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Abayudaya Jews of Uganda Now Officially Recognized by Jewish Agency

But will Uganda’s Abayudaya Jews, most of whom converted before 2009, be able to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return?

Rose Kaplan
April 14, 2016
A prayer service in a synagogue in Putti, a village in Uganda.Wikimedia
A prayer service in a synagogue in Putti, a village in Uganda.Wikimedia

Five years ago, Tablet’s Matthew Fishbane reported on the fascinating saga of the Abayudaya Jews of Eastern Uganda, joining Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the community’s spiritual leader, on his first, ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Ugandan Parliament. In between dispatches from the campaign trail, Fishbane traces the roots of the Abayudaya from their origins as early 20th-century converts, to their persecution under Idi Amin’s dictatorship, to their current quest for recognition and fellowship under the wide tent of world Jewry.

The Abayudaya … trace the origins of their religious affiliation to an extraordinary African chieftain, elephant hunter, warrior king, and colonial agent named Semei Kakungulu, who in 1917, or 1919, or 1920, depending on the source, … decided to reject all the forms of biblical religion that had been introduced to him by turn-of-the-century English Protestant and French Catholic missionaries for his own textual interpretation of the first five books of Moses, which made him (and his followers and later their descendants) something very close to Jews.

Kakungulu garnered followers and begat children, who raised Jewish-identified children, who eventually met white Jews who helped the Abayudaya become more universally accepted as Jewish. Emissaries brought religious, financial, and material support from abroad and paid for Gershom Sizomu Wambedde, the grandson of one of the chief’s first followers, to travel to America to train to be a rabbi, meet the president of the United States, and run for parliament in Africa.

In 2011, Fishbane explains, Sizomu battled “a Muslim incumbent, in a largely Muslim district in a country that is 85 percent Christian with a fanatical born-again first lady” with the help of a campaign budget more than 80% funded by “international friends”—among them “Diane Tobin, the director of Be’chol Lashon (‘In every tongue’), a San Francisco-based Jewish diversity and ‘community-building’ group” that helped Sizomu and his family travel to the United States in the early 2000s to attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

But Sizomu, who was ordained as a rabbi by the Conservative movement in 2008, never gave up. Two months ago, as Tablet’s Jordana Narin wrote, he “edged out seven other candidates to win a highly contested seat representing the rural Bungokho North district, near the Kenyan border”—the same race he lost in 2011.

And now, with his swearing-in ceremony expected to take place next month, there’s more good news for Sizomu and the Abayudaya community: the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization involved with bringing new immigrants to Israel, has officially accepted the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda as a “recognized” Jewish community, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on Tuesday (via Haaretz).

In a letter to Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel, the Jewish Agency said it has recognized the community as Jewish since 2009 and also recognizes the authority of its rabbi, Gershom Sizomu… Such recognition means the Ugandan Jews are allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.

The news should be welcome to Ugandan Jews, who have had difficulty obtaining visas to study in Israel. This official recognition raises a number of questions, such as: how do communities of converts fit within the sometimes murky legal framework of the Law of Return? (In 2002, many of the Abayudaya officially converted under the auspices of five rabbis in the Conservative movement, a process that has continued.)

Reported Haaretz:

For several years, requests by members of the Abayudaya community to study in Israel or to immigrate to the country had been held up because of questions of their status as a community.

The Ministry of Interior, the authority charged with approving requests for immigration and other visas, typically relies on recommendations and rulings from the Jewish Agency when the status of a community is unclear. In some cases, however, it has overruled the Jewish Agency…

…As most of the members of the Abayudaya community were converted before 2009, it is not clear if and how the Jewish Agency recommendation will apply in practice.

“I am still intent on bringing a group of students here in June, and I’m hoping it will happen,” said Sacks.

Rose Kaplan is an intern at Tablet.

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