Now the Abayudayas. Who’s Next?

A small community of approximately 1,500 in black African Uganda have called themselves Jews and are demanding permission to make Aliyah to Israel where they can live full Jewish lives.  Mainstream  Judaism does not recognize them as Jewish since there is no descent from ancient Israelite tribes,and no connection to early Jewish practices.

Unlike the Ethiopian Jews who can trace recognized Jewish roots from Biblical times, the black Jews of Uganda are new on the scene. They speak Luganda, Lusaga and Lugwere languages but no Hebrew.

Their origins, once shrouded in mystery, became known only in the 20th century. Their founder, Semei Kakungulu, was converted from African tribal paganism to Christianity in 1880 by British missionaries in Uganda in portions of the land which the British proposed to Theodor Herzl for Jewish settlement which was rejected by the Zionist Congress in Basel.

As a result of Kakungulu’s  conversion to Christianity, the British promised to proclaim him king. But in 1913, the British authorities broke their promise to him (as they broke promises to the Jews) and they refused to recognize him as king.

He then turned to the Bible and was influenced by the Five Books of Moses and the laws given to the Hebrew people. In 1919 he had himself and his sons circumcised.  His Bamalati tribe condemned him and asked him if he was a Jew. He replied, “Now I and my sons are Jews according to the law of Moses”.

In 1920, a European Jew called Yosef arrived in Uganda and took an interest in this new Abayudaya “Jewish” sect. He taught them about Jewish holidays, history and customs, laws of Shabbat and Kashrut which they began to observe diligently.

Before 1928 the Abayudayas were not Jews. But in 2002, some 400 members of the community were converted by five American Conservative rabbis. Neither the conversions nor the Conservative rabbis have been recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

One of the converts, Gershom Sizomu, acted as the spiritual leader of the Ugandan Jewish sect. He studied for five years at the University of Judaism in California and in 2008 he received rabbinical ordination by the Conservative movement  of America.  Once again, not recognized by the Israeli rabbinate.

The problem now rests in the unpleasant hands of our rabbis. Circumcised, Sabbath and kashruth “Jews” who live by the laws of our Torah are not recognized as Jews.

Who will be the next? Will it be the Nigerian “Jews”? The Yoruban Jews in Nigeria, numbering about 2500, call themselves B’nai Ephraim. According to their tradition they came from Morocco to Nigeria in the 16th century, fleeing remnants of the Spanish Inquisition. Many of their prayers are in Aramaic and they follow faithfully the laws and traditions of the Tribe of Ephraim, including animal sacrifices.  Kosher ones.

The Yorubans of Nigeria have more authentic claims to Judaism than the Abayudayas of Uganda.

I have my own personal thoughts. I am not a racist and I recognize that there are black Jews. When the Ethiopian Jewish community first began to arrive in Israel, I was invited among the dignitaries to welcome them upon their landing at Ben-Gurion airport.

It was at two o’clock in the morning when the plane’s wheels touched down on the tarmac, The dozens of us there to greet them as they descended were overcome with joy to see them walking down the steps of the plane, all of them dressed from head to toe in white robes, many carrying infants in their arms.

As we sang Shalom Aleichem and other Hebrew songs, many of us wept tears of joy as we welcomed home our brothers and sisters after a separation of 2000 years. Each one was given a small Israeli flag.

I handed out lollipops to the young children who did not know what to do with them. Some of them put it in their mouth wrapping paper and all. For the many hundreds who arrived on the first plane-load it was the first time they had seen or flown on an airplane.

The first to descend were their elderly distinguished  rabbis known as kessim, each bearing a staff in his hand.

The years have flown by. Ethiopian Jews have successfully integrated into the Israeli community.

They have learned Hebrew. Their sons and daughters serve with bravery and dignity in our IDF. As a community, theirs is a story of success.

I do not anticipate such a welcome to the Abayudayas.

There is suspicion that many of them, like Eritrean non-Jews who arrived here, wish to come for free housing, good jobs, welfare and medical care. I am one who is among the suspicious. Their conversion has not been recognized by Orthodox rabbis both abroad and in Israel.

I think that if my dog, born in Israel, were circumcised and could bark in Hebrew, there would be a better recognition of Jewishness than that facing the Abayudayas!

But Israel is supposed to be the land of miracles. All we have to do is to wait for rabbinical decisions.

Be sure to bring many books to read.  I guarantee with our rabbinate it will be a very long wait!!

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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