Abayudaya: Wikis


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Total population
1,100 (estimate) [4]
Regions with significant populations
  1,100 (estimate)

Luganda, Lusoga, Lugwere, Hebrew



Related ethnic groups

Tradition :
  African Jews
Ethnobiology :
  Baganda, Bagwere, Basoga

The Abayudaya (Abayudaya is Luganda for "People of Judah"[1][2], analogous to Children of Israel) are a Baganda community in eastern Uganda near the town of Mbale who practice Judaism. Although they are not genetically or historically related to other ethnic Jews, they are devout in their practice of the religion, keeping their version of kashruth, and observing Shabbat. There are several different villages where the Ugandan Jews live. Most of these are recognized by the Reform and Conservative sects of Judaism. However, the villagers of Putti are still seeking an Orthodox conversion and practice strict Rabbinical Judaism.[3]

Their population is estimated at approximately 1,100, having once been as large as 3,000 (prior to the persecutions of the Idi Amin regime); like their neighbors, they are subsistence farmers. Most Abayudaya are of Bagwere origin, except for those from Namutumba who are Basoga. They speak Luganda, Lusoga or Lugwere, although some have learned Hebrew as well.



The sect owes its origin to Muganda military leader Semei Kakungulu. Originally, Kakungulu was converted to Christianity by British missionaries around 1880. He believed that by doing so, the British would allow him to be the chief ruler of the territories he conquered in battle for them. However, when the British limited his territory to a significantly smaller size, Kakungulu began to distance himself from them. In 1913, he became a Malachite Christian, following a belief system that combined Christianity, Judaism, and Christian Science. However, upon further study of the Bible, Kakungulu came to believe that the customs and laws described in the first 5 books of Moses (Torah) were really true. When told by Muslim immigrants to Mbale from other parts of Africa of mixed Jewish ancestry that only Jews observe such customs, he exclaimed, "Then we will be Jewish!" In 1919, Kakungulu had become far more clearly Jewish in his practices: he circumcised his sons and himself and declared that his community was Jewish. According to Henry Lubega[4], "he 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 were infuriated by this action and they effectively severed all ties with him and his followers.

The arrival of a foreign Jew known as "Yosef" in 1920 whose ancestral roots are believed to have been European, contributed much towards the community's acquisition of knowledge about the seasons in which Jewish Festivals such as Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and others take place. A source in the Abayudaya community confirms that the first Jew to visit the community was Yosef, who stayed with and taught the community for about six months[5], and would appear to have first brought the Jewish calendar to the Abayudaya community.[3]

Furthermore, the sum of the laws concerning Kashrut were first introduced to the community by Yosef. The community continues to practice kashrut today. Yosef's teachings influenced Semei Kakungulu to establish a school that acted as a type of Yeshiva, with the purpose of passing on and teaching the skills and knowledge first obtained from Yosef.

After Kakungulu's death from tetanus in 1928, his followers divided into two groups, one that reverted to Christianity and another, the Abayudaya, that became devout Jews. They isolated themselves for self-protection and survived persecution, including that of Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues. During the persecutions of Idi Amin, some 80–90% of the Abayudaya community converted to either Christianity or Islam in the face of religious persecution. A core group of roughly 300 members remained, however, committed to Judaism, worshipping secretly, fearful that they would be discovered by their neighbors and reported to the authorities. This group named itself "She'erit Yisrael"[6] — the Remnant of Israel — meaning the surviving Ugandan Jews.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the Abayudaya began a moderately successful effort to establish contacts with Jews in Israel and elsewhere in the world. The commmunity underwent a revival in the 1980s, centered on a self-described "Kibbutz Movement."

"Approximately 400 Abayudaya community members were formally converted by five rabbis of the Conservative branch of Judaism in February 2002[7]", and conversions by conservative rabbis continued during the following years[8].


As of 2009, most of the community lives around the Moses synagogue on Nabugoye Hill outside Mbale or the nearby synagogue in the village of Namanyoyi. Others live several miles away from Mbale in Nasenyi and Putti (both in Pallisa District). A fifth synagogue is in Magada village (Namutumba District), approximately 70 km distant.[3]

Currently the She'erit Yisrael community is looking for help in its desire to undergo an orthodox giur (conversion to Judaism) and make aliyah (move to Israel). This community is centered around the Putti synagogue and consists of roughly 130 members.

