One rabbi’s African ad­ven­ture • By SHIMSHON HAKOHEN NADEL

A life-chang­ing visit to a Jewish com­mu­nity in east­ern Uganda

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • Text and pho­tos: SHIMSHON HAKOHEN NADEL Those in­ter­ested in help­ing to sup­port the com­mu­nity should con­tact the Putti Vil­lage As­sis­tance Or­ga­ni­za­tion, www.put­tivil­lage.org The writer lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof ’

Nasenyi is a small, ru­ral vil­lage out­side the city of Mbale in east­ern Uganda, not far from the Kenyan bor­der. There is no elec­tric­ity, run­ning wa­ter, sew­ers or re­ally any in­fra­struc­ture, just fields, dirt roads and sim­ple, one-room homes made from brick or mud with thatched roofs. Calves, goats and chick­ens roam the land­scape, as do bare­footed chil­dren car­ry­ing jer­ri­cans filled with wa­ter drawn from the well. In the air is a still­ness, a calm, a sim­ple beauty.

To some Western­ers, the vil­lage and its res­i­dents might ap­pear to be lack­ing, but the peo­ple who live here are some of the hap­pi­est, most con­tent peo­ple I have ever met. You can see it on their faces and in their eyes.

Nasenyi is home to Ka­hal Ka­dosh She’erit Yis­rael, an Or­tho­dox Jewish com­mu­nity of ap­prox­i­mately 250 souls. Ear­lier this month, I had the good for­tune to spend a week with the com­mu­nity. I was in­vited to teach To­rah and speak about Is­rael, but I ended up learn­ing much more than I could ever teach.

THE JOUR­NEY of Uganda’s Jews to Ju­daism be­gan 100 years ago. Se­mei Kakun­gulu (1869-1928), a charis­matic tribal leader, war­lord and states­man, was con­verted to Chris­tian­ity by Bri­tish mis­sion­ar­ies and given an area in east­ern Uganda to gov­ern and es­tab­lish Bri­tish rule. Af­ter study­ing the Bible, he found the truth in the Five Books of Moses. Ac­cord­ing to one tra­di­tion, he may also have learned about Ju­daism from a Jewish trav­eler do­ing busi­ness in Uganda. With time, Kakun­gulu be­came dis­il­lu­sioned with both the Bri­tish and their re­li­gion. In 1919, in an act of both po­lit­i­cal and spir­i­tual re­bel­lion, he con­verted him­self, his fam­ily and his tribe to Ju­daism, found­ing the Abayu­daya (Chil­dren of Ju­dah) in Uganda.

A cen­tury later, their de­scen­dants, num­ber­ing around 2,500, are still prac­tic­ing Ju­daism and liv­ing in eight vil­lages out­side of Mbale. To­day the com­mu­nity boasts sev­eral Jewish pri­mary schools and a Jewish high school, named for Kakun­gulu.

Most of the Abayu­daya un­der­went a Con­ser­va­tive con­ver­sion be­tween 2002 and 2011.

In 2016, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, to­gether with a group of rab­bis from Is­rael, con­vened an Or­tho­dox beit din and Ka­hal Ka­dosh She’erit Yis­rael con­verted to Or­tho­dox Ju­daism. The com­mu­nity re­cently moved from the vil­lage of Putti to nearby Nasenyi, where they hosted me.

I first learned about the Abayu­daya al­most 20 years ago. An as­pir­ing mu­si­cian and am­a­teur eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist in­ter­ested in the roots of Jewish folk mu­sic, I stum­bled on some of their record­ings. (Later, a CD of their mu­sic re­leased in 2003 would be nom­i­nated for Best Tra­di­tional World Mu­sic Al­bum at the 47th Grammy Awards.) To my ears their mu­sic was orig­i­nal and ex­otic, yet fa­mil­iar: Jewish texts and prayers set to East African mu­si­cal mo­tifs, har­monies and rhythms. I fell in love, and I be­gan to re­search the com­mu­nity’s fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory.

Last year, Moshe, a stu­dent of mine orig­i­nally from Uganda cur­rently liv­ing with his fam­ily in New Jersey, came to Jerusalem to study in yeshiva. I sur­prised him with my knowl­edge of his com­mu­nity’s his­tory and its mu­sic. He con­nected me with mem­bers of Ka­hal Ka­dosh She’erit Yis­rael, and they in­vited me to spend time in their com­mu­nity.

THE TREK to Nasenyi was not easy, but it was worth it. It in­volved doc­tor vis­its, im­mu­niza­tions, an­ti­malar-

ials, flights through Africa, and the long, seven-hour drive through the Ugan­dan coun­try­side from En­tebbe to Mbale.

Leav­ing En­tebbe Air­port, we passed the old ter­mi­nal, where one of Is­rael’s bold­est op­er­a­tions on for­eign soil took place – the res­cue by IDF com­man­dos of hostages af­ter a hijacking in 1976. Signs along the road­way warn driv­ers that this site is pro­tected by Uganda’s Spe­cial Forces Com­mand and pho­tog­ra­phy is strictly pro­hib­ited. My driver warned me that if we stopped, we could be de­tained and my cam­era con­fis­cated – or worse. (Hav­ing spent part of the pre­vi­ous day vis­it­ing a Jewish in­mate in an Ethiopian prison, I had no de­sire to see the in­side of a Ugan­dan prison.)

See­ing the old ter­mi­nal was emo­tional. Ever since I was a child, I have been cap­ti­vated by the courage, hero­ism and sheer bril­liance of Op­er­a­tion Thun­der­bolt/ Jonathan. It is a story that is seared into our col­lec­tive mem­ory as Jews, and res­onates with any­one who be­lieves in Is­rael’s right to de­fend it­self and pro­tect its cit­i­zens – even on for­eign soil. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that this mis­sion is the sub­ject of at least six fea­ture films and count­less doc­u­men­taries.

