BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR //
Life for members of the small Jewish community in Uganda has gotten dramatically better in recent weeks. Their good fortune is the product of a chance encounter late last year in Jerusalem that eventually played out in metro Atlanta and the tiny village of Mbale in Eastern Uganda.
The story begins with Shalom Lewis, the well-known and respected rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb, taking a sabbatical break in Israel. Along with his wife Cindy, Rabbi Lewis spent several months last winter traveling and visiting with family and friends, eventually settling in Jerusalem to do some serious study at the Conservative Yeshiva in the center of the city.
Meanwhile, a young lawyer from Uganda, Moses Sebagabo, was also in Jerusalem. His remarkable tale is filled with a series of twists and turns that place him at the heart of Uganda’s small but spiritually rich Jewish community – the Abayudaya, a sect that didn’t even exist a century ago.
The original Abayudaya (the word is Luganda for “People of Judah”), among them Sebagabo’s great-grandfather, split off from Christianity in the early 20th century for an assortment of reasons. They began identifying as Jews and observing Jewish laws and customs.
Today, the community operates seven synagogues – one Orthodox and six Conservative – and a mikveh. It has a rabbi, ordained by the Conservative movement, and two ritual slaughterers trained in Israel to provide kosher meat. It also runs a Jewish school and Jewish youth groups.
For the last several years, Sebagabo has served as a chazzan, gabbai and lay leader for six or so synagogues in the country. In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of Judaism and its rituals and to better serve the Jews of Uganda, he decided to go back to school.
And so it was that last winter he, too, was studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was only a matter of time before the rabbi from Atlanta and the lawyer from Uganda met. They couldn’t have been more different. The lifestyle and cultural gap between the two men was vast.
Rabbi Lewis lives in one of the wealthiest nations in the world; a land of abundance filled with massive cities and sprawling suburbs; vast shopping malls surrounded by restaurants, specialty shops, discount stores and markets. If you want or need something you buy it.
Mbale, Sebagabo’s little village in Uganda, is a jarring mix of mud huts and small brick buildings, linked mostly by twisting and rutted dirt roads. There are few shops, no power and little fresh water. Despair hangs heavily on the horizon. If you want or need something you pray for it.
“He, his family and his communities live in the third, some might even say in the fourth world,” Rabbi Lewis said. “Amenities we routinely enjoy and take for granted are only distant dreams for these impoverished souls and yet they celebrate life and their faith.”
The two men spent time together in Jerusalem, discussed their lives and beliefs and came to realize they share much in common. After all, they were both Jews. Time passed and months later the men had returned to their homes and daily lives; Rabbi Lewis to the abundance of America, Sebagabo to the grinding poverty of Uganda.
“Before Moshe (the given name Sebagabo prefers and goes by) left Israel, I asked that he stay in touch and let me know if there was anything we could do to help him with his Jewish outreach,” Rabbi Lewis said. It turns out there was something he and his community badly needed: a solar-powered generator.
It was a simple request but a huge financial investment. The machine would cost $1,800, a fortune in Uganda where the median income for families is only a few hundred dollars a year. But the impact of a generator would be priceless.
Cell phones – even a few computers – can be found in Mbale. But to charge the devices, Sebagabo and others in the village regularly walk hours to the nearest city. So a generator would mean Sebagabo could talk with other Jews in the area, have constant access to the web and stay in touch with the world.
It would also mean when the sun settled below the horizon each night at least one house would have lights.
“I realized that there is a huge difference in the way Moshe lives and what we take for granted,” Rabbi Lewis told The Atlanta Jewish Times recently. “It’s astonishing that people live like this in the 21st Century.”
It only took a couple of phone calls, a note to Etz Chaim congregants and a few weeks to raise the necessary money. A month or so later, the funds were wired to Sebagabo and early this summer the generator was installed.
“I don’t know which words I can use to show how much I appreciate the funds you contributed towards helping me have light in my house,” Sebagabo wrote recently to Rabbi Lewis. “I will now be able to explore the great Jewish texts and Jewish laws on the internet. I pray that the Almighty Hashem rewards you all for your generous support.”
Sebagabo is now planning to continue his studies. He’s just recently applied for acceptance into the Jewish studies program at Hebrew College in Boston, Mass. His hope, if he’s accepted and can find the necessary funds to travel to the U.S., is to return to Uganda and work as a teacher.
“The Abayudaya community is growing,” he says, “and a ‘Jewish Family Educator’ will be responsible to travel from synagogue to synagogue in order to extend Jewish education to the communities, schools and families.”
For his part, Rabbi Lewis has found the entire experience thrilling.
“The fact that we in Marietta can help a Conservative congregation on the other side of the planet in Africa is incredible,” he said, “and offers us a real sense of Tzedakah. It was a rare opportunity.”
For additional information about the Abayudaya community or to contact Moses Sebagabo, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.