Jewish Ugandans on MASA gather pieces of Israel to take back home

Five members of Abayudaya community studying in Israel for 5 months.

Five Conservative converts from Uganda’s Abayudaya community who are studying in Israel (photo credit: MAROM)
Five Conservative converts from Uganda’s Abayudaya community who are studying in Israel
(photo credit: MAROM)
A group of five young Conservative converts from Uganda’s Abayudaya community are currently living their dream of studying Torah and Hebrew in Israel, following a three-year struggle to obtain A-2 visas for their participation in a Marom- MASA program.
The A-2 visa is granted according to the Law of Return, and until last year, the Abayudaya community was not formally recognized by the Israeli government, impeding their path to Israel.
Since the early 20th century, members of the Abayudaya community, now 1,500, have been observing Judaism, and in 2002, the majority formally converted.
The government’s recognition in 2016 was followed by a series of bureaucratic issues and apparent miscommunication between the relevant bodies, until finally, at the last-minute their visas were pushed through.
Sarah Nabaggala, 26, said she had been disappointed and upset by the initial rejection of her application, but didn’t lose hope and has since had her faith restored in the Israeli government since it approved their applications.
Nabaggala spoke to The Jerusalem Post at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem last week, when the group had analytical group discussions of Talmudic texts.
She had her eyes opened by this method of studying. “It’s exciting for me,” she said, explaining that Ugandan teaching methods lack this collective aspect. “This system of hevruta is great, because you learn another view from your peer,” she said. “I like the idea of class participation with the teacher – I want to take it back home.”
The students are in the Hagshama program, a collaboration between nonprofit organization Marom and MASA.
Marom is dedicated to organizing activities and creating a space that inspires young Jews to connect to their Judaism and to Israel. It has been operating in the Ugandan capital for the past seven years, meeting a demand for an organized Jewish community there.
Hagshama strives to expose the students to a variety of tools to create study sessions and programs that they can implement in Uganda, along with leadership skills. The program includes a two-month semester in the Conservative Yeshiva studying prayer and learning Hebrew and Jewish texts, ulpan classes at Morasha and three months living, studying and volunteering in Kibbutz Ketura.
Members of the group are between the ages of 23-30, and they began the program at the beginning of February.
Almost two months in and immersed in their classes, the members of the group have decided together that they want to transfer their improved Hebrew skills to their community.
“As a group we are hoping to create a program for the youth. We are planning a project to teach skills like Hebrew and computer skills, or how to write a resume,” Nabaggala explained.
Fellow group member Kibita Yosef, 30, said he is hoping to teach them so that they can also benefit from the trip. He sees great value in the Hebrew lessons, already feeling the benefit himself in understanding prayer books and Jewish texts.
“You benefit much more when you are reading something you understand,” he said, highlighting a problem faced by Jews worldwide, who have Hebrew reading skills, but don’t necessarily have the comprehension skills to match.
Participants of Hagshama, which means fulfillment in Hebrew, truly feel that they have realized their dreams in coming to Israel, and wish the same experience for their friends and family back home.
Ibrahim Mukkibi, 30, recounts that he had tried to enlist to the IDF when he was 20, but was unable to come to Israel as his community was not yet formally recognized.
“I grew up singing ‘next year in Jerusalem’ and it happened, and it was so exciting and I’ve seen many things that are different here – Jews in Uganda see Israel in its biblical form and so now we see how it is in the modern day... I’d love my whole community to see it,” said Mukkibi, who laments that he was held up at the airport due to the Arabic spelling of his name. He notes that he was forced to change his name from Avraham when he was a child attending a Catholic school.
While they speak of the pain of not having been recognized previously, the three group members who spoke to the Post described overwhelmingly positive experiences of Israel and its people since being here, aside from an aversion to bus drivers who they describe as “rude” and “rough.”
Yosef said he has been warned by Israelis visiting Kampala that he might face racism in Israel, however, he has been pleasantly surprised, saying “it’s not been like that.”
Mukkibi has identified an additional strength in Israel society that he wishes to learn from in order to make a change in his home country – treatment of the disabled population.
The group participated in a workshop hosted by Adraba – the Shirley Lowy Center for Children & Youth with Disabilities, an activity that inspired Mukkibi.
According to Mukkibi, disabilities are still taboo in Uganda.
“We want to train people to accept these people,” he said, observing that infrastructure in Israel is better adapted to aiding people with disabilities, For instance, he noticed that at pedestrian crossings there are audio aids for the blind. “In Uganda, you have nothing,” he regretted.
The five bright-eyed participants of Hagshama all display the same thirst to learn and passion to change. They describe a thriving Jewish community back in Kampala, which is well-integrated with the rest of society.
“I feel 100% comfortable being a Jew in Uganda and I’m even thinking about becoming a rabbi,” Mukkibi said. He said the situation for Jews in the country has drastically changed since the 1970s, when they were persecuted and seen as betrayers for choosing Judaism over Christianity.
“Now when we came back and reorganized, we learned from our past and we decided to bring everything on board,” he said. “If we have an activity, it’s to benefit everyone.”
“When I was young nobody believed Judaism was a good faith,” Mukkibi recalled. He’s not alone in pointing to Rabbi Gershom Sizom, Uganda’s first Jewish MP, in helping to turn the situation around for the country’s Jews. “The rabbi was elected and the majority of votes was not from Jews,” he said, referencing the community’s small number. ”He wears a kippa, they know he is a Jew and they respect his observance,” he said, describing an accepting environment for Jews today.
Yosef agreed. “Previously being a Jew in Uganda was hard, but now it’s fun,” he said, adding that Jews have become a far more understood and known part of society.
The interviewees said aliya is not on the agenda for them, and Mukkibi stressed that this is not the community’s primary concern.
“I don’t rule it [aliya] out, but generally as a community we are not interested in living in Israel, but we are interested in having a spiritual attachment to it,” he said. “The community wants Israel as a mother. We want to be free to be allowed to come and learn and explore and interact with the people of Israel – that’s the dream, and it’s missing.”
Marom project director Leetal Oknan who together with director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel, Rabbi Andy Sacks spearheaded the battle to get the five to Israel, said the path will indeed be easier moving forward.
Groups such as Taglit have already expressed interest in working with the Ugandan community, she said. The fight for the recognition of the Abayudaya will empower other small communities around the world, “to make Israel the Kibbutz Galuyot that it aims to be,” she said.