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Abayudaya Jews of Uganda

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The Abayudaya (Abayudaya is Luganda for "People of Judah", analogous to Children of Israel) are a Baganda community in eastern Uganda near the town of Mbale who practice Judaism. They are devout in their practice, keeping their version of kashrut, and observing Shabbat. There are several different villages where the Ugandan Jews live. Most of these are recognized by the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism. However, the villagers of Putti are still seeking an Orthodox conversion and practice strict Rabbinical Judaism.

Their population is estimated at approximately 2,000 having once been as large as 3,000 (prior to the persecutions of the Idi Amin regime, during which their numbers dwindled to around 300); like their neighbors, they are subsistence farmers. Most Abayudaya are of Bagwere origin, except for those from Namutumba who are Basoga. They speak Luganda, Lusoga or Lugwere, although some have learned Hebrew as well.  As of 2009, most of the community lives around the Moses synagogue on Nabugoye Hill outside Mbale or the nearby synagogue in the village of Namanyoyi. Others live several miles away from Mbale in Nasenyi and Putti (both in Pallisa District). A fifth synagogue is in Magada village (Namutumba District), approximately 70 km distant.

Gershom Sizomu, the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya and the Rosh Yeshiva, was enrolled in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies a five-year graduate program at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) in Los Angeles, California where he studied Hebrew, rabbinic literature, the Bible, Jewish philosophy, and other subjects. The program entailed studies in both the USA and Israel. Upon completion of this program, Sizomu received his ordination as a rabbi under the auspices of the Conservative Movement on May 19, 2008, and returned to Uganda to lead its Jewish community.

In 2002 the story of the Abayudaya was told in the book Abayudaya:The Jews of Uganda, with photographs and text by photojournalist Richard Sobol and musical recordings produced by Jeffrey Summit and published by Abbeville Press. Sobol has continued to travel and lecture with a multi media slide presentation to help bring the Ugandan Jews out of isolation.

In 2007 an independent production team, Marion Segal Productions, made a documentary film on the Abayudaya on behalf of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC-TV). Its title, "Pearls of Africa," is a reference to the fact that this region of Africa is also known as the pearl of Africa


Music has been an important aspect in the lives of the Abayudaya. In recent years, the community has produced two CDs that are centered on religious themes. In fact, one of the albums, entitled Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda produced by Jeffrey Summit was nominated for a Best Traditional World Music album at the 47th Grammy Awards.

In addition to this, their community has received further recognition and respect within the Jewish community because of the work of Noam Katz, a Jewish American musician. His 2005 CD, Mirembe ("peace" in Luganda), featured the Abayudaya in the majority of its songs. In addition to studying at a seminary, Katz travels throughout North America, and gives a slideshow/concert which showcases the music of the Abayudaya.

The music of the Abayudaya is distinctly African yet Jewish at the same time. Many of the songs combine words in Luganda as well as Hebrew. Additionally, Psalms and prayers are set to a distinctly African tune and rhythm. Music is viewed as important by the community for a variety of reasons. Some elders of the community have maintained that it was music that enabled the community to persevere through the harsh conditions that it had to endure under the reign of Idi Amin. Source