Uganda’s Abayudaya: recent additions to the Jewish family

Shoshanna Nambi

Unlike the Jews of Ethiopia and the Lemba of Zimbabwe, the Abayudaya are fairly recent additions to the worldwide Jewish family.

Numbering about 2,000 people scattered throughout rural communities in eastern Uganda, the Abayudaya trace their heritage back about 100 years, when ancestors of the current population adopted Judaism as their faith. 

On Oct. 26, one of the community’s young activists, Shoshanna Nambi, will visit Congregation Darchei Noam in Toronto as part of a month-long North American speaking tour sponsored by Kulanu, a U.S.-based organization that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities throughout the world.

She will discuss the role of women in the Abayudaya community, present a slideshow of photographs, and sing local tunes in Luganda, the predominant language of Uganda, and in Hebrew.

In an email interview from her home in Uganda, Nambi said the Abayudaya are observant Jews. Many have been converted under Conservative rabbinic auspices.

“The Abayudaya are shomrei Shabbat and shomrei Torah,” she stated.

Worshipping in six synagogues, the Abayudaya “keep and celebrate all the Jewish holidays. Right now, every home has a built sukkah with their families. We do celebrate them just like all the Jews in the world. We have composed tunes to the Hebrew songs and psalms in Luganda.”

“Women in the community are still responsible for keeping the homes Jewish and kosher and preparing for the Jewish holidays,” she stated. “They also have day jobs. Some of them are teachers and some run their own small businesses. Some make and sell kippot and jewelry. We also have a wonderful rabbi who encourages men to also take part and help women at home.”

The community’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, received rabbinic ordination after studying at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

 “We also have an Orthodox community and some of them have [received] an Orthodox conversion. But that is not the case with most of the Abayudaya,” Nambi said.

The Abayudaya are not the only black Jews of Africa. Wikipedia reported that when Rabbi Sizomu held a conversion ceremony in 2008, the Abayudaya were joined by  people from Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. 

Nambi said that the Igbo Jews of Nigeria claim [to be] part of Israel. The Lemba also claim to have been part of Israel although they are just returning to Judaism.

The Abayudaya, which translates as “People of Judah” in the Lugandan language, faced persecution in the 1970s under the regime of former strongman Idi Amin.

“During Idi Amin a lot of people converted to other faiths in fear of their lives and the number of Abayudaya decreased greatly,” she said. “Idi Amin only allowed Christians and Muslims but greatly favoured the Muslims because he was a Muslim.”

Today, things have changed. “It was harder to live with the Christian and Muslim neighbours but now they are accepting because we share our two Jewish communities’ schools with all the Muslim and Christian children. We do work together. Right now I would say it’s harder to get kosher wine and meat than [to live] with our neighbours.”

Nambi said the Abayudaya are largely Zionist.

“Israel is very important to the Abayudaya community. It’s part of every Jewish person’s heritage and pride. We pray for its peace in our services and in our two Jewish schools the students learn about Israel and the Holocaust and the stories of Jews in Spain among others.”

Nambi said she wasn’t sure if she would ever move to Israel, “but I know for sure that I, just like the other community members, want to go and visit Israel. But we are not yet recognized by the rabbinic authority as Jews mainly because we didn’t have an Orthodox conversion.”

Nambi, 26, is one of the first Abayudaya women to graduate from university and has worked as a youth leader in the community. She has worked with RAIN-UGANDA, an organization that addresses the community’s health needs. Part of her task is to serves as an HIV counsellor and as RAIN’s accountant.

 “I have a bachelor’s degree in business administration and I’m so lucky because it is not so common for women in the Abayudaya and also the whole country, especially if you grew up in the rural places.”

 “I’m very grateful for Kulanu and Jeffery Summit and others who have worked tirelessly to ensure that young women and even men in my community go to school and even to university,” she said.

“Kulanu has been part of the community since 1995. They have helped children go to school, sent Torahs, sent Jewish books, worked with the women to empower them economically etc.

“Jeffery Summit and his group helps to raise money for all the students to go to university, both boys and girls.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit is the Neubauer executive director of Tufts Hillel at Tufts University, where he also serves as research professor in the department of music and as the university’s Jewish chaplain.

He is co-author with photojournalist Richard Sobol of Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, and he has also recorded, compiled and annotated a Grammy-nominated CD called, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda.

Nambi’s North American trip is also aimed at raising money. 

“This is one of [Kulanu’s] ways of fundraising to help schools and other projects in Abayudaya and other Jewish communities in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, El Salvador and other communities,” she stated.