Uganda's Century-Old Jewish Community Riven by Sectarian Divide

Even in Rural Africa, Split Over Orthodoxy Rears Head

African Envoy: Ugandan Jewish leader Gershom Sizomu meets with then-President George W. Bush in 2007.
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African Envoy: Ugandan Jewish leader Gershom Sizomu meets with then-President George W. Bush in 2007.

By Ben Sales

Published March 24, 2014.
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(JTA) — On Fridays at sundown, the Jewish residents of this village set amid the lush hills of eastern Uganda gather in the synagogue to greet Shabbat.

The room is bare, the light is dim and the Conservative prayer books are worn. But the spare surroundings do little to diminish the enthusiasm of the men, women and children who sing psalms, clap and dance while a few in the front strum guitars and play drums.

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Two days later and an hour away in the village of Putti, a handful of men wake at sunrise and trudge into a narrow room lit only by sunbeams streaming through the nearby banana trees. Those who have tefillin wrap them, while the rest sit on hard benches behind oblong wooden desks reading from traditional Orthodox prayer books with crumbling bindings. A sheet hung by a string demarcates an empty women’s section. At the front of the room hangs an Israeli flag.

Until the early 2000s, the two communities were one. Known as the Abayudaya, the 2,000-member group has practiced Judaism for about a century, owing to a former community leader who read the Bible and adopted the religion.

Now, despite being led by cousins and sharing other ties, the communities are split and barely speak to each other. Even in the mountains of rural East Africa, there’s the synagogue you go to and the one you don’t.

In the late 1990s, Conservative movement leaders began to visit the Abayudaya and, in 2002, many community members underwent conversion by a Conservative rabbinical court. Gershom Sizomu, the Nabugoye group’s American-trained rabbi, calls it a “confirmation.”

But Sizomu’s cousin, Enosh Keki Maniah, soon learned that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative conversions, so he and a handful of followers declined the confirmation, opting instead to practice Orthodoxy. In 2003, they left Nabugoye for Putti.

“The goal of our grandparents were not [just] to be here as Jewish people but to be known as Jewish people,” Maniah said. “All along, our grandparents had a dream to go to Israel.”


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