Uganda’s Jewish Community

Uganda’s Jewish Community

At the foothill of Mount Elgon resides the Abayudaya, Uganda’s Jewish community, who have existed for 99 years. They number approximately 2,000, and are led by the Member of Parliament for Bungokho North, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu – the first native born black rabbi in Sub-Saharan Africa. The community is largely based at Nabugoye hill, just outside Mbale.

Uganda’s Jewish community was founded in the early twentieth century by Semei Kakungulu, a Muganda military leader who helped the British extend the Protectorate. In 1913, he returned to Mbale, the town he had founded some years earlier. There, he became friends with a Yemeni Jewish trader, who taught him about Judaism. In 1917, Kakungulu decided to follow the Jewish faith. Two years later, he and his sons were circumcised, and he established the Abayudaya community, which is a Luganda word meaning people of Judah. He built the first synagogue on Nabugoye hill, and was buried nearby when he died in 1928. The community grew, and by 1970 is estimated to have numbered around 2,000.

But Idi Amin outlawed Judaism when he took power in 1971. Some Jews continued to practice in secret – although their numbers dwindled to 300. It would be ten years until Obote reclaimed power and announced freedom of religion in 1981.

The community were formally converted by a Beit Din – Rabbinical court – sent by the Conservative movement in 2002. In 2009, the community got its own rabbi, and in 2016, the new Stern Synagogue opened its doors. It is a 7,000 square feet structure, with a main sanctuary, ancillary prayer room and kivah (Jewish ritual bath). It is named after the couple who largely financed it, Ralph and Sue Stern, American philanthropists.

Recently, the Interior Ministry of Israel refused to recognise Uganda’s Abayudaya community, when they rejected a request by a Ugandan Jew, Kibitz Yosef, to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. The Jewish Agency for Israel nevertheless did recognise the community in 2016, and Uganda’s Jews continue to faithfully follow their religion.