Yes, There Are Jews in Eastern Uganda
Last summer, I was honored and humbled to meet Mugoya Shadrach Levi, a 29-year-old rabbinic student from Uganda, who was in the U.S. for three weeks to travel and study. Over dinner, Shadrach, as he is known, told my husband and me his story, which both shocked and captivated us.
Shadrach leads the Jewish Congregation of Namutumba, a community of 2,000 members that survives and thrives despite a years’-long famine in Uganda. When I asked him what he wanted for breakfast, he explained that he doesn’t usually eat breakfast – just a glass of tea – because the children had to be fed first, and maybe there would be rice or bananas for lunch or dinner.
No running water in the village of more than 11,000 people means the women must walk long distances to fill water jugs and carry them back on their heads, providing a small amount of water to bathe, clean clothes, and quench their thirst from the hot sun. Washing and laundry are done in a tub and cooking is done over an open fire. With very little solar or electric light, study is limited to daylight hours.
That evening at Shabbat services, Shadrach spoke to the members of my congregation, Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD. Although he doesn’t travel on Shabbat, he agreed to ride to the synagogue in my car to share his story about his own journey and education, but also telling us how a community of Jews came to be in Uganda. Orphaned at a very early age, Shadrach was raised by his uncle as part of the growing group of Abuyadaya Jews who, for nearly a century have accepted Judaism as their religion and way of life after their leader, Semei Kakungulu, rejected the New Testament in 1919.
Several years ago, Shadrach’s rabbi, Eri Kadhiwa, in a surprise announcement, appointed Shadrach as the community’s spiritual leader. Only then, with support from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, did he begin formal study and training.
Much like our ancestors, who came to Judaism through revelation and struggle, these remarkable people study Torah, perform mitzvot (commandments) and commit themselves daily to a life of holiness supported by and based on Jewish values. Women hold equal status in religious communal life, a fact that is not lost on many of us here in North America, who still struggle for equality with our male counterparts.
In August, Shadrach and his fiancé Naomi, together with four other couples in the village, were married under a gigantic chuppah (wedding canopy) by Rabbi Yafa Chase. Nearly 1,500 people from the village attended the wedding, along with leaders of Christian and Muslim communities, who came to wish the couples well and show support for the Jews of Namutumba and their synagogue.
I think of Shadrach and his community often – mostly when I am hungry, thirsty, or irritated by some small factor of daily life – and remember how they uncomplainingly live with so much less than we take for granted every day. It inspires me to continue my work for the new projects of providing water, food and power to the village. May their lives and their commitment to Judaism be a lesson to us to count our blessings, to be satisfied with how many we have, and to take nothing for granted.
For more information about the Abuyadaya, the Jews of Eastern Uganda, visit the Ezra Uganda Assistance Fund. Established by Reb Leila Gal Berner, a leader in ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the fund is helping Shadrach take distance-learning classes study in the U.S. for a month each year. Monies from the fund also are helping the community, whose members struggle daily to secure food and water for their families.