Ugandan Jewish leader speaks proudly in Oakland

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At a synagogue in Oakland recently, a man visiting from far away played guitar while singing “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Hinei Ma Tov,” a blue yarmulke atop his head. In his own town, he performs weddings and circumcisions, ministers to the sick and teaches in a Jewish school.

Aaron Kintu Moses might appear to be a typical rabbi, but he’s not. He’s the spiritual leader and Jewish education director of the Abayudaya community in Mbale, Uganda.

As part of a recent North American speaking tour, he visited Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland last month.

Aaron Kintu Moses greets people after his talk at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. photo/russell eisenman

Moses shared the story of the nearly 100-year-old, 1,000-member Abayudaya (“People of Judah”) community and its struggle to maintain Jewish identity in Uganda in the face of persecution and intolerance.

Most of the community lives in Mbale, where they study Jewish traditions and customs, observe Shabbat and keep kosher. Moses’ brother is Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the first chief rabbi of Uganda. Sizomu studied for five years at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, graduating in 2008 as an ordained Conserva-tive rabbi.

The Abayudaya community was established in 1919 and grew to 3,000 members, but its existence was threatened when Idi Amin seized power in 1971. Amin murdered an estimated 500,000 of his countrymen and threatened Ugandan Jews with firing squads for practicing their faith. The community dwindled to 300.

“There were services held in houses,” Moses said. “We prayed in a cave in our village. We stayed in hiding.”

Amin was ousted in 1979, and Moses has been helping to rebuild the Abayudaya community ever since. He has followed in the footsteps of his late father, who served as the community’s spiritual leader before he died in 1986.

In 2001, Moses quit his public school job to help build and direct a Jewish school and synagogue. He helped bring electricity to the community for the first time in 2004. In 2007, it was a well for water and the first showers at the school.

Moses leads the community in celebrating the Jewish holidays. “Every family has a sukkahs” he said. On Purim, the community reads the Megillah in Hebrew and Ugandan. Moses also performs circumcisions.

In Mbale, two schools provide education and meals to around 700 Jewish, Muslim and Christian children. Many of them are housed at the schools because of the great distances they have to travel to get there.

However, many families do not have the funds to pay for tuition or housing, which is why the U.S.-based Kulanu, a nonprofit organization that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world, has been sponsoring Moses on speaking tours across North America in recent years. Kulanu means “all of us” in Hebrew.

At his Beth Abraham talk on Nov. 18, Moses talked about several projects, including a fair trade organic coffee program in Mbale. He said the Peace Kawomera Fair Trade Coffee Cooperative has brought together approximately 1,000 Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers. In 2008, the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership presented its Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award to the cooperative, along with its partners, Kulanu and the Thanksgiving Coffee Company of Fort Bragg, Calif.

When recapping the story of the Abayudaya’s history in Uganda, Moses smiled as he recalled Amin’s ouster in 1979, and how he left power right before Passover. “We were so happy,” Moses said. “We walked to the synagogue in joy.”

He added: “Since then, things have improved. We have schools now. We have projects. We are coming up, and I’m sure, within the next five to 10 years, our numbers will double. We’ll have 3,000. That’s what I think.” 

For more information about Kulanu and the Abayudaya, visit www.kulanu.org/abayudaya.