In September 2019, I made the decision to volunteer with a Jewish community in Eastern Uganda. It was an exhilarating and somewhat audacious experience and exposed me to a society and culture very different from my own. My strongest motivation was to see how Judaism can be approached and practised in different ways, and how communities, despite being poor in money and resources, are still trying the utmost to remain committed to their religion. Kulanu, a group that supports isolated, emerging, and returning Jewish communities around the globe; and the Commonwealth Jewish Council, who work to enhance links between Commonwealth Jewish communities, both helped me plan my visit.
Arriving at Entebbe Airport at the beginning of the adventure, I couldn’t help but think about the elite Israeli soldiers who, just over 40 years ago, carried out one of the most ambitious hostage rescue operations in human history. The dense and humid Ugandan air, buzzing with mosquitoes, would have been the same for every soldier involved in that raid all those years ago.
A lot has changed since that fateful night in 1976. First, there is a new terminal building, already fairly shabby. I was quickly ushered through passport control and then baggage by some burly armed soldiers, so I didn’t have much time to investigate, or to look around.
The country has undergone significant change since the dark days of Idi Amin, the brutal despot who oversaw and facilitated the hijacking in Entebbe. There are still armed guards almost everywhere, all carrying guns, but today these soldiers are there to ensure that everyone is safe, especially visitors. The country itself clearly wants to build its reputation as a secure and viable destination for tourists, where they can experience the natural beauty of the country without fear of crime or intimidation. In fact, Uganda has now become one of the safest countries in Africa.
The Ugandan people I met were invariably friendly, welcoming and kind. My driver was a sweet man called Isaac Byaki, himself part of the Jewish community of the Abayudaya, and the manager of the guesthouse where I would be lodging for nearly a month. Most of the roads, even the main ones, were not paved and the traffic, especially around the towns, was awful. We passed a small town called Jinja which had a brand-new bridge over a river which is claimed to be the source of the Nile.
Now for a brief history of the Jewish community of Uganda: Around 100 years ago, a tribal statesman and warrior called Semei Kakungulu was tasked by the British to rule a small area on their behalf, specifically the area surrounding the town of Mbale. At the time, Christian missionaries were spreading throughout the country. Kakungulu became fascinated by the heritage and beliefs of the Jews and developed a unique connection to the Old Testament. After a few years, he declared that he was Jewish, and gathered a group of followers who called themselves the Abayudaya, “people of Judah”’ in the local Lugandan language. Because they had no means of connection to the outside world, their religious practice was based on interpretations by their spiritual leaders and they had no idea of rabbinical Judaism. Through the decades, they learned about modern Judaism from traders and visitors.
Under the brutal regime of Idi Amin in the 1970s, Judaism in Uganda was banned, and leaders who tried to continue the tradition were persecuted. By 1979, when Idi Amin was finally deposed, the community had dwindled. Since then, thanks in great part to the support of Kulanu and others, the community has rebuilt and made contact with Jewish organizations around the world. Most of the nine communities’ synagogues follow Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Gershom, the Chief Rabbi of Uganda, was ordained at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. One small village called Putti follows strictly Orthodox practice. While most of the Abayudaya have been converted by Conservative rabbis, Putti has worked closely with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a well-known Modern-Orthodox religious leader.
We arrived late in the evening at the small guesthouse managed by the local community in Nabugoye Hill, one of the main Jewish communities, just on the outskirts of Mbale, the headquarters for the Abayudaya and the home of Rabbi Gershom. I would spend the next three and a half weeks teaching mathematics to students at the Semei Kakungulu High School, just five minutes’ walk away. Founded by the Jewish community, the school teaches Muslim and Christian pupils, who are in the majority, – the teachers represent all religions, as well. It was a pleasure to observe how well students and teachers from different religions coexisted with each other. I didn’t feel that there were any tensions between different faith groups, whether political or otherwise. This is a testament to the great people living there.
Teaching at the school was inspiring and humbling. I felt by the end that I had got as much, if not more, out of the experience than my hardworking math students. The classroom was roughly built, with a blackboard at the front. Such basic resources made me understand the realities of education for many in the world.
Jewish life among the Abayudaya was an incredible component of my trip. The synagogue in Nabugoye Hill held daily services every morning and a lively tuneful Friday night service led by Rabbi Gershom, with many melodies made by the community. The Haftorah on Shabbat each week was read in the local language and each week the service was followed by a Parsha Q&A session with the rabbi and a Kiddush lunch afterwards. Not so different from my local Shul in London!
As an orthodox Jew, one of my most powerful experiences was the visit I made to the Orthodox village of Putti, about an hour drive on motorbike taxi from where I was stationed. The community there is small but has their own primary school and Synagogue. It was thrilling to me to see the level of commitment to Torah and Halakha shown by people who have so little. The community had built their own Mikvah a short walk from the village, and another spill-over synagogue a few kilometres away for Jews outside the village who cannot travel the distance on Shabbat. The second synagogue was built with tin walls, as the congregants have yet to raise enough funds to pay for bricks and cement to build a more permanent structure. I returned home blessed that I could take on such an amazing adventure, but also pensive about what it means to be Jewish, and how it can be expressed in various ways.
The Abayudaya community, despite being converted by various rabbinical denominations, are still not considered Jewish by the Interior Ministry of Israel, so are still unable to make aliyah under the Law of Return. (In contrast, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform converts from Europe and America are entitled to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.) Many in the Abayudaya community dream of moving to Israel, but their inability to do so is a concern I heard on numerous occasions. I am not a rabbi nor an expert on Halakha, but it was difficult to see people who have practised Judaism so assiduously their whole lives have their identities and commitment denied. This trip taught me how decisions about Jewish law go beyond the theoretical and can have a serious impact on many lives.