When D’vora Biderman, 22, was asked by her parents what gift she wanted when she graduated NYU School of Dentistry with a degree in Dental Hygiene, she opted for a trip to Uganda. Although Africa is an unlikely destination for an observant young lady who has just completed several years of vigorous study, her parents acquiesced.
In a recent interview with The Jewish Press, D’vora revealed that she had been interested in global outreach for some time, but was unable to find a program that offered kosher food and was shomer Shabbat.
After hours of online research, the seed of D’vora’s passion finally took root. She came across Dr. David Abramowitz, an observant dentist from South Carolina, who had been heading an excursion of dentists and medical volunteers to the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda.
D’vora joined the program as the only dental hygienist, but not before she raised enough funds to fill a suitcase with toothpaste, toothbrushes and other dental supplies. The excursion took place last August.
“I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into,” commented D’vora, with a good-natured laugh. “It took us 40 hours to get to our destination. We flew into Entebbe airport and then we drove over six hours to our destination.”
D’vora, a native of Queens, NY, was not expecting the rundown, disheveled neighborhood that would be her home for the next two-and-a-half weeks. The Abayudaya community of approximately 2,000 has settled in eight villages in Eastern Uganda, most of which possess little or no infrastructure.
“They have no electricity or plumbing in their homes, which look like teepees,” she related. “They make their own bricks from mud. There is usually one big room, sometimes two, depending on what each family can make for themselves. Each of the villages have their own shul,” she noted. “But there is only one rabbi of Uganda, Rabbi Gershom Sizumu, whose great-grandfather built the original shul.”
Although their tribal name means “People of Judah,” the Abayudaya community was established at the turn of the twentieth century under the leadership of Semei Kakungulu, who studied the Old Testament. He had himself circumcised and converted to Judaism along with his community.
During the devastating reign of dictator Idi Amin Dada, which ended in 1979, a large part of the Abayudaya community fell apart. Rabbi Simzumu’s efforts helped restore the community.
It didn’t take long for D’vora to fall in love with the Abayudaya people. “This community has almost nothing, but they have so much faith in G-d and Judaism. They stay in shul for four to five hours, singing every word. They have such a strong connection to Judaism.” She went on to explain that they practice Orthodoxy. “When I went to shul, I felt right at home. My Shabbos there was one of the best I ever had.”
Most of the children wear clothes that have been donated. “There are a lot of kids there. You see the older kids taking care of the younger ones.” As far as their education, D’vora notes, “They have a primary school, high school and a boy’s post-high school yeshiva. They learn Swahili, Hebrew and English.”
During her stay, D’vora’s menu consisted mostly of fruit, rice, beans, yams, plantains, lafa bread, coffee, tea and, occasionally, fish.
“They grow their own crops and they trade with each other for food,” she pointed out. “They don’t eat meat often, but when they do, they shecht their own animals. For one Shabbos, all of us chipped in and bought them a goat and a lamb, which they shechted. That fed about 200 people – each received a small piece. They have no refrigerator, so if they shecht an animal, they have to cook it and finish it.” She then added, “They don’t have ovens, so they cook everything on open fires. To cook a meal can take hours.”