Not Jewish Enough

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My friend Elisha wants to come to Israel to study Torah in yeshiva. The trouble is, he can’t get a visa. Is it because he’s black, he asks me? No, I don’t think so. Though his mother and father were brought up to be good Jews by their fathers and mothers, Elisha isn’t quite Jewish enough.
Elisha Higenyi’s slogan on his Facebook page is "I love helping needy people." He is Projects Manager and Chief Executive Officer at Youth First Farmer's Development Association. He is also the spiritual leader and cantor at Kahal Kadosh She'erit Yisrael (or KKSY, “Holy Congregation Remnant of Israel”) in the Putti Jewish community in Uganda.

Every Zionist child knows the story, even though it is somewhat in error. The British government offered a chunk of Uganda to Theodore Herzl for a Jewish homeland 114 years ago. (The 5,000 square mile area was actually in Kenya, which is the error in the historical account; but that it was in Uganda persists due to the name of the project.) I am grateful that the Zionists of the early 1900s continued to pursue our own homeland in Israel. Nonetheless, there must have been some seriously holy Jewish sparks in Africa, because about 90 years ago, Judaism began to evolve in Uganda.

Briefly – as the story can be studied in full at Wikipedia and its attendant sources – in 1880, Muganda military leader Semei Kakungulu was converted to Christianity by British missionaries. Through the years, Kakungulu and his followers changed their religious practice to be more in line with the Old Testament. When he insisted on circumcision for himself and his sons, he was told that he would be “like the Jews.” So, Kakungulu decided he and is community were Jewish.

Over the decades, and with help from visiting Jews from Europe, the US, and Israel, the community learned and took on more Jewish beliefs and observance. They called themselves the Abayudaya – People of Judah – and lived as Jewishly as possible. There was harsh oppression under Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish practice; but a remnant of the community survived.
In 2002, 400 members of the Abayudaya were converted by Conservative rabbis. Their community received assistance from wealthy Jews in America to build synagogues and to receive more Jewish education. A small group of the Abayudaya were interested in pursuing a more Orthodox lifestyle and formed a community in the village of Putti. In 2012, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin performed a group conversion for about a hundred members of the community. Though there is now a mikvah, and the members of KKSY keep the laws of family purity, keep kosher, perform brit milah on their sons and observe Shabbat – they are not considered Jewish by the Israeli Rabbinate.

Here is my question. I understand the need to be cautious about accepting converts. It is important that the convert be sincere, have no ulterior motives, and understand what he is getting himself into. After all, throughout history, it has often not been a favor to help someone join this beleaguered Nation. But in a world teeming with anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment, why would we not embrace with great love and much assistance a community that chose Israel, chose Judaism, for the purest of motives: because it is what they believe is the right path?
Every time we Jews recite Hallel, we say: “Every nation, celebrate Hashem; every society, praise Him. For His kindness overwhelms us, and Hashem is Truth eternally: Celebrate Hashem.” What can we possibly mean by those words, if we reject a community that steeps itself in celebration of Hashem – with no motivation other than belief in the Jewish God and the Jewish way of life? How can we not embrace our brothers and sisters?

The KKSY community in Putti is not alone, thank God. Among others giving assistance is my neighbor in Neve Daniel, Yonatan Segal. Yonatan has visited Uganda three times to teach. “They are so poor. In many cases, they have no electricity or running water. They need material assistance – books, kosher food, money for an education center. But more than that, they need recognition.”
Another friend and neighbor, Avigail Gimpel, has taught classes via Skype, and plans to teach the women about the laws of family purity using the same technology. “What amazed me was how simply they live, no electricity or running water, but it was before Shabbat, so they looked beautiful – starched white shirts, homemade magnificent dresses – so modest, respectful and proud. They were greeting Shabbat in a way that made me long to be a part of their uncomplicated joy of Shabbat. The women had all cooked together in a communal ‘kitchen,’ everyone was barefoot, adults and kids alike. They were sitting in a circle, men on one side, women on the other, and for as far as my eyes could see there were lush mango trees. The other thing I loved was how happy they seemed to be. It looked like an inner peace that is almost entirely absent in our world. I almost felt embarrassed telling them that I was squeezing our meeting in between carpool, work and the next chore. It’s a beautiful other world. Their Judaism is pure and simple, no strings attached. I can’t wait to visit in person.”

Back to my friend – no. Back to my brother, Elisha Higenyi. He is a thirty-year-old father of two handsome little boys, Eliss and Eliron. I got to spend a little time with Elisha and shy little Eliron via Whatsapp video chat. (What a miraculous age in which to live!) He took time to meet with me while his wife, Elisheva, continued the work in the fields, where he would join her after our interview.
Elisha was elected to become a spiritual leader and cantor of the KKSY community when he was 22. Elisha’s goal is to get the education needed to answer halachic questions for his community. He reminds me that he is third generation Jewish. “In 2019, we will be observing our 100th anniversary.”
I was curious about whether we shared similar challenges with keeping our young people interested in Judaism. After all, they are a tiny community, surrounded by Christians and Muslims, with whom they currently have peaceful relations. “It’s hard to maintain kids in practicing Judaism,” he agrees. “When they grow up from ages one to three, their mothers can teach them the practices of Judaism.” But because they lack adequate schooling, “when we send them to non-Jewish schools, they teach them non-Jewish ideas, and they pick up things that are not Jewish from their classmates. We are trying to establish a Jewish school and a Hebrew beit midrash, to prepare the children before they go to school.”

I asked him about getting kosher food. “How do you get matzah for Pesach?”
“We have connections in the US and Israel, sometimes our friends send us matzah; but if we fail to get the matzah, we bake our own.” Having tasted the matzah baked by my Sephardi neighbor, I had to admit that homemade matzah had its appeal.
What impressed me most about Elisha was that he was clearly not interested in a handout. “I don’t want to give my people fish. I want to get for them fishing poles and teach them to fish.” He smiled broadly, proudly, with this pronouncement. “We need more rabbis, more knowledge, to help Judaism in Uganda, to make it strong.”

Elisha’s Youth First Farmer’s Development Association is an NGO that was founded in 2010. “As a developing country, we are focused on agriculture and education and religion. This is a student-run organization to help Jewish people in Uganda to raise and grow profitable crops, so they can generate income in their homes.”
I asked Elisha what message he had for those outside Uganda. “I would love the Jewish world to know this: we didn’t become Jewish to gain benefit. We are connected to Israel because it is our chosen Nation. We believe in Israel and her people. One day we want to be in Israel… We are here to make the world a better place to live.”
We discussed the various breakdowns among the Jewish people, about which Elisha had strong feelings. “Sects in Judaism have nothing to do with brotherhood. Orthodox we agree all are Jewish. I, Elisha, have no power to judge my fellow Jew. I don’t need to find differences between Jews.”
The word “rabbi” has come to mean “my teacher.” As we end our visit, I say to Elisha, “With a message like that, a message a lot of Jews need to hear, you are to me a rabbi for this conversation.” May we come to embrace as brothers and teachers those who truly love Jews and Judaism, for its own sake.
Photos used with permission.
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