Reunited with Our Ancient Faith: Practicing Judaism in Uganda

By Schultz, Kenneth; Meyer, Matthew | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Reunited with Our Ancient Faith: Practicing Judaism in Uganda


Schultz, Kenneth, Meyer, Matthew, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


SEVERAL YEARS AGO MATTHEW MEYER WENT TO TOM Kippur services at Nairobi Hebrew Congregation in Nairobi, Kenya. He sat next to the lone black man in the congregation, made up of about 25 European, American, and Israeli Jews. Meyer asked the young man if he was from Ethiopia. Gershom Sizomu, prepared to explain himself, was equipped with a Ugandan passport with the name "Rabbi Gershom Sizomu" and articles about his community of black Jews, unrelated to the Ethiopians, who daven in mud hut synagogues. While they called themselves Jews and observed laws of the Torah, they neither claimed to be descendants of Abraham nor had they ever been converted. One month later, Meyer visited the community.

The following year I heard about the Abayudaya [1] when the Director of my study abroad program in Kenya informed me of the community's existence. Because of the relatively short distance from the Kenyan border to Mbale, Uganda, I was able to spend three weeks living with congregants. After my first Shabbat on Nabugoye (NAB-uh-GOY-ya) Hill, I remember sitting with Bayudaya elders and feeling confounded by their questions that easily conveyed their eagerness to learn and embrace whatever they could get their hands on to make their Jewish practice more devout. While I had no trouble admitting that I did not have the answers, many seemed to overlook this and continued to bombard me with religious inquiries, such as, "How can we keep our food warm on Shabbat without lighting a match? We do not want to break Jewish law but many of us, mostly the children, get sick from eating cold food." More concerned with the health of the community than their religious observance, I rationalized, "Isn't it better to avoid gett ing sick even if it means breaking the Shabbat rule?" Nobody responded. The community considers breaking the laws of Shabbat, written in the Torah, a capital offense, punishable by God. In fact, they believe that every human act is scrutinized or rewarded through the eyes of God.

When queried about the Holocaust, one member replied, "Jews in Germany might have sinned and therefore God was punishing his people. I am not sure of this because what happened is so bad, but God tests his people. It says so in the Torah." [2] When asked about the miraculous recovery of Israeli hostages at Entebbe airport in 1976, another responded, "Ah, God protects the jewish people. We can only look to God." [3]

A more vivid example they discussed concerned the day an Abayudaya leader, Aaron Kintu Moses, forgot Shabbat about 25 years ago. [4] There was a drought and a famine throughout the region, and, in exchange for some bread, the ten-year-old boy and his siblings Zechariah, Joab, and Miriam delivered mud to make bricks to his neighbor's home. After sunset, the four returned to their home, filthy from their work. Though carrying the mud exhausted the children's energy, Aaron recalled climbing up the hill to his own mud hut home, satisfied and happy. The children clenched the bread; during such a time of dire need, even the youngest children knew the tremendous value of the food. They also knew their father would be pleased for their contribution.

But it was Friday, and they had reached home after the sun had set, after the start of Shabbat. They stepped into their home. Their father looked down at them and said, "Ah, have you forgotten it is Shabbat? If I do not punish you, I know God will, and you are going to die. So if I punish you, I know I am saving you from Shabbat. But I cannot punish you until after Shabbat."

The children did not eat dinner and went straight to bed. The next morning, their father reminded them of their grave sin and their forthcoming punishment as they went for prayers. Miriam and Aaron were the most terrified of the group. They knew from past mistakes that their father would lash each of them four times with a wooden stick. After prayers, the two children hid in the bushes.

"We knew we had to escape," Aaron recalls. …

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