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UGANDAN JEWS COME HOME

Four Conservative rabbis from the United States and one from Israel joined the community´s spiritual leader, Gershom Sizomu, in supervising the conversion of most of Uganda´s 600 Jews, a several-day affair. Sizomu, who recently returned to Uganda from a semester of rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College in New York, the Reform movement´s theological seminary, is thrilled that the 83-year-old Jewish community has converted according to halachah, or Jewish law The community lives on the outskirts of Mbale, the third largest city in Uganda. After several intense days, two-thirds of the Abayudaya — some 400 people in all — were converted. Most of those who chose not to undergo the conversion cited sickness or travel complications The males of the community had been circumcised at birth, yet they agreed to undergo "a hatafat dam brit," a symbolic procedure to extract a droplet of blood from the penis. 

The Jews of Uganda trace their roots to Semei Kakungulu, the local agent of the British who was also a missionary converting the people of Mbale to Christianity. Kakungulu favored the Hebrew bible, and spread its teachings instead of the Christian one. The British fired Kakungulu in 1917. Around that time, he circumcised himself — when almost 50 years old — along with his two grown sons and the 3,000 men of the community. Two years later, the city began referring to the community — pejoratively — as Abayudaya when members began practicing the Orthodox Judaism they maintain to this day. After Kakungulu´s death in 1928, many members left the Abayudaya.

Sizomu´s grandfather held together what was left of the community from 1936 to 1992. During that period, the community experienced both a blessing and a curse: In 1962 Israel opened an embassy in Uganda, bringing clothing to the country´s 1,000 remaining Jews and prayer books to their 36 village synagogues, but in 1971 Idi Amin came to power, banning Jewish practice and ordering Jews to convert to Christianity or Islam. Amin took 32 synagogues for public use and shut the Israeli embassy, which never reopened. The countries renewed diplomatic ties in 1994, but Uganda today is served by the Israeli ambassador in Kenya.

Although Sizomu was too young to suffer from Amin´s repression, he remembers his father being tortured for building a sukkah, the fatal beatings of community members who collected remnants of a synagogue roof that had blown away in a storm and the caning of older brothers and sisters who refused to weed crops in the school gardens on Saturdays. Amin was overthrown in 1979 — two days before Passover, Sizomu recalls. "It was a real celebration of freedom a practical Pesach," he said. "Whenever it´s Pesach, we remember that wonderful time in 1979," when they felt like the Jews freed from Egyptian bondage.

About fifteen years later, an American organization called Kulanu — Hebrew for "all of us" — that aids lost and dispersed Jewish communities learned about Abayudaya, and has been working with the community since. Kulanu established a scholarship fund to help the community´s 150 children attend primary and secondary school, and coordinated the mass conversion. At the community´s request, Kulanu initially wanted Orthodox rabbis to perform the conversion. They declined, saying Mbale didn´t have enough of an Orthodox infrastructure — butchers, day schools and the like — to sustain an Orthodox lifestyle.

Now, after his experience at the Hebrew Union College, Sizomu plans to reshape his community´s brand of Judaism. The different kinds of Judaism he found in the United States are good for preserving the Jewish people from assimilation, he said. He hopes to develop in Uganda a "Reconstruvodox" Judaism — a mixture of Orthodoxy and Reconstructionism — to allow women more influence, including the opportunity to become religious leaders.

In addition to the recent conversion, Sizomu´s brother, Joab Jonadav "J.J." Keki, recently became the sub-county chairman over 32 villages and more than 25,000 people. That gives him control over police and military forces — and makes him the first Jew in Uganda to win political office. Also on Tuesday, the day they completed the conversions, the visiting rabbis officiated at Sizomu´s wedding.

"It´s terrific, and I feel honored to be part of this," said one of the officiating Rabbis, Howard Gorin of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, Maryland. Gorin said he is "incredibly impressed that people in the middle of Third World poverty still maintain their Judaism to the extent that they do." Maybe that´s what Karen Primack, a Kulanu staffer, meant when she praised the "Ugandan miracle."

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