The chief Rabbi of Uganda is to speak in Milwaukee on Monday, April 8, a visit hastily arranged to fit into his already-planned American tour, after local music professionals visited Africa in January and February.
Wisconsin’s visitors to Africa found a small but highly engaged community, with commitment to tzedakeh, plus a desire to wrestle with Torah and connect with the outside Jewish world. Here, in a hot, dusty region 2,000 miles south of Israel, the Abayudaya Jewish community has a deep hunger for Jewish learning, even as they face more basic challenges.
“They’re proud that the death rate for malaria is now ten percent,” said Amanda Ruppenthal Stein, one of the Wisconsinites who visited several Jewish communities there. “As they’re saying this community needs a well, they’re also saying this community needs more songs for this holiday; please teach them.”
The Jan. 28-Feb. 7, 2019 trip included nine American Conservative cantors and two spouses, one of them a music professional. Among the total group of 11 were Cantor Jerry Berkowitz, formerly of Congregation Beth-El Ner Tamid in Mequon and current spiritual leader for Anshe Poale Zedek Synagogue of Manitowoc; Hazzan Jeremy Stein of Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid of Glendale; and that aforementioned music professional, Stein’s wife, Amanda Ruppenthal Stein, who is earning her doctorate in musicology at Northwestern University.
There, they met with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the chief rabbi, and perhaps the only African rabbi, of Uganda. He’s also the first Jewish member of the Ugandan Parliament. Members of the delegation sang and recorded songs with Sizomu and other African Jews, and also participated in services.
The origin of the Abayudaya Jewish community is rooted in an African leader circumcising himself and rejecting the Christianity that missionaries had brought to his region – exactly 100 years ago. Semei Kakungulu circumcised his sons and declared himself Jewish. For good measure, most Abayudaya were converted by Conservative rabbis between 2002 and 2008.
Today, they don’t have the access to the Jewish resources that we do, but they make up for that in enthusiasm, according to the Wisconsinites.
“There’s a palpable feeling when you are in the presence of Abayudaya prayer,” said Jeremy Stein. “I would say an emotional intensity. It could be joy, it could be longing, but it’s there and it’s powerful.”
The Abayudaya Jews don’t often get visitors from outside Africa who stop and really spend time with them, Berkowitz said, and the community was extremely welcoming. But that’s not what struck him the most.
“What I was most impressed with was their spirit and their devotion to Judaism,” he said. “Their desire to learn as much as they can about Torah, about prayer, about Jewish laws and customs.”
“Many of the melodies that they sing are … written in the style of their native African folk music,” recalled Jeremy Stein. This can mean rhythmic drumming or singing in a local language.
Amanda Ruppenthal Stein, who is studying Jewish identity and music, noted that we here in America can think of Jewish music as being the same as Ashkenazi music.
“Jewish music can mean many things,” she said. “For a Ugandan Jew,” she said, Jewish music “sounds like the fabric of their country.”
Yet their services are primarily in Hebrew, Jeremy Stein said.
“They have regular services that anybody would recognize as a service in the United States,” Berkowitz said. “They’re a real Jewish community that can be recognized by anyone who comes from any part of the Jewish world.”
Berkowitz brought a Torah, a gift from Manitowoc Jews to the African Jewish community; it traveled safely in an overhead compartment on Kenya Airways.
The visitors and African Jews walked the Torah in a procession, under a chuppah, from a guest house to the Abayudaya Jews’ main synagogue. “It’s like a marriage to the community,” Berkowitz said.
Pictures were possible because it was on a Sunday. Upon arrival with the Torah at their Stern Synagogue, Berkowitz spoke: “One of the things I said was that this Torah shouldn’t be considered as a gift. It should be considered as an obligation for all Jewish people to study and to live by the principles of the Torah.”
Rabbi Sizomu read a Torah portion, Haazinu, which relates to the end of Moses’ life and considering the knowledge of preceding generations.
The Torah will live in the Stern Synagogue, the larger and central synagogue there, at least until security measures can be put in place to prevent theft at a community that has no Torah.
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How to go
What: Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, chief rabbi of Uganda, to speak
When: Monday, April 8, 7 p.m.
Where: Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, 2020 W. Brown Deer Road, River Hills.
Cost: Free and open to the public. Cantor Jerry Berkowitz was impressed with Sizomu during his visit to Africa and has gathered up some funding from Wisconsin donors, synagogues and the Jewish Community Foundation of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, to make Sizomu’s visit possible.