Divrei Torah Blogs

Lech Lecha 5767 — The Jews of Uganda

Aaron_kintu_moses One of the things I most enjoy about my work as a rabbi is hearing the stories people have to tell of their “Jewish Journey.”  I always find it fascinating to hear people, whether converts or born Jews, talk about the ways in which they connect with the Jewish tradition. 

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, tells the beginning of the Jewish people’s journey.  God tells Abraham lech lecha, go, leave, head out.  Leave your country, your home town, your father’s house and go to a place that I will show you.

And Abraham does.   He leaves his home and sets out for parts unknown.  Most people who read the story understand that Abraham is not only going on a physical journey, but he is going on a spiritual journey, a journey that results in his becoming the father of the Jewish people.

One of the things I enjoy about hearing people tell the story of their Jewish journies is that each one is unique.  Everyone has something that represents the start of their faith journey.

If we just read the story in the Torah – leaving aside for the moment the many midrashim, legends and interpretations – the start of Abraham’s journey comes from the outside.  Abraham doesn’t choose to go on a journey – rather God chooses him.  The journey in a sense is imposed on him.  God doesn’t ask – God tells him: Go!

That still happens today.  Some of us get started on a spiritual journey through an external event.  Something can happen in a person’s life which gives them a push out the door.  Not surprisingly, sometimes it’s a tragedy that sends a person on a spiritual journey.  The loss of a loved one, a crisis in a relationship, a health problem, are all external events which can cause a person to decide to seek answers, to seek comfort, to seek God looking for answers.

Another common starting point for people’s Jewish journeys is relationships.  I’ve had many people in my conversion classes who first came to Judaism because they fell in love with a Jew, and the Jewish partner wanted to have a Jewish home.  Some rabbis are reluctant to convert people who are coming to Judaism because they are in a relationship with a Jew – they are afraid that the person has an ulterior motive, and they are not sincere in their quest for faith.  In my experience, such an attitude is completely wrong.  In fact, I find far more commonly that the opposite happens.  Many people who first come to Judaism because a Jewish partner asks them to end up discovering that Judaism really does have the answers to the life questions they bring.  I’ve had more than one conversion student under those circumstances who studied hard, learned a lot, took on an observant lifestyle, keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and so on – while the Jewish partner ends up feeling a little uncomfortable.  I had a student in one of my classes who told me that it was her Jewish partner who introduced her to the delights of shrimp when they were dating…said Jewish partner now being somewhat chagrined when the newly minted Jew bans shrimp from the home freezer…”I wanted you to be Jewish, but not THAT Jewish!”

Coming to Judaism because of a relationship is in fact an ancient model.  Since Abraham was the first Jew, none of the early matriarchs were Jewish before they met their husbands.  Isaac’s wife Rebecca and Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah all became Jewish, became a part of the covenant, when they left their father’s homes and got married to the children of Abraham.  The most celebrated convert in scripture, Ruth, the grandmother of King David, became Jewish because she did not want to part from her late husband’s mother, Naomi.  One of the most moving verses in the Bible is when after the death of her son, Naomi tells her daughter-in-law Ruth to go back to her people and her gods.  Ruth’s response is:   אַל-תִּפְגְּעִי-בִי לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי וֵא-להַיִךְ אֱ-להָי  “And Ruth said, Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God;”  Note that God comes last on the list – Ruth is more focused on joining her mother-in-law and her people.

Of course, for most of us, the starting point in our Jewish journey is the simple luck of the draw of being born to Jewish parents.  In this respect, our Jewish journeys are like the journey of Abraham’s son Isaac.  We may consider Abraham the first Jew, but Isaac is the first person to be born a Jew.  Isaac is the first Jewish male to be circumcised when he was 8 days old.  Isaac is the first person to grow up in a Jewish home.

Once upon a time, being born into a Jewish home was enough to ensure that a person would be a Jew all his or her life.  When Jews were forced to live in shtetl’s and ghettos, when Jews were looked down upon, when Jews were not allowed to work in many trades or professions or to live in certain cities or neighborhoods, there wasn’t a lot of choice.  The world is different today.  No one is forced to be Jewish.  Jews are no longer pariahs no one wants to marry – they are more often viewed as good catches.  Here in America at least, all Jews are “Jews by choice.”  It takes a conscious decision to decide to be Jewish in a country where assimilation is the path of least resistance for many people.

