A Tale of Uganda’s Jewish Community
The legacy of terrorism victim Dvir Sorek had an impact in one of the most unexpected places
by Ilanit Chernick | September 16, 2019 | Photos by Jonah Stocki
Between the cornfields and the banana trees sits a synagogue in the Ugandan village of Putti.
This is how Jonah Stocki described in amazement the location of a rural synagogue that is home to some 100 Abayudaya in Uganda.
The Jerusalem Post sat down this week with two yeshiva students who recently spent time volunteering in Putti and the town of Mukono.
“At the beginning of last year I had no clue that there were Jews living between South Africa and Israel,” explained Stocki, who is originally from Modi’in and is studying at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva at Ohr Torah Stone in Gush Etzion.
But following a visit from nine Ethiopian Jews, Stocki discovered that there were communities in Ethiopia, Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, and he wanted to volunteer in Ethiopia.
Soon after, Stocki and fellow student Etai Kozlovski became friendly with a fellow student named Moshe Yashiirah Madoi, a rabbi from Putti learning in their seminary.
Although the trip to Ethiopia did not work out in the end, Stocki thought they should go to Uganda instead and volunteer with the Jewish community.
After trying several avenues to raise the funds, they eventually contacted Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who liked their idea and was able to secure funding.
Stocki approached Kozlovski to join him, and in no time the two 19-year-olds were getting ready to spend their summer running Hebrew seminars and teaching Torah in Uganda.
Just before they were about to leave, however, their close friend and fellow yeshiva student Dvir Sorek was killed in a terrorist attack near Migdal Oz in Gush Etzion.
Sorek’s murder hit them hard; Kozlovski said he almost canceled his trip. But after giving it more thought, he decided he would still go, notwithstanding his loss.
Stocki and Kozlovski spent three weeks with several communities in Uganda, some of which practice Conservative Judaism, while others practice Orthodox Judaism.
“The first week we spent in Nadenyi, one of the Conservative communities,” he said. “We held a Hebrew seminar, and gathered 30 prominent leaders from the different Ugandan communities to strengthen Jewish identity.”
Stocki said participants came from all the different Abayudaya communities, and on “one of the days there were 60 people. People were excited about coming. We divided into three groups to teach Hebrew,” which included teaching basic level, intermediate level and more advanced.
“We taught Hebrew writing, reading and we were open to questions,” Stocki continued. “We taught them songs and niggunim (tunes) too. Music was a big part of the trip.”
The two also spent part of their days teaching Torah.
From Nadenyi the two went to the town of Mukono, a community of about 60-strong.
That community has been practicing Orthodox Judaism for 15 years, and is not part of the original Abayudaya.
“In Mukono, they have a big room in a building that they use as a synagogue,” the two explained. “They have a small sefer Torah, keep kashrut, and have Skype lessons with teachers in Israel. They are also building a mikveh.”
“They brought in the mohel from a place a few hours away, and he had to get there through muddy, dirt roads,” Stocki said. “We went to the house of the couple, and it was there in the courtyard where they did a very simple ceremony. Everyone from the community came – everyone so devoted.”
From there the two yeshiva students continued to Putti, the oldest Jewish community in Uganda.
The Abayudaya there trace their roots back a century. In 1917, a sect led by Semei Kakungulu, a Ugandan general, developed a religious belief that included a practice close to Judaism.
Over time and following meetings with itinerant Jewish merchants, the sect’s knowledge of Judaism grew.
After the arrival of a foreign Jew known as “Yosef” in 1920, whose ancestral roots are believed to have been European, they became what is known today as the Abayudaya.
Yosef imparted much of his knowledge about Torah, kashrut and the Jewish holidays, and is credited with being the first person to bring the Jewish calendar to the community, which follows it today religiously.
This knowledge spread over time to other villages and communities that also practice Judaism, although they are not yet converted.
At its height, there were some 3,000 Abayudaya, but following persecution by Idi Amin, some 80% to 90% converted to Christianity. Only about 300 continued to practice Judaism in secret under his rule.
“In Putti, most of the community are farmers,” Kozlovski said. “The community mostly gathers for Shabbat and Jewish holidays as some of the members live outside Putti.”
They live in mud huts, and the two spotted some with mezuzot affixed to the door.
Both Kozlovski and Stocki said they were deeply inspired by Abayudaya’s devotion, and learned some of the community’s songs – in Hebrew and Swahili. Based on psalms, some were composed during Idi Amin’s persecution, they said.
“There is a daily minyan in both Putti and Mukono,” Stocki said, adding how special it felt to say the ‘Ma Tovu’ morning prayer while walking into a synagogue surrounded by corn fields and banana plants.
Stocki and Kozlovski both said the community needs prayer shawls, Hebrew Bibles and prayer books, none of which are readily available in Uganda. “They’re treated like gold when someone brings Torah books,” Stocki said.
Without electricity, the villagers in Putti face the challenge of keeping food for Shabbat, Kozlovski said.
“But that doesn’t mean that they’re stuck in a state of complaining or negativity. Rather, they are always trying to live their lives as best as they can and as positively as possible,” Srocki said.
All the communities that the two visited have a strong thirst to continue growing in Torah. “They just wanted to learn more and more – most were aged between 10 and 20-years-old,” Kozlovski said, adding that in Putti there is a Jewish school called the Yoni Netanyahu Memorial School.
The highlight for the two was on their last Shabbat in Uganda when “one of the young boys from the Mukono community, who was named Moshe – Moshe is a very popular name,” they said, “wanted to change his name, so he asked us, ‘what name should I change to?’
“It was the shloshim [30 days] for Dvir [Sorek] that Shabbat and we told him about Dvir – Dvir Yehuda – how kind and loving and caring he was for everyone, and he [Moshe] liked it and on motzei Shabbat, he changed his name to Dvir Yehuda,” the two said. “It’s very special for us that someone there is carrying our friend’s name.
“It was a special way to end the trip,” Stocki concluded.