Photo Credit:
Nantabo Esther with her son Mugaga Treva

Mugaga Treva, 4, is the son of Nantabo Esther, a member of Namanyonyi Synagogue, one of the Abayudaya Synagogues in Uganda. The boy has a chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, for which he was referred to Mulago National Hospital in Uganda. The treatment costs $750, but Esther Nantabo, a single parent, cannot afford it. A fundraising effort was launched Tuesday night which has begun to attract some donations.

The Abayudaya (“People of Judah”) are a Baganda community in eastern Uganda near the town of Mbale who practice Judaism. They are devout in their practice, keeping Kashrut, and observing Shabbat. The Abayudaya numbers are estimated at 2,000. They live in several villages and are recognized by the Reform and Conservative movements as Jews. Some of them practice strict Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism.

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The group was founded by a Muganda military leader named Semei Kakungulu, who was converted to Christianity by British missionaries around 1880. When the British significantly limited his territory, and refused to recognize him as king—as they had promised, Kakungulu began seeking alternative religious affiliations, and came to believe that the customs and laws described in the Torah were true. In 1919, Kakungulu faced great resistance and was eventually ostracized when he insisted on circumcising his flock. He circumcised his sons and himself and declared that his community was Jewish. He then fled to the foot of Mt. Elgon and settled in a place called Gangama where he started a separatist sect known as Kibina Kya Bayudaya Absesiga Katonda (the Community of Jews who trust in the Lord). The British, infuriated by his move, severed all ties with him and his followers.

In 1920 a European Jew named Yosef arrived and taught the isolated community about the Jewish calendar and the Jewish holidays: Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succot. Yosef stayed for about six months, and educated the Abayudaya on Kashrut and Shabbat. Yosef convinced Semei Kakungulu to establish a kind of yeshiva, to pass on his teachings.

Kakungulu died in 1928, and was succeeded by Samson Mugombe, one of his disciples. The Abayudaya remained isolated for protection and survived persecution, including by Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues. During the Amin persecutions, some of the Abayudaya converted to either Christianity or Islam. But a core group of some 300 members remained committed to Judaism, worshipping secretly, fearful that they would be discovered by their neighbors and reported to the authorities. This group later named itself She’erit Yisrael — the Remnant of Israel.

In 1962, Israeli Ambassador to Kenya Arye Oded, who at the time was studying at Makerere University, visited the Abayudaya and met Samson Mugombe. This was the first time the Abayudaya had ever met an Israeli and the first Jew they had met since Yosef. Oded conducted many long interviews with Mugombe and other leaders, and later reported on the group in his book “Religion and Politics in Uganda,” as well as in numerous articles.

In his article Shabbes Cholent in Uganda? Rabbi J. Hershy Worch wrote whimsically:

“You should have seen the grin on the faces of the young leaders of the community as they showed their elders the Shabbes-oven I had built into the packed earth floor of my bedroom, a shining smile that went from ear to ear. Eighty years they have waited for my cholent, can you imagine, the first hot food on a Shabbes morning for 80 years! Prometheus had no such thrill. Perhaps Moses, watching the Israelites licking their fingers over Manna in the wilderness may have had such naches, maybe.

“Most people know nothing about cholent, and those who do probably consider it no more than an odd quirk in the Jewish diet, something akin to gefilte-fish or latkes.

“To a hushed audience I explained the significance of the food they were eating. How Rabbinical Judaism, the Halacha, the Talmud well nigh demands hot food on Shabbes morning. This is how we Orthodox Jews may be distinguished from Karaites, Samaritans and other fundamentalists who rejected the Oral Torah. The hushed silence broke into a thunderous applause.”

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