That conscious decision to be Jewish is often the result of a spiritual journey which again brings us back to Abraham.  As presented in the Torah Abraham’s spiritual journey may have been the result of an outside influence, but the Midrash, the legends, teach that Abraham’s journey really started with Abraham seeking God.  The Midrash tells us that Abraham looked at the world around him and came to an intuitive understanding that God must exist – he reasoned that everything has a creator, and the world was no exception.  Another legend says that Abraham’s father, Terach, had a shop where he sold idols.  Having realized that there is one God, Abraham determined to show his father how silly it was to worship idols.  So one night he smashed all the idols save one.  He put an ax in the hand of the one remaining idol.  The next morning when Dad came into the shop he was furious – so asked Abe what was going on, and Abraham explained that it was obvious, the idol with the ax must have smashed up the other idols.  Dad said don’t be ridiculous, an idol can’t do that!  To which Abraham responded “if the idols can’t even defend themselves from attack, isn’t it silly to pray that they will defend you?”

So according to the Midrash, Abraham was on a mission to find God—but when he found God, that was only the start of his spiritual journey, not the end.  For that was when God told him to go out, to leave, to go on journey physical and spiritual that would last the rest of his life.

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, was my Bar Mitzvah parsha.  Given my spiritual journey, which involved many years away from Judaism followed by a few years of getting actively involved in the Jewish community and then going forth into the unknown – quitting my job and going to rabbinical school – I’ve always really related to the story of Abraham and his going off into the unknown.  Yet as I was reflecting on the differe
nt Jewish journeys we see from Abraham, Isaac, and Ruth, I realized that the truth is there is some of each in my journey.  Like Isaac, I was brought up Jewish, but like Ruth it was a relationship—ironically a relationship with someone who at the time was not yet Jewish—which brought me to consider Judaism as an adult.  Once I took the first step of finding God—which for me was finding a Jewish concept of God that made sense for me—that wasn’t the end, but it was rather the real beginning of my spiritual journey.

I know many of you have similar stories to tell, how you may have grown up in a Jewish home, but your real spiritual journey didn’t start until sometime much later, when something inside you led you to start learning, to start searching for meaning.  And there are others of you who had the blessing of being like Isaac your whole life, having the blessing of knowing your place in the covenant and having a relationship with God your whole life – surely the mark of a successful Jewish upbringing.

Of all the different Jewish stories and journeys I’m familiar with, one of the most amazing is the story of the Abuyadaya Jews of Uganda

The Abuyadaya are not one of the lost tribes of Israel.  They make no claim to an ancient lineage dating back to the time of the first exile.  They are one of the newer Jewish communities in the world.  Their story, however, has many similarities to the story of Abraham which we read this morning.

Like Abraham, the Abuyadaya’s Jewish journey started with an outside influence.  Back in the 1880s, Christian missionaries were working their way through Africa, and in eastern Uganda they converted a tribe headed by Semei Kakungulu.  Over time however, the chief felt more and more drawn to the teachings in what the Christians called the “Old Testament.”  It resonated with his soul.  He wanted to follow its rules.  He wanted to follow all the rules of Moses, including circumcision.  The Christian leaders in the area told him no, he should not, because the Jews who follow those laws do not believe in Jesus Christ as savior.  He responded “If this was the case then from this day I am a Jew.”  And he tore his Bible in half and removed the New Testament and tried to live the way he thought a Jew would live.

In 1922 Kukangulu wrote a book of rules and prayers for his followers in Luganda, the local language.  In his book he responded to those who claimed that the era of the Sabbath had passed.  He wrote “To them I say, open Genesis chapter 2 where it says, “And on the seventh day God ended his work which He had made, and he rested on the seventh day from his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because that day he had rested from all his work which God created and made. Here God appointed the day of rest on the seventh day, Saturday, and one must not change it.”

Amazing!  Study the Bible, and you become a Jew!  What a concept!

The Abuyadaya have had an amazing journey over the last 100 years.  They once numbered as many as 3,000, but were persecuted almost out of existence by Idi Amin.  Many in the community of 750 observant Jews in rural Uganda had their Jewish status confirmed by a beit din of Conservative rabbis who visited a few years ago.  One of the Abuyadaya, Gershom Sizomu, is completing his studies for ordination as a Conservative rabbi at my alma mater, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and just finished a year studying in Israel, where his daughter, the first Abayudaya sabra, was born.   

The dedication the Abayudaya have to Judaism is incredibly inspiring.  Here is a people without running water or electricity.  People who struggle to grow yams, beans, papaya and guava to feed themselves and their families.  Even though cooking in this region along the equator without air conditioning is usually done at night, on Friday the Abuyadaya are busy cooking in the middle of the day, getting all their food ready for Shabbat. 

