To be a rabbi: How one Abayudaya hopes to help his community

‘We want recognition so we can say we are part of the Jewish nation’

Asiimwe Rabbin Rivbin hopes to serve as a rabbi in the Abayudaya community in Uganda. (photo credit: SUPPLIED)
Asiimwe Rabbin Rivbin hopes to serve as a rabbi in the Abayudaya community in Uganda.
(photo credit: SUPPLIED)
Asiimwe Rabbin Rivbin’s journey to Judaism has not been simple. But from the moment he joined the tribe, he was set on becoming a rabbi for his Abayudaya community in Uganda.
For now, Rabbin, as he is now known, is studying to grow his Torah knowledge at Fuchsberg Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and plans to continue his studies in rabbinical school - which could take five to six years.
He grew up in western Uganda far from Uganda’s tiny Jewish community.
“I grew up Christian. My original name was Robert,” he explained to The Jerusalem Post. “My grandmother brought me up and my uncle, who was a big influence in my life, was practicing Judaism.”
For 20 years, Rabbin’s uncle read and studied the Hebrew Bible, kept Shabbat as his day of rest and prayer, and endeavored to understand the Jewish way of life - all the while unaware there was a Jewish community in eastern Uganda.
“A few years back, he met a group of IDF soldiers and they started talking about their roots. Then they told him about Semei Kakungulu and the Abayudaya Jewish community in the east. He didn’t know there were Jews in Uganda,” Rabbin recalled.
His uncle’s influence in his life is what led him on his path to accept Judaism.
“My uncle arranged a meeting with the community’s rabbi Gershom Sizomu,” he said. “I wanted to be Jewish, so I went to the Jewish school named after the founder of the Abayudaya, Semei Kakungulu, and lived with Rabbi Gershom’s family and the community near Mbale for seven years. We are still very close.”
The Semei Kakungulu High School and Hadassah Primary School were established by the community to theach their youth Hebrew and Judaism, in addition to the regular Uganda government curriculum.
In June, the Abayudaya celebrated 100 years of existence. The community was started in 1919 by a colonial administrator named Semei Kakungulu, who’s background was both Muslim and Christian.
After reading and studying the Old Testament, he decided to circumcise his followers and declared himself a Jew. Since then, the community has survived even during the most dire times, including the reign of dictator Idi Amin, when a small amount of Abayudaya continued practicing Judaism secretly. Many Abayudaya were persecuted in the 1970s. Some were arrested. Others were compelled to abandon Judaism.
However, by the 1980s, the core group which had persisted through Idi Amin’s persecution retaught those who had abandoned Judaism. They also taught others who wanted to learn about Judaism, and the Abayudaya began to flourish again.
Between 1999 and 2002, the American NGO Kulanu arranged for rabbis to supervise the conversion or “affirmation” of most of the Abayudaya and help support educational efforts.
Since then the Conservative Jewish movement has continued to work closely with the Abayudaya. According to Rabbin, there are 2,000 members in Uganda today living in several villages.
He explained that he joined the community in 2007, and went through a conversion a year later.
“While staying with Rabbi Gershom, I started understanding Jewish culture, kashrut, and the belief in one God,” he said. “Rabbi Gershom taught me a lot about Judaism, the holidays and Torah.”
Rabbin explained that what hooked him was the understanding that “to do good, it has to be through people,” which he learned from the biblical figure of Moses.
Just prior to his conversion, “I went back to Kampala for a holiday and told my uncle I was ready [to be Jewish], and that I wanted to be circumcised.”
He was later circumcised and finally, after going through the Abayudaya’s internal conversion process, which takes between one and two years, Rabbin officially joined the tribe and celebrated his bar mitzvah.
Asked what inspired him to take the Jewish name Rabbin, he said that it was his passion to become a rabbi, explaining that that’s why his name is spelled this way, to incorporate the word “rabbi.”
“As a Christian, I was very involved in youth leadership and I wanted to do the same here. I wanted to help them to understand how to connect with God,” he said.
Rabbin first visited Israel in 2016. Two years later he returned as a madrich for the first-ever Abayudaya Birthright trip.
“There is only one rabbi for 2,000 members of our community - so if not me, then who?” he explained. “I want to be able to visit the communities, learn with members and be there for them to answer questions.”
Asked about the challenges the community is facing, he mentioned unemployment, poverty, the negative influences on the youth, lack of infrastructure like electricity and running water, and the need for improved education and health.
Rabbin explained that without electricity, keeping meat and other perishable goods is difficult, so the community are mostly vegetarian.
He said apart from very special occasions, chicken or meat is not cooked because there is no where to refrigerate it.
The community is also in need of Hebrew prayer books and chumashim, and is calling on volunteers from Israel and other Jewish communities to come and teach Torah and Hebrew.
“The youth are taught how to read Hebrew, but sometimes they don’t always know what they are reading,” he said. “I also need to improve my Hebrew, and that’s my challenge if I’m going to become a rabbi.”
Youth activities are organized by the Uganda chapters of Noam Olami and Marom in Kampala, which are Conservative Jewish youth movements that unite all Jewish students including those at university.
“We promote Jewish values and customs, and do a lot of activities with the youth, especially on Shabbat,” Rabbin explained.
Although recognized as Jewish by the Jewish Agency for Israel, official recognition of the Abayudaya by the Israeli government remains “a big obstacle.
“The Jewish Agency recognize us but not the Rabbanut. Why? We need reasons and answers from them so we can fix this, and we don’t have those answers,” Rabbin explained. “My prayer is that the Rabbanut will come to Uganda and see our community for themselves.
“Also, for most of us, it is not about making aliyah. We don’t want the recognition to make aliyah. We want it so we can say we are part of the Jewish nation,” he stressed.
Rabbin emphasized the Abayudaya identify themselves as converts and don’t claim to be from any of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.
“I hope this balagan will be over soon,” he concluded.