Africa - Eastern Africa
Judaism In Uganda
by Alison Swersky ("Totally Jewish," February 26, 2002)
The Ugandan Jewish community has been given the stamp of
approval under religious law after 83 years of practicing Judaism.
Four conservative rabbis from America and one from Israel
joined the community’s spiritual leader Gershom Sizomu in supervising the
conversion of most of Uganda’s 600 Jews earlier this month.
Sizomu, who spent last summer attending rabbinical classes at Hebrew College
Union in New York, described a new found “connection between Uganda and the
rest of the Jewish world”.
The men of the Abayudya community had been circumcised at birth but agreed to go
through a symbolic procedure to extract a drop of blood from their genitals as
part of the conversion process.
Tracing their roots to rebel army officer Semei Kakungulu, a British missionary
who preached the Hebrew bible to the people of Mbale at the beginning of the
20th century, the Abayudaya kept their faith despite persecution under Idi
Amin’s dictatorial regime in the 1970s.
And around 10 years ago, Kumalu, an American organisation which aids lost
Jewish communities around the world, learned of the Abayudaya and helped the
community rebuild itself and coordinated the mass conversion.
Kumalu president Dr Jack Zeller said: “The formal conversion is one of
celebration of what they have accomplished, rather than an introduction in the
Jewish world. They have been very isolated over the years having
lived through Idi Amin.
“The community had about 100 visitors last year and the number will probably
rise to 1,000 after all this publicity, and that’s wonderful because it’s very
important for Jews around the world to network.”
Arye Oded, former Israeli ambassador to Uganda before Amin shut the embassy in
1971, said: “There is some reaction already in Israel. The minister of interior
will see them as Jews for the benefit of the right of return, but I am not sure
if the Orthodox community will be so accepting.”
But he added: “They are receiving a lot of support from the American Jewish
community and Sizomu was even invited to organise a Jewish marriage ceremony on
his visit to New York.”
Jean Rosensaft, of the Hebrew Union College, in New York, said: “I think it is
remarkable that they want to be identified as Jews at a time of so much
anti-Semitism and assimilation.
“Many Jews are losing the connection with their faith and it is inspiring to
see people who actually choose to be Jewish.”
She added: “Judaism throughout history has welcomed the stranger and this is
part of a tradition that has taken place for many years.”