while it is a relatively young jewish community, it employs principles as if they were present at the base of mt. sinai when moses delivered the ten commandments.
the abudaya jewish community in uganda was founded a little over 100 years ago by semei kakungulu, most recent leadership in the community is rabbi gershom sizomu. as contact with the western world increased, the community has been provided resources and support to grow their community. this support has been transformative. organization such as kulanu have assisted.
prior to this, the abudaya jewish community had already addressed issues of oppression. one person who was a problem to the community was the late ugandan dictator, idi amin.
thus, the community is mindful and concerned over their treatment as a minority within their nation. thus, as the community received assistance and was able to build out programs such as schools, the abudaya community took an unusual step. as their community included both christians and muslims, they decided to share some of their new resources with them. thus, both christian and muslim children have been able to attend the jewish schools. the schools have also employed non-jewish teachers.
the commandment against coveting is of upmost importance in this story. coveting can be a gateway to bad or inappropriate conduct. thus, by forward thinking, sharing one’s good fortune, the abudaya may have stemmed off other’s bad feelings and jealousy towards them. rather, they have fostered goodwill and cooperation.
if you would like to read more blog posts, click here.
Semei Kakungulu’s Faith To Judaism
Katonda omu ayinza byona
Kakungulu, bitterly disappointed by the British authorities, willingly cooperated with the Malaki and helped to spread their creed throughout the Eastern Province from his center in Mbale.
Kakungulu began to study and meditate on the Old Testament for long periods. His attitude was stricter than that of the Abamalaki, and he demanded the observance of all Moses Commandments, including the law of circumcision. The Abamalaki opposed this, claiming that Jews did not believe in the New Testament and Jesus Christ. Kakungulu replied: If this was the case, then from this day I am a Jew (Omuyudaya) This was in 1919. Kakungulu was circumcised, and he circumcised his first-born son (Yuda). He circumcised his second son on eight days of birth and called him Nimrod (Nimulodi). He subsequently circumcised all his sons and urged his supporters and members of his family to observe this rite. Many of them did so. Kakungulu showed his devotion by calling his children Biblical names such as: Yuda, Israel, Nimrod, Abraham, Jonah, and Miriam.
Kakungulu’s circumcision of himself and his sons demanded that his followers observe this practice. The Ganda abhorred and forbade any mutilation of the body and regarded circumcision as a violation of their traditional law. (The Baganda are the only Bantu tribe who do not mutilate their persons.)
Kakungulu compiled a special book of rules and prayers in Luganda for the members of his community. The book, which was printed in 1922, is called Ebigambo ebiva mukitabo ekitukuvu (Quotations from the holy book). The contents of the book show clearly how far Kakungulu had moved away from Christianity to Judaism. The book, ninety pages long, is a guide to the Jewish religion and a handbook for the teachers of the community. In it, Kakungulu continually demanded complete faith in the Old Testament and all its commandments. It is true, Kakungulu said, some claims that the Old Testament was old fashioned and anachronistic, but he himself did not believe this. They say, Kakungulu pointed out, that the era of Sabbath has passed. To them I say, Open Genesis 2:2-4 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. Look also in the Book of Exodus 20:8-10, where it says in the Ten Commandments, Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy…God himself sanctified this day and commanded that it should be observed and how can we violate this commandment about the Sabbath? This is just one example which emphasizes how Bible study drew Kakungulu away from Christianity and how he regarded the Old Testament as the basis of his religion. In 1923 he built a small temple for himself and his followers near his house in Pangama.
