by Menucha Chana Levin
In Jewish circles, the country of Uganda is best known as the proposed location for a Jewish state, by Theodor Herzl a century ago, and for the spectacular Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976.
Today, Uganda is the unlikely location of a devoted community of several hundred people who are not yet converted to Judaism, but who have clung to its tenets for nearly 100 years. Unlike other groups who claim to be descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes, these Ugandans simply and wholeheartedly chose Judaism. Though isolated and persecuted, the Abayudaya – the Luganda word for "people of Judah” – practice full Jewish observance and yearn to be part of the Jewish nation.
I first heard about this community several years ago via an email. I was intrigued and started emailing their leader, Ribbi Enosh Keki Mainah. He shared their history and customs, and sent me photos.
The Abayudaya was founded in 1917 by Semei Kakungulu, a warrior and distinguished ruler of one of the eastern provinces of Uganda. After studying and meditating on the Bible, he developed a lifestyle mixture of Judaism and Christianity. He later discarded the Christian elements after studying the verses in Isaiah 56:1-8 promising special blessing for converts who faithfully observe the mitzvot.
In 1919, Kakungulu started a sect known as Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda ("the Community of Jews who Trust in God"). With great dedication to his new faith, Kakungulu and his followers underwent circumcision – something very foreign to that culture. He also composed a 90-page book of laws based on the Torah – including observance of Shabbat and the laws of family purity – that were to govern the community. Soon after, in 1920, a European Jew named Yosef arrived and during his six-month stay taught them about the Jewish holidays and kashrut.
Inspired by Yosef's teachings, Semei Kakungulu realized the need to establish a yeshiva school for strengthening and transmitting Jewish tradition. Unfortunately, as those dreams were starting to become reality, Kakungulu became ill and died in 1928. Though many of his plans died with him, he had already laid a foundation for the community by training future leaders.
One of Kakungulu’s dedicated followers, Reb Samson, took over and instituted a law which guaranteed the survival of this brave little community for several generations. Starting with his own daughters, Reb Samson insisted that members of Abayudaya marry only within “the tribe.” Without this ban on intermarriage, the Abayudaya community would surely not exist today. Further, Reb Samson trained teachers to lead other synagogues in Uganda, another key to maintaining continuity.
In the 1960s, Reb Samson contacted the Israeli embassy in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He hoped that some of the Abayudaya would be granted permission to go to Israel, to study Torah, convert, and train to become rabbis. However, before those plans could reach fruition, the dictator Idi Amin captured Uganda in a coup d'etat. This brutal regime, lasting from 1971 to 1979, introduced extremely harsh policies. Amin declared a ban on Abayudaya religious practices: all synagogues were closed and Jewish books were forbidden. His intent was to make life so difficult that the would-be Jews would instead embrace Islam or Christianity.
The unfortunate result was that 95% of the Abayudaya did submit to Christianity or Islam, ending all of Reb Samson's hopeful programs and nearly obliterating the community. Those who remained loyal concealed themselves in bushes, caves or their banana plantations, engaging in “illegal prayers” late at night.
From a peak membership of 3,000, only 150 Abayudaya clung to their beliefs. At that point, the group adopted the name, Kahal Kadosh She'erit Yisrael – “the Holy Community of Jewish Remnants.”
Finally, after eight terror-filled years in which 300,000 Ugandans were brutally murdered, Idi Amin was overthrown and Lt. Gen. Museveni came to power. The new president immediately declared freedom of worship in Uganda, which inspired the Abayudaya youth to revitalize their community.
A farming youth settlement, modeled after a kibbutz, was started at Nabugoye Hill. Parents sent their children there. During the day, the children attended schools six kilometers away for secular studies. At night, they studied Judaism and Hebrew by the light of the moon. The youth village thrived; they built the Moses Synagogue and established a self-sustaining farm.
Despite the optimism, the village was subject to anti-Semitic attacks. In 1989 during the holiday of Sukkot, Abayudaya boys asleep in their sukkah were ambushed by 11 gunmen. The gunmen interrogated the terrified youths, slapping and accusing them of hiding a wanted man. After several fearful hours in prison, the boys were finally released.
The home-grown food supply was also threatened. Local officials often stole the vegetables and fruit, deliberately timing their raids for Shabbat when the youths were praying. As a result, food had to be obtained from elsewhere, and eventually the village became too expensive to maintain. By 1991, the majority of Abayudaya children had left Nabugoye Hill, their hopes for a youth village sadly abandoned.
Today, the main Abayudaya community of 150 members resides in the village of Putti in the Pallisa district. A few hundred more are scattered in four other locations. They are subsistence farmers and also engage in brick-making and producing basic Judaica such as kippahs and challah covers. Their houses are small, grass-thatched huts. Yet in one respect these huts are different from other African homes: mezuzot are attached to the doorposts, donated by a man named Simon den Hollander who once visited.
The Abayudaya pray three times a day, with the men wearing tallit and tefillin every morning. The children are taught to say "Modeh Ani” and "Shema Yisrael." Married women go to the mikveh. They light Shabbat candles, make Kiddush and avoid any forbidden activities such as traveling and lighting a fire.
The Abayudaya observe kashrut and did not eat meat until two visiting shochtim from Israel taught them to perform ritual slaughter. Congregants remove their shoes before entering the synagogue, a custom practiced by Jews in biblical times. Lifecycle events, too, conform to Jewish tradition: male children undergo brit milah, and a “chevra kadisha” is responsible for burial ceremonies.
The Abayudaya have gained acclaim for their original music, which combines distinct African rhythms with Hebrew Psalms and prayers. Their religious-themed album, entitled "Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish people of Uganda," was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005.
This faithful little community, like many in Africa, lives in terrible poverty unimaginable in the Western world. They know that education is the key to the future, and have put out an appeal for Hebrew instructional textbooks and CDs, as well as English textbooks in all subjects.
Though not yet Jewish, the Abayudaya’s greatest dream is for a complete halachic conversion, to become true “members of the tribe.” A few Abayudaya visited South Africa, prompting one rabbi to write:
"I was impressed with their story and more so with their sincerity. They are clearly not of Jewish descent nor claim to be. I arranged with them to meet with the Beth Din, but it was just a preliminary meeting and no formal process of conversion has been instituted. I do hope they find a sympathetic halachic ear as I have not met people with such devotion to Judaism."
Their spiritual leader, Enosh Keki Mainah, told me of his fervent prayer: “"We yearn to go to Eretz Yisrael - the home of the Jewish people. God will redeem us soon and gather in our dispersed ones from the four corners of the earth."
For more information, contact:
Enosh Keki Mainah, c/o Kahal Kadosh She’erit Yisrael
POB 53, Mbale, Uganda