It was a week that reflected the very best of what Israel, the Masorti movement and the Conservative Jewish community in the US can be. They all welcomed with open arms Abayudaya Jewish youth from Uganda. In the Jewish homeland, Israelis from all backgrounds came together to embrace the Abayudaya young adults who participated on the first ever Abayudaya Birthright Israel trip made possible by Masorti and MAROM Olami. It was exciting to see the people of Israel sharing the palpable joy of Ugandan Jewish teens as they arrived in Israel and prayed at the Kotel.
Here in the United States, I was privileged to attend a special meeting with Walema Elifazi Eria, a Ugandan Jew who spoke at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center in New Jersey on Sunday. An overflow crowd warmly welcomed Walema, who provided the group with a deeper understanding of how much Judaism means to the Abayudaya community, what they have endured to remain Jewish, and how grateful the community is for the Masorti movement’s support.
As Walema spoke from the heart about how central Judaism is in his life and those of the approximately 2,500 Abayudaya Jews in Uganda, it was hard to fathom how ultra-Orthodox authorities in Israel can question the Masorti movement’s conversion of Abayudaya Jews as being “acceptable” for the entry into Israel under the Law of Return. Walema’s detailed story about his family’s survival as Jews even after Idi Amin’s severe persecution of the Abayudaya community should give the doubters great pause.
Instead, we should all be thankful that the butcher, Amin, was forced to leave before he could wipe out Judaism in Uganda. In speaking about Amin’s blessed departure, Walema said, “It happened near Passover when Amin had to leave. It was a real miracle. We could redeem our people.” He added, “Passover is my favorite holiday. It is about the Jews leaving Egypt to escape slavery and go to Israel. It gives me hope.”
He was happy to report that the Jewish community in Uganda, which strictly observes Shabbat and the laws of kashrut, is growing with the help of Masorti support and its rabbis from Israel coming to Uganda to assist them in religious matters.
However, the community faces many challenges in observing Jewish life in all of its fullness. Walema explained that the community only has six pairs of tefillin that must be shared by the nearly 400 community members that regularly attend synagogue services.
Walema said it is the dream of many in the community to make Aliyah. The Abayudaya community anxiously awaits the Israel court’s verdict on the Yosef Kabita so those who wish to continue their Jewish lives in Israel can do so under the Law of Return. We at the Masorti Foundation look forward to joining with the Masorti movement in Israel and the Jewish community in the United States to further strengthen our advocacy efforts to make sure this happens in 5779.
Walema Elifazi Eria with Rabbi Keven Tzvi Friedman, of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.
Walema was warmly embraced by the members of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center in northern New Jersey, here deep in conversation with a Congregant.
This is a Masorti Foundation blog by Alan Grossman, Assistant Director of Development for the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.