On the last Saturday of February, many congregants from the Solel and Lakeside communities gathered together in our sanctuary for a learning session focused on the music and culture from one of the most unique and vibrant Jewish communities in the world today: the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda. For those unable to attend this learning session, I would like to share some information and thoughts from our learning session pertaining to this incredible story of Modern Jewry.
The Abyudaya Jews of Uganda are a group of just over 1,000 Jews living in the landlocked African nation of Uganda. Uganda itself is located in Eastern Africa, within the geological area known as the Nile Valley. The country also borders Lake Victoria, which is distinct for being the planet’s largest body of freshwater. The story of Jewry in Uganda begins around the 1920’s, when an influential political and military leader converted to Judaism. Semei Kakungulu first heard about Jews through the proselytizing efforts of Protestant Christian missionaries brought to the area by British colonialists. While ultimately rejected by Christian doctrine, this cultural experience that sparked in Kakungulu started an intense interest with the Five Books of Moses. After a few years of study, Kakungulu and his close circle of followers underwent circumcision and adopted Jewish practices in 1919. The small group of Jewish converts referred to themselves as the Abayudaya- the Lunganda word for “Judahites” or “Jews.”
Over the next 40 years, the Abayudaya population grew. Through intermittent contact with the outside Jewish world, their knowledge and practice of normative Judaism expanded greatly. Development of the Abayudaya community was aided by the introduction of Hebrew and Jewish literature and educational materials from American and Israeli organizations in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Challenges to the growing community began in the 1970’s, with the rise of infamous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Amin began a period of persecution against the Ugandan Jews that lasted for nearly a decade. By the end of the 1970’s a community that once boasted over 3,000 individuals and 36 synagogues, was reduced to only 5 synagogues and under 300 individuals.
Hope for the Abayudaya came in 1979. The regime of Idi Amin fell one day before the festival of Passover. According to the current spiritual leader, Rabbi Gersham Sizomu, there was great significance ascribed to the timing of Amin’s demise. In Sizomu’s retelling, the persecution of the Abayudaya under Amin was a test of faith. Rabbi Sizomu retells that “as slavery in Egypt prepared our ancestors for receiving the Torah at Sinai, the faithful Abayudaya were delivered from persecution so that they could live by the wisdom of Torah in freedom.”
During the 1980’s and onward, the Abayudaya community saw an amazing resurgence of its community. Since the 1990’s the community has been officially recognized by the global offices of the Reform and Conservative Jewish denominations, and contact with world Jewry has increased dramatically through the internet and globalization. In 2001 one of the Abayudaya’s own was ordained by the American Conservative Movement, making Rabbi Gersham Sizomu the world’s first African-born Rabbi from the Sub-saharan region.
As we all discovered in our learning session last month, the amazing history of the Abayudaya people is told through their music and prayer culture. From the early days of their founder Semei Kakungulu, to the current community led by Rabbi Sizomu, music constitutes an important and unique facet of their culture. During our class we listened to discussed musical examples from each of the chapters of the Abayudaya story. For those interested in learning and hearing more of this beautiful and deeply moving music, please consider the title “Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda” which is available through the Smithsonian Folkways Recording Company.
Also this month we will be introducing a special and beautiful melody of the Abayudaya community within our own Friday Night worship at Solel. On Friday March 9 at 7:30 pm the Congregation Solel Choir will be helping to lead a setting of the prayer Lecha Dodi, composed by Jonadav Keki. Keki is an important musical and religious leader of the Abyudaya, whose musical output forms an important core of the community’s liturgical repertoire. It is a melody full of joy and beauty, a truly perfect compliment to the energy of our Friday night worship at Solel. Hope to see you there!
Cantor Jay O’Brien