Some Christian leaders tried to influence Kakungulu to return to Christianity and, in his book, there is a letter from a Christian minister, L.M. Bingamu, sent from England on 15 July 1921. The Englishman wrote that he had heard of Kakungulu’s search for the true road to God and stressed that there is no true road other than brought by Jesus. Kakungulu replied that the right way was that of the Jews, quoting many verses from the Old Testament to prove this, including Zachariah 8:23: Thus, says the Lord of hosts: In those days it shall come to pass that ten men shall take hold out of the languages of the nation, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying we will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you. Kakungulu concluded that this was clear evidence that one must join Jews. Kakungulu appointed teachers of the law, Abawereza, from his own mission school near his house. To be a confirmed Muwereza, one was to be able to read and write the Luganda language; he was to say the words found in Det. 32:1-44 in sweet melody at heart. Some of his Abawereza teachers of the law are mentioned below:
|Yekoyasi Kaweke||Zakayo Balozi|
|Zakayo Mumbya||Isaac Kizito|
|Zakayo Luwandi||Yokana Naide|
|Samson Mugombe||Yakobo Were|
|Yokana Keki (changed his name later to Jonadab)||Yakobo Kasakya|
|Yokana Mulefu||Yakobo Bbosa|
|Eria Musamba||Mubale Petero|
|Kezekia Sajjabi||Daudi Kamomba|
|Saulo Kutakulimuki||Yokana Wetege|
Following the meeting with Joseph great changes took place in the religious life of the Abayudaya: they ceased to believe in the New Testament and Jesus Christ. To prevent any confusion, Kakungulu instructed them not to use the word Mukama, meaning Lord, which to him designated Jesus Christ and instead ordered the use of the word Yakuwa, meaning God. They kept the Sabbath strictly and transgressors were severely punished; they prepared their Sabbath food on Fridays; they began to work on Sundays; they deleted all the Christian prayers from their book Kakungulu began to compile a new book devoid of quotations from the New Testament, but he died before he was able to publish it. Joseph had taught them the blessings and the customary Jewish prayers. Head-covering was practiced, and Kakungulu began to wear a white Jewish robe which he had seen in Joseph’s possession. The teachers at the school which Kakungulu built for the community wear turbans like those which Kakungulu had seen in pictures of the early Jews circulated by the missionaries. The custom of baptizing children was stopped.
Joseph taught Kakungulu the slaughtering ritual and the Abayudaya ate only meat slaughtered by themselves. The months of the year were called by their Hebrew names and all the festivals and feasts were celebrated. Kakungulu even divorced his wife, whose marriage was not in accordance with Jewish Laws. She was a Protestant and refused to become Jewish. Joseph began to teach Kakungulu and the elders of the community the Hebrew alphabet. None of the elders remember where Joseph came from although some think it was Ethiopia or even Jerusalem. Before Joseph left, he presented Kakungulu with a large Bible written in Hebrew and English. The elders of the community also tell of Kakungulu’s meeting in Kampala at that time with another Jew called Moses, who used to accompany Joseph when teaching Kakungulu.
Kakungulu did not force Judaism on his subordinates, tenants and members of his household, but tried to persuade them of the truth of his religion through explanations and deeds. Kakungulu liked to conduct the prayer service, deliver sermons and explain principles of the Jewish faith. Those of his people who agreed to accept Judaism were granted easier terms at work and more honorable status. Kakungulu gave the converts presents and clothes, paid their taxes and took a paternal interest in them (according to Samson Mugombe who mentioned that this is one of the reasons for conversion).
The elders of the Abayudaya community recall that in 1927 Kakungulu met a third Jew called Isaiah Yari. Isaiah was a foreman during the construction of the Uganda railway in the town of Tororo, which is about 28 miles from Mbale. He approached Kakungulu requesting him to provide laborers. Isaiah treated the Abayudaya well, rested with them on Sabbath and prayed with them. He and his son Solomon met Kakungulu several times and taught him more about Judaism emphasizing that the Jews did not believe in Jesus Christ. According to the leader of the group of Abayudaya laborers, Elia Musamba, Isaiah was transferred to elsewhere after a month in Tororo because he refused to make the Abayudaya work on the Sabbath (Saturday).
