Singing and dancing jubilantly to the beat of a drum, some 40 young men and women from the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda took party in a dedication ceremony for a Torah scroll at the Western Wall on Monday morning.
The group paraded the Torah scroll the short distance from the Dung Gate to the egalitarian prayer section of the Western Wall by Robinson’s Arch, and then conducted the morning prayer service and read from the Torah which has been donated to the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel by the Temple Beth Am Conservative synagogue in Margate, Florida.
Referencing Psalm 126, the participants described their visit to Israel as like a dream come true. Nevertheless, they said that they felt pain at the recent refusal by the Ministry of Interior to recognize their community as Jewish.
The group is currently on the first ever Birthright trip from the Abayudaya community, and has been touring the country since last Tuesday. The visit has been organized in conjunction with Marom, the Center for Spiritual and Masorti Judaism, based in Israel.
The Abayudaya community in Uganda numbering approximately 2,000 people today adopted Judaism in the early 20th century, after their leader, having been exposed to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament by Christian missionaries chose to be Jewish.
Most members formally converted through the US Conservative movement between 2002 and 2010, and were recognized as a Jewish community by the Jewish Agency in 2010.
The Interior Ministry has however refused to recognize the Abayudaya as Jewish, and recently rejected the application of a member of the community to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, as converts are entitled to do, since the Abayudaya are defined as so-called “emerging communities” for whom normal criteria do not apply, the ministry now says.
Despite these difficulties, the Birthright participants were clearly ecstatic over their trip to the Jewish state, the dedication of the Torah scroll, and the visit to the Western Wall.
“It’s amazing. Everyone in Uganda [in the Abayudaya community] dreams about coming to Israel, we read the Bible and the whole script of the Bible talks about Israel, the Children of Israel, and all the historical sites here, and many people just read about them but have never seen them,” Yonatan, one of the participants, told The Jerusalem Post at the Western Wall Monday morning.
He said that his first visit to the Western Wall on Friday had been the highlight of the trip so far.
“It’s a dream of everyone from my community,” he said. “Everyone in my country, including also Christians and Muslims, would love to visit here. I felt very close to Hashem [God] and I felt like my prayers that I asked there will be answered very soon, because I felt the love for Judaism and our ancestors, and felt like I was home.”
Keron, another participant, said he felt “very excited” to be in the country, and that he had been particularly moved by spending Shabbat in Israel, noting the restful and calm atmosphere that prevails on the Sabbath in the Jewish state.
“It’s a dream come true, we are very surprised and very happy, we didn’t expect it now,” said Keron, noting the difficulties the community experienced in organizing this first ever Birthright trip for its youth.
Although clearly thrilled to be in Israel, the refusal of the state authorities to recognize their Jewish status is something that rankles.
“It is so heartbreaking,” said Yonatan regarding the recent rejection by the Interior Ministry of the aliyah application of community member Yosef Kibita.
“Even though we were not born here, according to the Bible all the Jews belong to Israel, but it [the rejection] doesn’t weaken us in believing in God, because my community has been in existence for almost 100 years and we have not been coming here but we have been practicing Judaism, so that will not change us from being Jewish.
“I would like them to treat my community like they treat other [Jewish] communities, because it is God who can judge someone’s faith. Not a human being. That’s why we are always very strong because we know they are not God, this is just a political game.”
Yonatan insisted that even if recognized by the state as Jewish and given the right to make aliyah, not all members of the Abayudaya community would want to immigrate, saying that they wanted recognition as Jews and the freedom to visit the country easily.
This view was echoed by Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, one of the leaders of the community in Uganda, who said that the situation would be similar to that of other Diaspora groups, some of whom immigrate and some of whom remain in the country of their birth.
Sizomu described the Birthright visit as “a wonderful development” and a historical landmark.
“To be Jewish, you are connected to the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the Torah. It’s an intrinsic part of being Jewish,” he said, adding that efforts are now afoot to set up a Birthright visit for over-30s in the community.
So-called emerging communities like the Abayudaya have become a thorny issue for the state. Several groups in Africa and Latin America claiming affinity to, or to be descendants from the Jewish people, as well as large groups of converts, have become emerged in recent years.
The Interior Ministry is concerned about the abuse of conversion, and mass claims of Jewish ancestry, for the purposes of immigration to Israel from Third World countries.
Nevertheless, several years ago it entered into an agreement with the Jewish Agency in which it gave the organization the ability to determine what communities are recognized for the purposes of immigration.