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Uganda’s Jews not Jewish enough, says Israel

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A remote community of Ugandan Jews, who live an Orthodox way of life, pray every day to live in the so-called land of milk and honey - but Israel will not take them in, claiming they are not Jewish enough.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Jan 25, 2018

There are about 2 000 observant Jews in Uganda known as the Abayudaya – the “people of Judah”. They live in eastern Uganda, near the town of Mbale, and have been practising a form of Judaism for almost a century.

Most practise a Conservative or Reform Judaism under their spiritual leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. He was the first African rabbi to be ordained at a Conservative American rabbinic school and is also the first rabbi to win a seat in Uganda’s Parliament. He heads a large synagogue in Nabugoye and his community, albeit poor, receives material and spiritual assistance from a number of Conservative groups in the US and UK such as Be’Chol Lashon and Kolanu.

For the most part, the Abayudaya are a relatively happy, religious community, leading a peaceful, pastoral life as subsistence farmers. While they experience with persistent food shortages, and their daily life is hard, their Jewish life is rich with passion and tradition. This offers a measure of relief and spiritual sustenance.

However, about 350 Abayudaya consider themselves devout Orthodox Jews. They live in the rural village of Putti in the Pallisa district. It is this tiny pocket of so-called Orthodox Abayudaya who long to walk the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem, pray at the Kotel and live as citizens in Israel. They dream of being welcomed with open arms by world Jewry and accepted as Jews.

“We yearn for Israel,” said Aaron Diibo Maiso of the Kahal Kadosh She’erit Yisrael community (KKSY) in Putti. “Once our youth finish high school, they want to attend Yeshiva. This is their dream.”

However, they are not considered to be halachically Jewish. This is because their conversion, conducted by the highly respected, albeit extremely controversial, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin - a modern Orthodox rabbi who hails from the US and is spiritual leader of the West Bank settlement of Efrat - is not recognised by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Therefore, in its view, the Abayudaya are not Jews. Rabbi Riskin doesn’t sit on any of its official rabbinical courts.

“Our heart breaks for our youth, who are in no man’s land. There are no resources to send them to universities to further their education and get skills, and they really desire to study at a yeshiva,” said Maiso.

He, together with the community president of the KKSY, Tarphon Kamya, spent a year at a yeshiva learning with Rabbi Riskin in 2012.

It is a thorny issue that touches on the complicated topic of conversion, on the ever-murky Law of Return and, most prickly of all, on the question: Who is a Jew?

The problem has been around for a number of years and doesn’t look as if it is going away anytime soon.

“It is tragic,” said Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, aka “the travelling rabbi”, who ministers to Jewish communities in Sub Saharan Africa.

“The Abayudaya have been given false hope,” he said. “Israel does not see them as Jewish, no matter how frum they are and how strictly they try to observe an Orthodox way of life.

“The so-called conversion to Orthodoxy has set these peace-loving, spiritual people up for grave disappointment. A conversion has to be recognised by some authority and Rabbi Riskin did not do this under the auspices of Israel’s Rabbinate.”

Silberhaft has met several members of the Abayudaya and describes them as “wonderfully-natured people” who, he maintains, were happy and following their own form of Judaism long before both Conservative and Orthodox groupings became involved in their affairs.

“Now it has become a humanitarian crisis and I don’t see a way forward,” he said.

The African Jewish Congress (AJC), of which Silberhaft is the spiritual head and CEO, does not minister to the Abayudaya. “If the Israeli Rabbinate does not consider them Orthodox, who are we to?” he said.

According to him, the AJC took a policy decision several years ago not to minister to various African groups who consider themselves Orthodox. The Abayudaya in Uganda, and the Lemba tribes in Zimbabwe, are among them. They have, in the past, requested the assistance of the AJC in facilitating what they believe is their right of return.

Members of the Conservative and Orthodox Abayudaya continue to face obstacles getting visas to live and study in Israel. However, according to Aviad Sela, director of the Israel Centre, the local branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), “the Abayudaya have been considered a recognised Jewish community by the agency since 2009.”

This status alone should make it easy for them to get student visas or the documentation needed to become Israeli citizens, they say.

Recently, the JAFI said: “We were introduced to the community in 2013, when one of its members requested to make aliya under the Law of Return, after having converted to Judaism in this community in 2002. The community is affiliated with Masorti Olami (the Conservative movement), and Rabbi Gershom Sizomu is a member of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, thus meeting the basic communal requirements for aliya eligibility [there are additional criteria, which are checked on an individual basis].

“Since many of the conversions took place prior to the Abayudaya’s affiliation with the Conservative movement, under the auspices of a Beit Din (conversion court) of rabbis who came from other communities; and because the entire community is composed of converts to Judaism, the Jewish Agency turned to the ministry of the interior to ensure that the conversions would be acceptable for purposes of aliya.”

Sela told SA Jewish Report: “We have been advised that the minister of the interior is studying the subject and we are awaiting his decision.”

There are at least five students wanting to study at a yeshiva in Israel who have been turned down. According to Maiso, they are students from Putti who are desperate to further their Torah studies abroad. “There are about 20 of our youth who have no direction,” he said.

“They help teach Jewish studies and Hebrew, but they need skills and education for the future. At least five have been unsuccessful getting visas,” he said.

Tarphon Kamya told SA Jewish Report: “Our hope is to be recognised by the state of Israel and other world Jewish communities, to make aliya as we wait for the Messiah to come and to see most Abayudaya living a better life either here in Uganda or in Israel.”

Rabbi Riskin has refused to comment and has since distanced himself from the situation.

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