Gershom Sizomu, the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya and the Rosh Yeshiva, was enrolled in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies a five-year graduate program at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles, California where he studied Hebrew, rabbinic literature, the Bible, Jewish philosophy, and other subjects. The program entailed studies in both the USA and Israel. Upon completion of this program, Sizomu received his ordination as a rabbi under the auspices of the Conservative Movement on May 19, 2008, and returned to Uganda to lead its Jewish community.


Community institutions

Besides the five synagogues (Nabugoye, Namanyonyi, Nasenyi, Namutumba and Putti), Jewish schools have been established with outside help from individuals and organizations such as Kulanu where secular as well as Jewish themed subjects are taught. What is unique is that unlike many Christian run schools, learning Hebrew and Judaism is merely optional for non-Jewish students. Christian, Muslim and Jewish students attend these schools. Scholarships given by outside sources have enabled some students to attend Universities as well. The following are the currently existing community institutions:

  • The Hadassah Primary School located between Nabugoye and Namanyonyi
  • The Semei Kakungulu High School (Nabugoye Hill)
  • The Sha'arei Refu'a Medical Clinic (Nabugoye Hill)
  • A Guesthouse (Nabugoye Hill)
  • A Yeshiva (Nabugoye Hill) The building of the Yeshiva is being funded by a grant from the United Synagogue Youth Tikun Olam program

Community relations

Their Christian and Muslim neighbors once looked upon the Abayudaya with disdain and hatred, but relations have improved significantly and some view members of the Abayudaya with respect and admiration.[9] It should also be noted that the community has been growing at a steady rate. Numbering only 300 individuals at the time of the fall of Idi Amin, the Abayudaya have grown to as many as 1050 individuals since that time.

In 2002 the story of the Abayudaya was told in the book Abayudaya:The Jews of Uganda, with photographs and text by photojournalist Richard Sobol and musical recordings produced by Jeffrey Summit and published by Abbeville Press. Sobol has continued to travel and lecture with a multi media slide presentation to help bring the Ugandan Jews out of isolation.

In 2003, J.J. Keki, a member of the Abayudaya community, led the effort to create a cooperative for coffee-growers in the region, including not only the Jewish coffee-growers, but Christian and Muslim coffee-growers as well. The result was Mirembe Kawomera, Luganda for "Delicious Peace".[10] In partnership with Thanksgiving Coffee Company of Fort Bragg, California, the cooperative is working in bringing new prosperity to members of all religions.[11]

Religious Life and Customs

The Abayudaya initially practiced a form of biblical Judaism[12], maintaining animal sacrifice among other customs. However, as the community increased its ties and interactions with outside Jewish communities, namely in the United States and Israel, its religious ideology and customs shifted towards mainstream, normative Judaism. Members attend Shabbat services regularly both on Friday evenings and Saturdays.[3] Congregations remove their shoes before entering the synagogue.[3] This custom is believed to have been practiced by Jews in biblical times and is still practiced by a few Jewish communities today. The Abayudaya maintain a Kosher diet and slaughter their own animals in accordance with its regulations.[3][12]


Music has been an important aspect in the lives of the Abayudaya. In recent years, the community has produced two CDs that are centered around religious themes. In fact, one of the albums, entitled "Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish people of Uganda" produced by Jeffrey Summit was nominated for a Best Traditional World Music album at the 47th Grammy Awards.

In addition to this, their community has received further recognition and respect within the Jewish community because of the work of Noam Katz, a Jewish American musician. His 2005 CD, Mirembe ("peace" in Luganda), featured the Abayudaya in the majority of its songs. In addition to studying at a seminary, Katz travels throughout North America, and gives a slideshow/concert which showcases the music of the Abayudaya.

The music of the Abayudaya is distinctly African yet Jewish at the same time. Many of the songs combine words in Luganda as well as Hebrew. Additionally, Psalms and prayers are set to a distinctly African tune and rhythm. Music is viewed as important by the community for a variety of reasons. Some elders of the community have maintained that it was music that enabled the community to persevere through the harsh conditions that it had to endure under the reign of Idi Amin.

See also


  • Sobol, Richard: Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda, Abbeville Press: Includes music CD. Available at Amazon.com

External links

[5] Abayudaya:The Jews of Uganda - Photographic essay book and music CD


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