Recap: Our RA Visits the Ugandan Jewish Community

Blog post written by David Haas

Rabbi Gideon Estes leading mincha services
Rabbi Gideon Estes leading mincha services

Reflection 1: The RA Mission to Uganda Had an Impact

“My life will change as a result of the experiences on this trip” said Rabbi Gideon Estes of Houston, TX.  He was talking about the deep spiritual feeling of leading services at Namutumba Synagogue with a small group of Abayudaya Jews in rural Uganda.  “The practice of Judaism in Uganda reflects a conscious and difficult choice, which is inspiring to see” added Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, RA CEO.

The twenty rabbis and their spouses who were on the first RA-affiliated mission to support approximately 2,000 Jews in Uganda heard many comments like this. Living amidst deep poverty, high unemployment, and poor infrastructure, the practice of Judaism brings this remote community together to accomplish amazing things. 

Reflection 2: Rabbis Experience the Sights of Uganda

​​​​The power of Murcheson Falls
The power of Murcheson Falls

The RA recently partnered with Rabbi Chaim Weiner of London-based Jewish Journeys to visit the remote Jewish Abayudaya people in Uganda. Said Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, RA President: “Our travels took us to a country of incomparable beauty but also desperate needs.”

The beauty was on full display during the first days of the trip. Twenty rabbis and their spouses loaded into 3 vans at Entebbe Airport on December 16th began their trip by crossing the Nile River, trekking for chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest preserve, and climbing to the top of Murchison Falls, the most powerful waterfall in the world.

An early morning safari, for example, provided sighting of elephants, giraffes, antelope, warthogs, hippos, and a host of other animals. Rabbi Pamela Barmash of St. Louis, an avid birder, said she “expected to identify more than 120 different birds in Uganda, more than any other trip” as she marveled at kingfishers, herons, bee-eaters, shrikes, vultures and eagles.

Reflection 3: Rabbis See the Work of the Ugandan Jewish Community

Learning about health care delivery
Learning about health care delivery

The RA tour of Uganda included a visit to several sites supported by the American Jewish community. Led by Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, a member of the Ugandan parliament, the rabbis visited a Jewish healthcare center, elementary school and high school.  They marveled at the resourcefulness of the 2,000 Jews in the Abayudaya community, which is 5 hours’ drive on primarily dirt roads from the nearest large city, the capital of Kampala.

The Abuyadaya-run facilities accept people of all faiths and have developed widespread respect among the 1.26M people living in the eastern region of Uganda. Thanks to the hardworking staff, cases of malaria and infant mortality is down and educational attainment is up, but there is much more to be done. The rabbis contributed some of the most-needed items, such as prenatal vitamins, hand sanitizer and feminine hygiene products.                                                                                                                                               

Reflection 4: Rabbis Celebrate Shabbat with the Ugandan Jewish Community

Rabbi Gershom meets with a family planning conversion outside the synagogue
Rabbi Gershom meets with a family planning conversion outside the synagogue

“The best part of an Abayudaya Shabbat service is the opening prayers” said Rabbi Chaim Weiner, organizer of RA’s Uganda trip.  “The energy and participation of the congregation exceeds anything I’ve experienced in the United States” noted Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg, RA COO.  With drums, guitars and a tambourine, the service kicked off with traditional Jewish prayers adapted to the dancing, singing and musical traditions or central Africa.  The infectious beat drew many of the rabbis to the front of the synagogue where many of the congregants were dancing to the music.

Celebrating three bat mitzvahs, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu invited the visiting rabbis to lead portions of the service and offer their thoughts during the service. The common practices of both American and African Jews led many of the rabbis feel welcome and deeply affected by the service.  Even the children among the 100+ Ugandan Jews at the service knew the prayers in Hebrew, and participated enthusiastically.

Following the service, the community broke into four groups for outdoor Torah study led by the visiting rabbis.  “The questions showed a deep understanding of religious practice, and even for me were difficult to answer” said Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, RA’s Senior Vice President and Global Director of Rabbinic Career Development.  “The people we met are connected to the stories of the Torah in visceral ways.”

Reflection 5: Rabbis Conduct a Bet Din and Conversion

Post-conversion with the rabbis and families
Post-conversion with the rabbis and families

Before the RA tour to meet the Abayudaya Jews in Uganda ended, two of the rabbis on the trip participated in a bet din and several others participated in a conversion service.  As required by conservative Jewish practice, the children of non-Jewish mothers must be formally converted to Judaism by at least two rabbis leading a bet din, followed by ritual purification in a mikveh. Because there is no stand-alone mikveh in Uganda, the running water of Lake Victoria was used immerse the children. 

On the morning of the immersion, the rabbis met in Kampala at Beit Ha'am Marom Uganda, supported by Masorti Olami and in memory of Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu, who died in the hostage rescue operation staged by Israel in Entebbe in July 1976.  This house is a community gathering space for young adult Jewish life in the capital city of Uganda. Following a tour, the rabbis donated two dozen boxes of hard-to-find matza to the members of the house. 

A caravan of rabbis and Abayudaya Jews then drove to the lake for the 20-minute conversion, followed by a joyful group sing of “simen tov u’ mazel tov.” Later that evening, during candle-lighting for the first night of Hanukkah at the rabbis’ hotel, there were hugs all around as the rabbis recounted the depth of spirituality they felt during the day.

Reflection 6: Help Us and Join Us

The poverty of Ugandan children
The poverty of Ugandan children

The rabbis participating in the RA tour to meet the Jewish Abayudaya people in Ugandan was life-changing for participants. While the beauty of the country and the resilience of the Jewish community stood out, there was deep poverty everywhere we traveled. Reported unemployment among the Abayudaya is 95% and loans for starting new businesses have interest rates as high as 30% per year. 

The Abayudaya love their country and their community, and work hard to improve conditions for members of all faiths.  But the need is great and the resources available are limited. Led by Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, RA CEO, and Rabbi Chaim Weiner, trip organizer, the rabbis ended their trip with a discussion of the best way to continue supporting the community. There is a need for financial support, which the rabbis will continue through outreach to their congregations and other rabbis. And they felt a need to involve many more members of the RA in Jewish Journeys missions to far-flung Jewish communities, for personal growth and recommitment to Tikkun Olam.

In the coming months, the RA will work on planning for future trips and announce dates with enough advance time for detailed planning. We encourage you to watch for announcements of upcoming trips and seriously consider participating for personal growth, camaraderie and ruah.