Once outlawed, Uganda’s tiny Jewish group opens synagogue
MBALE, Uganda (AP) — Seth Yonadav swaggered along a dirt path in rural Uganda, pointing toward the new synagogue where young men wearing yarmulkes lingered.
Up on a hill the synagogue stood like a crown jewel, surrounded by schools and a guest house, all owned and operated by a small community of Jewish believers in this remote hamlet founded by a single convert a century ago.
The Stern Synagogue, built largely with money donated by Americans, is a source of pride for hundreds of Ugandan Jews known locally as the Abayudaya, who have tenaciously maintained their belief despite the prejudice they have suffered over the years in this Christian-dominated country.
The community continues to pursue formal recognition from Israel, which would give it a further sense of inclusion. The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit that works closely with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities worldwide, has recognized the Abayudaya since 2009, spokesman Avi Mayer said.
“People come here for conversion, many of them,” said Yonadav, a 40-year-old teacher who serves as cantor at the synagogue. “I know 50 people right now who are ready to convert.”
Yonadav recalled the day in 2013 when, crowded inside the old synagogue, the Abayudaya started to dream of a new sanctuary, complete with a Jewish ritual bath known as mikvah.
The group’s leader, Gershom Sizomu, a U.S.-trained rabbi who in February won a seat in Uganda’s parliament, started fundraising among friends abroad. The new synagogue is named for Sue and Ralph Stern, a Jewish couple in California who gave a sizeable chunk of the $300,000 spent on its construction, Sizomu said.
Sizomu, who believes he is the first Jew to win a parliamentary seat in Uganda, said he saw his victory as a sign that the Abayudaya are finally being accepted by an often-distrustful tribal community. In the 1970s, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin outlawed the group, which saw its numbers dwindle to a few hundred. In the 1980s, there were violent attempts to strip the Abayudaya of the land on which the new synagogue stands.
Today the community of about 2,000 enjoys a more positive reputation. It runs a health center, two schools, a bakery project for women, a co-operative saving society and a guest house, as well as a tree-planting program.
With his electoral victory, Sizomu said, “the Abayudaya felt very accepted. This was a sign that they are accepted by our Christian and Muslim neighbors.”
The Abayudaya community was founded by a Ugandan military officer, Semei Kakungulu, a convert from Christianity in the early 20th century who had many followers. When he died in 1928, he left a large piece of his land to be used by the Abayudaya in perpetuity. Sizomu, as the current spiritual leader, has legal control over the group’s assets.
Many of the Abayudaya, including Sizomu and Yonadav, were born into families practicing Judaism and consider it their duty to raise their children within the Jewish tradition.
Unlike fundamentalist Christian groups that seek out converts across Uganda, the Abayudaya practice Conservative Judaism with no proselytizing. Converts have to go through a rigorous process, and so far this year none has joined.
Jacob Mulabi, 18, a yarmulke-wearing student who defied his Christian family to convert, said he would have been out of school and hopeless if he had not decided “to be like the Jewish people nearby, my best friends.” His bar mitzvah was in 2014, and he is a scholarship student at an Abayudaya school where Hebrew is taught. The burglar bars on the windows are wrought to resemble the Star of David.
One recent morning, teacher Judith Horowitz of Philadelphia was among a dozen people who gathered inside the main sanctuary for prayers. Later, as the Abayudaya took off their prayer shawls and walked out, Horowitz said it was “the most amazing experience praying with Jews that I’ve ever had in my lifetime.”
Horowitz, a Reform Jew, said she had read about the Abayudaya just as she and a friend from Boston were planning a safari to Uganda. “I had to be here. I had to come.”
The sight of the new synagogue, she said, left her “amazed, thrilled” and “very happy to see that these people felt this faith in Judaism in the same way that I do.”
In March, the Jewish Agency said the Abayudaya were a “recognized” Jewish community in a letter to the leader of Israel’s Conservative movement.
But Israel’s Interior Ministry, which oversees immigration policy and has the authority to formally recognize Jewish communities, has made no determination of the Abayudaya’s religious status because it has never been asked. It described the matter as “complex.”
Although any Jew is eligible for citizenship under Israeli immigration law, Sizomu said emigration is not in their plans.
“It is some kind of assurance,” the rabbi said, talking about recognition by the Jewish Agency. “Assurance that we are now part of the bigger Jewish world, and that is a privilege. Anywhere where there are Jews, I am welcome.”
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.