The Abayudaya Youth Association -- Motto: Struggle Continues

Posted by Amy Schwartz on Tue, Aug 17, 2010 at 12:28 pm

This is the third in a series of blogs by Amy Schwartz reporting from her summer fellowship at HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya.

Please enjoy this mini-documentary about the dreams and struggles of a Jewish youth group in Uganda, the Abayudaya Youth Association.

Jewish? Uganda?

Abayudaya?

Who are they?

The Abayudaya are a Ugandan community who began practicing Judaism in 1919. They are not genetically or historically ethnic Jews but are a devout community keeping Kashrut and fully observing Shabbat.

The story begins with a British colonial agent, Semei Kakungulu, who started to keep and practice the Jewish Shabbat and shortly later had roughly 3,000 followers.

Today the Abayudaya have roughly 1,250 followers and are only recognized by members of the Reform and Conservative movements.

When the HIAS Board of Directors were here in East Africa on their mission to Kenya and Uganda last month, we were all blessed to spend a Shabbat with this community.

I will leave it up to you to read the various articles written on this community, mainly on the website of Kulanu (a non-profit organization which supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world).

What I want to highlight today is not whether this community is truly Jewish, or what they eat on Shabbat, how they dress, conduct services, or whether they speak Hebrew.

The most impressive part of my weekend with the Abayudaya was meeting the members of the Abayudaya Youth Association.

When we were on a light walking tour of the community on Shabbat day, I started to speak with Kirya Israel, who was 26, the same age as me. He was telling me about his studies in economics, a bit about the diverse visitors they get each Shabbat, and then he pulled out his business card.

Wow, okay, thanks Kirya! I don’t even have a business card!

Abayudaya Youth Association. Motto: Struggle Continues.

I thought , okay, this makes sense. There are always Jewish Youth groups in all communities. But for some reason I was still taken aback. Perhaps it was because most of the emphasis that I have heard on this community seems to be on the irony that an African community keeps a higher level of Shabbat then most of the visitors. Or that they really can’t be Jewish.

I never heard about a Jewish Youth group in Uganda that organizes classes, football matches, services, social events, etc. throughout the year. They even partner with USY in the States!

I was so impressed by their high level of enthusiasm for keeping their youth engaged in all types of activities, wanting to learn more modern conversational Hebrew and, the most beautiful, was their genuine dream to visit Israel, the Promised Land as they told me.

You will see in the video that the Chairman of the organization, Kalema Joseph, really wants to visit the Western Wall. He told me he continues to look at photos on the web, but it is not enough. He wants to see the physical wall.

He also told me that Birthright Israel often sends visitors to the community for Shabbat, but they haven’t yet taken them on a trip. They say they are trying, but there are so many strings attached. He stresses the Abayudaya are different than the Ethiopians and that their goal is not to stay in Israel but to visit and come back.

On a surface level, it seems their genuine want to visit the ‘promised land’ should be sufficient enough to warrant one trip of 20-30 youth, right?

How many Jewish young adults in the U.S. do we need to convince over and over just to try Birthright! I know I have convinced quite a few. And we all know Birthright isn’t so strict; for example, you can be a ‘quarter’ Jewish and attend a trip.

I have not done the necessary research yet to see why Birthright has not gone forward with a trip for this community. I hope to hear comments if anyone has further information.

Nevertheless, I thought it would be quite dynamic to see for yourselves who the Abayudaya Youth are and the future leaders of this unique community.

On behalf of the AYA, they would love to hear from you and hope you can visit them soon.

Please contact them directly:
Chairman, Kalema Joseph
Minister of Ethics & Gender, Kirya Israel

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