ugandan says there is no need to rent.

The village where Shoshana and Israel live houses around 600 Jews, but there are no stores, and they primarily buy things from the farmers’ market, which sells everything from fruit and vegetables to live chickens, which Jewish families buy and have shechted for their Shabbat meals. The village is not cut off from civilisation though; Shoshana tells me there are high quality roads linking the villages to the capital, and the community sometimes uses the Chabad house in the capital, Kampala, to procure supplies they need for chagim. Within the village itself, the roads are made of hard-packed clay and are perfectly adequate for driving. Despite this, virtually no-one in the village owns a car, and the street that the McKinneys live on doesn’t even have a name.

The farmers’ market in the McKinney’s home village
The chicken stall at the market

What language do the Jews speak? In Uganda different languages are spoken by different Ugandan tribes, and not all Jews throughout the villages share the same tribal language. Most Ugandan Jews are from the Bagwere or Basoka tribes, and the most common Ugandan language spoken amongst its Jews is called Luguwere. However, English unites all the Jews as a common language.

The Ugandan community took off around the early 20th century, when a man named Semei Kakangulu, a political and military leader, facilitated the bringing to Uganda of sifrei Torah, siddurim and the other articles the Jews required to live an Torah-observant life. Now around 85% of Ugandan Jews are observant, and even the Conservative shul in the McKinney’s neighborhood has separate seating – denominational differences are not nearly as pronounced as they are in the United States and elsewhere outside Israel.

Two young women in the community making challah

Ugandan Jews have also developed many different customs that beautifully blend halacha with local culture. For example, on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Ugandan Jewish men wear a long white robe called a kansu, originally a Ugandan garment but which the Jewish community appropriated because of its resemblance to a kittel. And on Sukkot families make use of the lush, colorful foliage growing around them to make beautiful, tropical sukkahs.

Ugandan Jews wearing the kansu
A Jewish family’s sukkah

As idyllic as Jewish life in Uganda sounds, it hasn’t always been easy. In the 1970’s, the infamous Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada, who had a plane full of Jewish passengers hijacked and held hostage in Entebbe, began persecuting the Jews of Uganda. Idi Amin made Torah observance illegal, forbidding the Ugandan Jews from owning or importing Jewish books, wearing a kippah, putting up a mezuzah on their houses or burying their dead in a Jewish graveyard. This religious persecution generated a covert resistance of Jews who defied Idi Amin’s orders and practiced mitzvot in secret, until the ban was lifted when Amin was deposed from power in a military coup. The Ugandan Jews proudly wear Israel’s 1976 Raid on Entebbe as a badge of pride of Israel’s success, and there is a young adult’s sanctuary in Kampala named after Yoni Netanyahu, the sole Israeli soldier that died in the operation.

Since arriving in Uganda in early 2021, Shoshana and Israel have started a non-profit organisation called Tikva Chadasha Uganda. They work with handicapped children and adults in their communities to get them the medical help and equipment they need. There are children in their community requiring mobility assistance, others who are on the autistic spectrum, and others still who are deaf or have impaired hearing. There was no organisation dedicated to helping these handicapped children and adults, and since many jobs in rural Uganda are physically labour based, having a disability was effectively a life sentence. Shoshana and Israel have stepped in to fill a vacuum, and are heading individual and community-wide projects focused on helping these people in their community to lead a normal life. These projects include installing a solar powered water pump at a local school for handicapped children, founding a chicken farm which allows women who cannot work in the vegetable fields to earn a livelihood, and they sourced help for a girl with impaired hearing who needed help learning sign-language.

Israel has always dreamed of visiting Eretz Yisrael, and organised a Taglit birthright trip for 40 young adults from their community, which he unfortunately was not allowed to participate in. Nevertheless, he was finally able to realise his dream when this October the family arrived in Ben-Gurion airport for a visit (which meant they were in Israel when the sirens began on October 7th – suffice to say that their trip didn’t go quite the way they’d planned).

Shoshana and Israel’s son David at the Kotel during their trip

Considering how connected Israel and Ugandan Jews feel to Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael as a whole, it might be shocking to hear they are actually denied the option of making Aliyah. In December 2021 the Jewish Agency withdrew their recognition of the Ugandan community as a legitimate Jewish community, meaning they are not recognized as Jews and are thereby not entitled to make Aliyah. Shoshana spoke to a woman from the Israeli Interior Ministry and was told that this is because “they are afraid of large scale immigration from Uganda”.

This decision by the Jewish Agency has far-reaching repercussions. Not only are Ugandan Jews disqualified from Aliyah, but this withdrawal of recognition as Jews means they are ineligible for programs run by the State of Israel to benefit Jews in the Diaspora. For example, Jewish men from Uganda are not able to come to Israel to train as Rabbis, leaving the community with a deficit of Torah knowledge. So this decision by the Jewish Agency, based on not much more than a conspiracy theory, in actuality is harming the entire Ugandan Jewish community. Is this fair? More to the point, is anything going to be done to change this?

Ugandan Jews wearing their Tefillin
Children from the community

Am Yisrael are a diverse nation, and in the heart of Africa, the Ugandan Jews comprise a piece of the mosaic of our people that probably most of us never realised existed. The more we learn about other branches of Jews besides ourselves, the more complete we can become as a people – and the first step is knowing.

About the Author
Yitzchak Goodman grew up in Manchester, UK. Following high school he studied in Yeshivat Lev HaTorah for two years before returning to the UK to study Mathematics at university. After graduating Yitzchak made Aliyah and currently works as a madrich in Yeshivat Lev HaTorah.