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Learning True Nature of Judaism While Davening in East Africa
We take for granted that we can go to the supermarket and buy boxes of Passover matzah. For the Abayudaya community in Uganda, it's not such a simple thing.
Last year, for the first time in a long time, the community could participate in fulfilling the mitzvah of eating matzah after I sent boxes via military airlift.
Serving in 2011 as the U.S. Navy Chaplain for East Africa for the Combined Joint Task Force, Horn of Africa, I had the opportunity to visit the Abayudaya Jewish community in eastern Uganda.
As I was praying with these Jews on Shabbat and joining them -- singing both familiar Conservative melodies and learning new African ones -- I wondered what a U.S. Navy captain/chaplain has in common with subsistent farmers?
We do not share a common culture, for my Jewish roots are in Eastern Europe. We do not even share a common history, because this community was formed in 1919 and their history is tribal. We do not even share the land of Israel, because their land is the tribal land that they farm. It has been passed down for hundreds of generations. The only thing that we share is our common Jewish faith.
The irony is that despite these distinctions, I feel I have more in common with these Jews than I do with American Jews who only identify ethnically as Jews.
There are approximately 1,500 Jews spread over seven villages. Each village has its own synagogue. Every Abayudaya Jew is a farmer, barely living off the land. They live in mud huts without running water or electricity. Their simple life adds to their faith. They are so in touch with the earth that any food is a thanksgiving offering to God. Now I understand the early Israelites. This community puts in context so much of the Bible.
Over the year I was stationed there, I became friends with the rabbi of the community, Gershom Sizomu, whose great-grandfather founded the community. Rabbi Gershom studied at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies of the American University of Judaism in Los Angeles and was ordained in 2008. The community is affiliated with United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and their rabbi is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly.
The synagogue structure is made from cinder blocks, has broken windows, a tin roof and sits on top of a hill overlooking a jungle. The community owns five Sifrei Torah. Most of their financial support comes from the Jewish organization, B'chol Lashon in San Francisco.
I spent Shabbat with the Abayudaya a few times. The synagogue was packed with more than 100 people. They use the prayer book Sim Shalom, published by the Conservative Movement. There was an elder/cantor from the community leading Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening. The rabbi played guitar and members of the congregation played African drums. Some of the Psalms were sung in the local language of Lugandan.
As they sang Lecha Dodi with a Ugandan melody, people danced around the bimah. At one such service, the doors of the synagogue were open and I was looking outside as the sun was setting over the mountains. It was one of most spectacular sights that I have ever experienced.
The Abayudaya have lived and died by their faith and, as such, they have a lot to teach us. In the 1970s, the Ugandan strongman Idi Amin persecuted the community. What I learned in my travels in Africa and in the military is that there are many Jews born and by choice from a variety of backgrounds who have no ethnic connection with European or Sephardi Judaism but are Jews because of their faith. Their lives are enriched because of it.
Here in America, to claim an ethnic or cultural Jewish identity is becoming anachronistic as more generations move away from the immigrant experience. But like the Abayudaya, Jews in America see our cultural and ethnic identity as American and our religion as Judaism.
After services on Saturday morning, we moved outside for Torah study and as the people sat on the ground under the acacia tree to study in Lugandan, I felt like an outsider until words of Torah were spoken. I knew once again that we were all connected by faith.
Rabbi Jon E. Cutler is spiritual leader of Darkaynu, Bucks County, and a hospice chaplain at Abramson Center for Jewish Life.