A visit with the Jewish community known as the Abayudaya proves to be a spiritually enriching experience.
Not long ago, I traveled from the northern Ugandan city of Gulu — where I work as a freelance journalist — to the central eastern town of Mbale, to spend a Shabbat with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and the Abayudaya.
The Abayudaya is a vibrant Jewish community based in the southeastern part of the African nation. Combining traditional Jewish prayers and practices with African drumming and melodies, the Abayudaya — a Lugandan term for the people of Judah — have made their home in the villages near Mbale for nearly a century when Ugandan military leader Semei Kakungulu founded the community. The community subsequently grew, eventually learning Hebrew prayers and Jewish rituals and practices, and now numbers approximately 2,000.
Rabbi Sizomu, who was ordained by the Conservative movement, was raised in the Abayudaya community and has been its spiritual leader since 1991. His late father and maternal grandfather were also rabbis for the Abayudaya. Rabbi Sizomu is a member of the Ugandan parliament and chief rabbi of Uganda.
As sundown drew near, I helped the rabbi’s niece prepare a Shabbat meal. We chopped onions and vegetables to mix with smoked fish, our hands stained green and our eyes filling with tears. We removed challah loaves from the oven while a song played by the American Jewish musician Matisyahu.
After sunset, community members gathered in the community synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat. They wore knitted kippot and blue-and-white tallitot. A celebrated liturgical musician, Rabbi Sizomu strummed the guitar and sang while children danced in front of the bimah.
The service included traditional Kabbalat Shabbat prayers and was imbued with a spirit and strong focus on social justice issues. In his sermon, Rabbi Sizomu condemned the recent massacre of Muslim worshippers at a mosque in New Zealand and included those who were murdered in the Kaddish prayer.
Afterward, I helped the women in the congregation light Shabbat candles. The combination of familiar prayers and powerful teachings brought tears to my eyes.
When the service concluded, congregants clasped hands and wished each other “Shabbat Shalom.” We walked arm-in-arm to the rabbi’s house for kiddush, where the still-warm challah loaves were sprinkled with salt. For dinner, we feasted on vegetables, mashed green bananas, smoked fish and more challah. The stars shone bright before it came time for the Birkat HaMazon and bedtime.
The next morning, the Abayudaya gathered again for the Torah service. Since it was the anniversaries of seven b’not mitzvah, the women took an active leadership role in the service and read many of the aliyot, or blessings over the Torah. Sons and daughters were called to read from the Torah on the anniversary of their b’nai mitzvah, to ensure that Jewish knowledge is never lost.
Afterward, the community members gathered in the shade of a large tree for Torah study. Young and old were invited to pose questions to Rabbi Sizomu, ranging from laws of kashrut to the Torah reading of the week.
Later in the day, I walked to visit Semei Kakungulu’s grave with Jacob Mukuju, a metalworker and welder whose father is a kosher butcher. We clambered over rocks, reaching high into the foothills below Mount Elgon.
Jacob explained that Jews, Christians and Muslims live side by side in the area. “The community loves us and we love them,” he said.
Still, life was not always easy for the Abayudaya. Ugandan dictator Idi Amin outlawed Judaism during his reign in the 1970s, and practicing the religion was punishable by death. We visited some of Jacob’s relatives who experienced persecution during the Amin regime. As we walked, Jacob pointed out caves where Jews prayed in secrecy during that period.
Jacob and I were welcomed into the home of Pinhas and Athalia Musanze. They noted that Amin’s reign ended during Passover. “It is the same story,” said Pinhas.
But rather than looking back on tragedies of the past, Rabbi Sizomu emphasizes a focus on fellowship and tolerance.
“In 2017, we had a general food shortage which affected both our community and our neighbors,” he said. “We thought that this is a moment of sharing and affirming and strengthening our peace, so we gave out food, almost for a whole month. People would come, line up and take food. You don’t even look at the face to know who is getting it, as long as it is a human being.”
Rachel Wanyenya is a Christian who lives among the Abayudaya, preparing meals and cleaning the community’s guesthouse. She has memorized the kosher dietary laws and keeps Shabbat with the community.
“I have learned that when you use saucepans which use meat, you do not use milk,” said Rachel Wanyenya, who also knits kippot and challah covers.
Tired and dusty after our walk, Jacob and I returned to Rabbi Sizomu’s home for Havdalah. Women from the community braided my hair while we waited for three stars to appear in the sky to traditionally mark the end of Shabbat. We lit braided candles, blessed wine and smelled cloves to grasp the sweetness of Shabbat. Afterward, there were cries of “Shavua Tov!” and cups of honeyed tea to share.
In June, the community will host a 100-year celebration, drawing guests from the United States and Ugandan members of parliament. As the Abayudaya flourish, Rabbi Sizomu is eager to share the spirit of his community with others.
“As a Jewish community, isolated in the heart of Africa … we feel very good each time we receive guests from abroad,” he said. “We want to call upon our brothers and sisters to keep coming so that together we can celebrate the joy of Judaism.”
Sophia Neiman is a freelance writer from Baltimore who currently lives in Uganda.