Ugandans Nurture Jewish Identity at my Son’s Camp

  
Sammy with Jewish camp counselors from Uganda

Sammy with his Jewish camp counselors from Uganda

Last week my family hosted some of the international staff from my son’s Jewish camp before they went to camp for training. We have done this for the past four summers and it’s been a wonderful experience. Most of the staffers are Israeli, and we have built lasting relationships with them, giving us the opportunity to one day visit each of them in Israel.

This year, camp participated in a program with other Reform camps to bring young adult members of the Ugandan Jewish community to Jewish summer camps throughout the U.S. Most people’s reaction when I mentioned that camp would have Ugandan and Israeli staff this year said, “There are Jews in Uganda?” Yes, there are Ugandan Jews.

About a week before the international staff arrived, I received an email from one of the assistant camp directors asking if my family would host the Ugandan, rather than the Israeli, counselors. “Of the families who can host next week, you immediately jumped to mind as someone who could provide the most hospitable experience for these two new staff members.” How could I say no? Plus, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to learn and enable our entire family to experience the diversity of the global Jewish community.

Most Jews in Uganda are members of the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”), a 100-year-old community of nearly 2,000 Jews who live mostly in villages in Eastern Uganda. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, who are descendants of Israelite tribes that settled in Ethiopia, Ugandan Jews trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century and two powerful leaders, Joswa Kate Mugema, an influential Buganda chief, and Semei Kakungulu, who was selected by the British to be a Christian missionary.

Mugema and his tribe were dissident Protestants who were devoted to the Bible and adopted many Jewish traditions. They recognized Saturday as the Sabbath, violently opposed any sign of idol worship and forbade the eating or pork. Kakungulu, bitterly disillusioned by the British authorities, cooperated with the Mugema tribe, helping to spread its faith. During this period, Kakungulu was drawn to the teachings of the Old Testament and in 1919 he and his community began practicing Judaism.

When Idi Amin Dada rose to power in the early 1970s, he banned Jewish practice and many Jews were forced to convert to other religions. After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remaining members of the Abayudaya gathered to rebuild the Jewish tradition. Today, there are seven Jewish communities in Uganda and members try to come together as often as possible to interact, connect, worship and learn.

Our guests told us that Conservative rabbis in the early part of the 21st century began to come to Uganda to supervise the “conversion” of Uganda’s Jews. Some in the global Jewish community did not see the Abayudaya as Jewish since they didn’t have a biological link to Israel. While the rabbis viewed the ritual they were performing as a conversion, the community saw it as an “affirmation” of its Jewish faith. Our visitors told us, “Many people, especially in Israel, still do not accept us as Jews.”

I told them that they were not the only Jews with this problem. I explained patrilineal descent and how the Reform movement accepts as a Jew anyone raised Jewish with one Jewish parent but that many non-Reform traditions and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel do not accept this definition of “Who is a Jew.” We also discussed how those who convert to Judaism through a non-Orthodox tradition are also not considered Jewish according to some denominations and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I emphasized that they would meet many campers this summer who, like themselves, are not accepted as Jews by parts of the world Jewish community, and who, like them, feel strongly that their religious identity is Jewish.

The discussion made me think about how these two groups of Jewish outsiders would spend the summer nurturing each others’ Jewish growth. I smiled as I thought about the richness outsiders bring to the Jewish tradition and how we outsiders are slowly becoming insiders thanks to the efforts of those, including InterfaithFamily, who believe that Judaism’s tent is big, and its doors wide open.