As we passed the old ter­mi­nal, I said a lit­tle prayer for Yoni Ne­tanyahu, brother of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, who made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice, giv­ing his life in or­der to save Jewish lives while lead­ing this dar­ing op­er­a­tion.

The old ter­mi­nal also serves as a re­minder of Idi Amin and his cruel reign over Uganda. Un­der his regime, Ju­daism was out­lawed and syn­a­gogues de­stroyed. At the time, the Abayu­daya went un­der­ground and prac­ticed their re­li­gion in se­cret. This is a com­mu­nity that has strug­gled and sac­ri­ficed to pre­serve its con­nec­tion to Ju­daism.

In Kam­pala, we met with mem­bers of Marom, a Jewish stu­dent group that ser­vices the needs of the mem­bers of the Abayu­daya liv­ing and study­ing in the coun­try’s cap­i­tal. We also stopped at Chabad (yes, there is even a Chabad in Uganda!), where Rabbi Moshe Raskin and his wife, Yocheved, nour­ish the hun­gry bod­ies and souls of Is­raeli back­pack­ers, tourists and busi­ness­peo­ple pass­ing through.

In Jinja, we crossed over the Nile River. Hav­ing al­ways as­so­ci­ated the Nile with bib­li­cal Egypt, I was sur­prised to learn that one of its main trib­u­taries, the White Nile, orig­i­nates in Uganda, flow­ing north.

Fi­nally, we ar­rived in Nasenyi. I spent time get­ting to know the mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, and was im­pressed by the syn­a­gogue’s lead­er­ship and or­ga­ni­za­tion, de­spite not hav­ing a rabbi. We prayed to­gether, sang to­gether and stud­ied to­gether. Their week­day prayers would put most syn­a­gogues to shame. While most of us rush through Pe­sukei D’Zimra, the verses of song and praise to God which be­gin our daily morn­ing prayers, Ka­hal Ka­dosh She’erit Yis­rael ac­tu­ally sings them ev­ery sin­gle day!

I gave classes, teach­ing about Shab­bat, prayer and Is­rael, and was in­spired by the com­mu­nity mem­bers’ pas­sion. They hung on ev­ery word and drank it up with thirst. This com­mu­nity has a deep love for the To­rah of Is­rael, the peo­ple of Is­rael, and the Land of Is­rael.

I taught and sang with the chil­dren of the com­mu­nity, whose bright smiles are a bright hope for the fu­ture. I vis­ited the Hadas­sah Pri­mary School, where stu­dents taught me some of their songs, and I taught them some of my own. The chil­dren ap­pre­ci­ated the Is­raeli snack foods like Bamba and Bissli and the choco­late wafers I brought with me. Teach­ing them to make bless­ings was just a ruse to be able to share with them a taste of Is­rael.

Mem­bers of the com­mu­nity also deeply ap­pre­ci­ated the tefillin, tal­li­tot and Jewish books I brought with me, gifts from mem­bers of my syn­a­gogue in Jerusalem. I ex­plained that the tefillin and tal­li­tot rep­re­sent our deep bond with God and serve as a con­stant re­minder of that in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship. My hope is that they will also serve as a re­minder of the deep bond be­tween our com­mu­ni­ties.

Hav­ing re­cently moved from Putti to Nasenyi, Ka­hal Ka­dosh She’erit Yis­rael prays in a makeshift syn­a­gogue and has plans to build a per­ma­nent house of wor­ship. Mem­bers are also un­der­go­ing agri­cul­tural train­ing, so they can de­velop the plot of land next to the syn­a­gogue and sell its pro­duce com­mer­cially to sup­port the com­mu­nity.

UPON MY re­turn to Is­rael, a story about the Abayu­daya was mak­ing head­lines. A mem­ber of the Con­ser­va­tive Abayu­daya com­mu­nity was de­nied a stu­dent visa to study in Is­rael. The Or­tho­dox com­mu­nity, too, has faced sim­i­lar chal­lenges. A stu­dent of mine from Ka­hal Ka­dosh She’erit Yis­rael was ac­cepted to a Jerusalem yeshiva and granted a full schol­ar­ship, but sadly was un­able to at­tend, as the State of Is­rael did not grant him a visa.

When I met with Ger­shom Si­zomu, rabbi of the Con­ser­va­tive com­mu­nity and mem­ber of Uganda’s par­lia­ment, we dis­cussed the many chal­lenges the Abayu­daya face. It was in­spir­ing to see how the dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties work to­gether in har­mony, to achieve com­mon goals – some­thing many of our Jewish com­mu­ni­ties can learn from.

Fol­low­ing a Birthright trip to Is­rael in Au­gust, the Abayu­daya are get­ting more and more me­dia at­ten­tion, in Is­rael and abroad. Cur­rently, they are look­ing for recog­ni­tion from the State of Is­rael, and seek­ing greater ac­cep­tance in the Jewish world.

In the mean­time, they con­tinue to pray and study and serve God with a pas­sion and a joy that are un­ri­valed.

THE WRITER teaches a class on Jewish law to mem­bers of the com­mu­nity.

UN­DER BLUE skies in the vil­lage of Nasenyi.

JONATHAN LALI, a vil­lage res­i­dent, in front of his par­ents’ home.

PRAY­ING WITH mem­bers of Ka­hal Ka­dosh She’erit Yis­rael.

CHIL­DREN ON their way home from school in Nasenyi.

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