The Abayudaya, a small Ugandan Jewish community, survived Idi Amin’s persecution and then reconnected with the wider Jewish world, as they had done a century before. Part 2 of 2.
Mar 29, 2011
Foreign religion … was like an applied and contagious illness, curing nothing, giving no final answers, keeping everyone in a state of nerves, fighting wrong battles, narrowing the mind.
—V.S. Naipaul, The Masque of Africa
In October 1992, two American university students on a semester-abroad program in Kenya, seeking to participate in a rite they hoped would be both familiar and exotic, decided to attend High Holiday services at the Nairobi synagogue, which catered since its founding in 1904 to a colonial, now expatriate, community of bureaucrats, diplomats, merchants, traders, engineers, and aid workers. Matthew Meyer, a student from Brown University, found himself seated next to the only black man in the group of about 25, while Julia Chamovitz, from Washington University, observed them from the women’s section. At a break, Chamovitz encouraged Meyer to talk to the lone African, who was otherwise being ignored, and after seeing the news clippings the man had brought, and hearing his story—about representing a group of Jews in rural Uganda eager for contact and support from other Jews—she suggested that she and Meyer make the bus trip from Nairobi to Mbale, in eastern Uganda. The man called himself a rabbi and said his name was Gershom.
Meyer communicated with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, leader of Uganda’s Abayudaya, a small community of native Ugandan Jews, via telegram from the Nairobi post office and organized a rough arrival time. When Meyer and Chamovitz rolled in to Kakungulu’s hills—as the center of Abayudaya life was known—12 hours by bus after leaving Nairobi, they were amazed to see their names painted next to Stars of David and “Shalom!” on the walls of the houses. Though young and full of their sense of adventure, the two students immediately realized that they were about to be shouldered with a responsibility. The Abayudaya wanted to know more about Jewish practice. Only when pressed about their needs did the locals volunteer some lacks. Their synagogue was half complete; they could use funds to finish it—what was the best way to get them? They wanted their kids to be able to go to school. They wanted a Torah scroll. But most importantly, they wanted what could do all these things at once: to be connected to the Jewish world. Being linked Jew to fellow Jew was the path to collecting the dividends of identity—a reaping of what Kakungulu, who chose sometime before 1920 to follow a biblical fundamentalism resembling Judaism, had sown in his obstinacy.
Chamovitz still remembers her trepidation: Would this gracious and hospitable community lose its beauty? Would people come and gawk? Would self-righteous Jews scorn and reject the Abayudaya’s claim to Judaism? Or would connecting the Abayudaya to Jewish brothers overseas give them access to respectful, productive, healthy support they clearly needed? “We could really mess this up,” she told Meyer on the much-longer 26-hour train ride back to Kenya. Looking back, she now says, “It wasn’t our choice. Having been there, it was our concern. Helping the Abayudaya was our obligation.”
A sensitive and gifted storyteller, Meyer took up the mantle most actively. He read the chronicles of the influential former Israeli ambassador in East Africa, Arye Oded, who had done the most to tend to the embers of Judaism there. Meyer returned to the central village of Nabugoye for four months over a summer and a few years later recorded and then made cassette-tape copies of the Abayudaya’s music, which he sent to every Jewish group he could think of, from the Hebrew Union College to university Hillels. He wrote and published articles and enlisted the help of his own synagogue. As he made the case that the Abayudaya were Jewish, poor, and isolated, he was criticized by at least one Conservative rabbi in New York who thought he was reaching out to people who had come to the faith improperly. But elsewhere, with the then-young Internet doing its part, Meyer’s efforts began to bear fruit.
The first to get involved with Meyer’s crusade was a group called Kulanu(“All of us”). In 1995, a delegation of 15 Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews—led by a São Paulo-born Kansas City rabbiand expert on the anusim, those forced to abandon Judaism against their will—visited the Abayudaya. What followed is difficult to try to reconstruct. The simple version is: The Abayudaya found supporters. Wells were dug. Women undertook craft projects. Schools were founded. The Jewish diversity advocate Be’chol Lashongot involved and, among other development projects, helped the Abayudaya build a guesthouse to accommodate the uptick in visitors. A multifaith coffee cooperative was established to get mountain grains to market. In 2002, some 200 Abayudaya attended a “conversion or affirmation” ceremony organized with the help of Kulanu and officiated by four Conservative rabbis from the United States and one from Israel. A Smithsonian recording of the Abayudaya’s music was nominated for a Grammy. Sizomu and his brother went on speaking tours in synagogues and JCCs across America. Every other year, a newspaper story would express surprise and delight at seeing “Shalom!” painted on mud walls in rural Africa. Though significant internecine struggles flared up and receded within the Jewish leadership in Uganda over this time—and disagreements have arisen and been resolved between the various U.S. groups working to support the Abayudaya—the plucky community just seemed to refuse to give up. “People who visit them come away inspired and wanting to help,” says Harriet Bograd, the 67-year-old with a law degree from Yale who now runs Kulanu.
What is it to be Jewish? This was at least one of the questions that I wanted the Abayudaya to answer, even during the distraction of Sizomu’s all-consuming campaign for parliament. It’s the question that had brought thousands of visitors before me—people like Meyer and Chamovitz—to this hilly part of East Africa, if not to hear an answer in words then at least to confront their own Jewish identity with a different idea of the same thing. The Abayudaya, having clearly been asked this question again and again, have developed certain straightforward answers that I heard from a number of congregants of all generations. Sizomu’s mother, Devora, a 74-year-old who still lives in Nangolo village on the same land where she gave birth to Sizomu, told me that only God can answer the question of what it means to be Jewish, and that keeping Shabbat is the most important part of the practice. Solomon Magoma, 83, ailing, and lying on a straw mat in a mud hut behind his family’s one-room house, told me that “identifying as that thing, Jewish,” was foremost, and that following the Ten Commandments gave him strength. His grandson, Moshe Sebagabo, took me to see the Namanyonyi syn-a-go-gee, and as we toured the cement-floored interior and opened the ark, with its decorated sheet-metal box, he spoke to me of having “too much religious feeling,” of understanding the essence of his faith as “being an example to others.”
How far does this example extend? To non-Jewish neighbors? To countries? To all of God’s creation? To be an example to others supposes that you are somehow related to them. This Kakungulu—the colonial chieftain and founder of the Abayudaya—understood well. Missionary presence and patriarchal tribalism had taught the people of Uganda that religion not only makes a universal claim on you but also connects you to people beyond the village.
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