We go to Kroger or Giant Eagle on Thursday to buy our shrink-wrapped kosher chicken for Shabbat.  Our hired staff cleans up our air conditioned synagogue for us, and prepares Shabbat lunch for us.  By contrast, the Abuyadaya slaughter their own chickens and do the kashering themselves.  Volunteers from the community clean up around the synagogue to prepare it for services.  As the sun sets the most amazing rendition of Lech Dodi fills the air, the traditional words set to a haunting melody with an African rhythm and a tight harmony.  On Saturday morning the Abuyadaya gather in their five synagogues.  They read Torah from a scroll that was donated by a congregation in Maine.

Last year at Rosh Hashana I shared the story of these remarkable people.  It took longer than I had hoped, but today we have a representative of the Abuyadaya here with us in the synagogue.

Mr. Aaron Kintu Moses (pictured above) is the headmaster of the Abayudaya Primary School, Director of Education and acting spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jewish Community of Mbale, Uganda.  For those of you who are not going to be busy with Bar Mitzvah celebrations, at 7pm tonight Reb Aaron will present an upbeat, multi-media program celebrating Jewish diversity, telling the story of his people, sharing the latest news about two Uganda schools where  rural Jewish, Muslim and Christian children study together in peace.  He’ll talk about the education and daily life of African Jewish children.  We’ll have kosher, organic, fair-trade coffee grown in a cooperative the community is a part of for sale, as well as Judaica made by the Jews of Uganda. 

There are many different paths to becoming Jewish – the path of Abraham, the spiritual seeker, the path of Isaac born a Jew, the path of Ruth choosing to be part of the Jewish family.  Whichever door one uses, once inside we are all part of K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people.  The Talmud teaches us kol Yisrael aravin zeh b’zeh, all Israel is responsible one another.  The Abuyadaya are not only our fellow Jews—they are our fellow Conservative Jews.  They could have chosen the path of the Reform or the Orthodox but they didn’t.  When they said “where you go, I will go” they threw their lot in with us in the Conservative movement. 

The scale of what they need is so different than the scale of what we need.  We are spending over $4 million to build a synagogue—and that does not include a penny for programs and staffing to do things in that building.

It costs about $10,000 per year per child to educate children at our local day school.   In Uganda, it costs about $100.  Some of the children are orphans, and many are far from home.

At the Abayudaya schools, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students study side-by-side, but only the Jewish students are required to study Hebrew and Judaism.  In a world increasingly divided by religion, what a wonderful model this is.

Once impoverished and looked down on because of their refusal to fit in with the majority cultures and their refusal to work on Shabbat, once illiterate because they wouldn’t send their children to be converted at Christian and Muslim schools, with a little help from the rest of the Jewish world the Abayudaya have now become respected by their neighbors and increasingly influential members of Ugandan society.  Some have gone on to university and even to medical school. 

In addition to the costs of running the school, the Abuyadaya need more space.  For $6,000 they can build a classroom.

Their needs go beyond education and include basic nutrition; in America, childhood obesity is a growing problem.  In Uganda, the children go to school hungry.  The Abayudaya schools feed 400 primary and high school children breakfast every day, but one good meal a day isn’t enough.  $30,000 would feed all of the Abayudaya high school students lunch for a year.

Abayudaya children lack basic health care and clean drinking water;  Last year, Reb Aaron and his wife Naume lost their baby, Hillel, to malaria and dehydration due to the lack of clean water.  $16,000, would dig a clean water well and save Jewish children’s lives.

Reb Aaron is here on a fundraising mission.  Whether or not you can join us for tonight’s program, I hope you’ll consider making a generous donation to support the efforts of this remarkable community to shine a light of Yiddishkeit in a remote corner of the world. 

There are flyers in the lobby with more information.  I urge every one of you – even those of bar and bat mitzvah age – to contribute at least $100 to support the education one Abayudaya student for one year.  My wife Lauri and I are contributing significantly more.

May God help us remember that all Jews are our brothers, whether they live in Toledo or Manhattan or Jerusalem or Mbale, Uganda.  May God strengthen us in our efforts to help our brethren and may we be spiritually enriched and nourished by contact with Jews with different customs and cultures than our own.


Kulanu is an organization that supports Jews in the unlikeliest of places.  Kulanu has no paid staff people or overhead other than postage–every penny donated goes to the communities being supported.  To make a donation to support the Abuyadaya click here.  Note in the comments field that you would like the donation to go to support the Abuyadaya.

The blog-o-sphere does not seem to have really discovered the fascinating topic of Jews in places you’d never think of … one of the few references I found was on Boker Tov Boulder .

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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