Until his death, Kakungulu maintained his oppositions to the use of medicines, believing that the Bible forbade it. He even refused to let his cattle be inoculated. On this issue there were many misunderstandings between Kakungulu and the British administrators, and when the latter inoculated 1200 heads of Kakungulu’s cattle against his wishes, he decided to present these cattle to the Government having been inoculated. Despite his encounters with Jews, who certainly told him that the use of medicines was not against the Law, he did not retract his opposition to doctors and medicines.
Kakungulu died in Mbale on 24 November 1928 by which time, according to the elders, the Abayudaya numbered approximately two thousand.
Kakungulu was survived by four sons: Yuda Makabee (who was apparently sickly, but refused medical care by Kakungulu), Nimrod, Ibulaim Ndaula, and Israel. Ibulaim Ndaula became a Christian after his father’s death.
Ten years after Isaiah’s visit, the Abayudaya met another Jew, David Solomon, who was born in India and arrived in Uganda in the late Twenties’. In 1937 Solomon was instructed to establish a pumping plant near Mbale. he recounts how, when he was in Mbale, some ten Africans appeared, wearing white robes and head coverings and watched him with much curiosity. When he asked what they wanted, they answered that they had heard he was a Jew, and therefore, they came to visit him because they themselves were Jews. At first Solomon thought the Africans were mocking him; but when they showed him a copy of the Bible in Hebrew with an English translation (received from Joseph) and described some of the principles of the Jewish religion, he was convinced that they really were Jews. From then on, he visited the Congregation in the course of his work and sent them Hebrew calendars.
Gershom Sizomu (born 1972) is a Ugandan rabbi serving the Abayudaya, a Baganda community in eastern Uganda near the town of Mbale who practice Judaism. Sizomu is the first native-born black rabbi in Sub-Saharan Africa. He is also the first chief rabbi of Uganda. Sizomu is a member of the Ugandan Parliament.
Sizomu was born into an Abayudaya family, and his grandfather was the community’s leader. The Abayudaya were persecuted during the years of the Idi Amin regime, when it was illegal to openly practice the Jewish faith in Uganda. During his childhood, Sizomu’s father was arrested for building a sukkah as part of the celebration of the Jewish holiday Sukkot. His father was released when Sizomu’s family paid the arresting officer with a ransom of five goats. In 1979, following the overthrow of the Amin government, freedom of religion was restored in Uganda, and Sizomu’s family celebrated by hosting 200 people in a Passover Seder consisting of homemade matzoh and macco, a Ugandan banana wine with an 80 per cent alcohol content.
The Abayudaya was not recognized by the government of Israel as being Jewish because the community had not formally converted to Judaism. In 2003, Sizomu sought Israeli approval of the Abayudaya by inviting four U.S. rabbis to conduct a conversion ceremony for 300 Abayudaya Jews, which they did in 2003, in a ceremony consisting of the question, ‘Why do you want to be Jewish?’, to which the Abayudaya responded: “I was born Jewish and I’d like to stay Jewish.” Others refused to take part saying: “We’re already Jewish.” Sizomu has openly identified himself as a Zionist and once stated in an interview: “If the Arab world declared war on Israel, we would fight and die to protect it.”
Sizomu earned a Bachelor of Arts in education from Islamic University in Uganda. As a Be’chol Lashon Rabbinic Fellow at the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, he came to the U.S. to 2003 to study in a five-year graduate program at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He graduated in 2008 and was ordained as a rabbi under the auspices of Conservative Judaism.
In July 2008, Sizomu returned to Uganda and conducted a conversion ceremony for 250 people at the village of Nabogoya, with converts coming from across Uganda and from Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. During the ceremony, Sizomu stressed the viability of the Jewish faith for sub-Saharan Africans by noting, “The relationship between God and the Jews in the Torah resonates for many spiritual seekers. It is important that Africans and others know that they can choose Judaism as a spiritual path and that we are open to them.”
Rabbi Sizomu was a candidate to represent Uganda’s Bungokho North District in Parliament in the 2011 election, held on February 18, 2011. He lost that election, but ran again in 2016 and was elected to Parliament in a close race.