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Africa - Eastern Africa - Judaism

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.”