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Theology Thursdays: Jews of Africa Are Part of Passover Bond by Mark I. Pinsky

The Passover Seder held in Mbale, Uganda, in 1979 must have been among the most unusual in the history of the Jewish people.

The participants were East African Jews, and there was plenty to celebrate: Their oppressor, brutal dictator Idi Amin, had been overthrown two days before. At long last, members of this isolated community of converts, numbering in the hundreds, were free to practice their faith openly, and they did so, spontaneously composing indigenous music for Psalm 136 in their language.

Judaism has its ancient roots in the Middle East -- Israel and Palestine -- and is today best known in its European and American Diaspora. But it also has a moving chapter in East Africa, a community of Jews that numbers more than 100,000. Some, such as the Ugandans, are converts while others, such as Ethiopian Jews, can trace their faith back to Old Testament times. Though some remain in their home countries, most have emigrated to Israel because of oppression and turmoil.

"I became fascinated that there were Jews in that part of Africa," says Rabbi Steven Engel of the Congregation of Reform Judaism. In advance of Passover, which begins at sundown Monday and commemorates the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt thousands of years ago, the temple presented a program last week on the Jewish community of Uganda, featuring slides, religious music and traditional food.

"They really lived in isolation for a long time," he says. "It's fascinating that our roots were probably in Africa, and that our roots were probably black."

Jackie Rawiszer, the Orlando congregation's cantorial intern, recalls her excitement as she began researching the music in preparation for the service, listening to a Grammy-nominated CD of Ugandan Jews' music.

"I heard African rhythms and a slight change in the Hebrew," she says. "There is such a joy about this music."

"I can hear elements of call-and-response. They are borrowing from Jewish worship musical traditions that are thousands of years old."

The Ugandan Jews, called Abayudaya, "associated their deliverance from Idi Amin with the historic deliverance of Israel from Egypt," says Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, associate professor of music at Tufts University. He produced the Ugandan Jews' music CD for Smithsonian Folkways and is also co-author of Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda.

These Jews, under the leadership of a local opponent of British colonial rule, had converted to a fundamentalist, biblical form of the faith about 1920. They adopted male circumcision on the eighth day after birth, dietary laws and strict observance of the Sabbath on Saturdays.

Today, the Abayudaya, numbering less than a thousand, have no interest in emigrating to Israel, Summit says. But, for the first time, they have sent one of their traditional spiritual leaders to a Western seminary, at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Gershom Sizomu is expected to complete his studies in time to lead services in Uganda by next Passover.

The British government once considered establishing a Jewish homeland in Uganda, a proposal that Zionist leaders ultimately rejected.

Strong links

Elsewhere in East Africa, the Jewish community of Ethiopia, known as the Beta Israel, traces its direct ancestry to the time of King Solomon, and the tradition of his liaison with the Queen of Sheba.

In the decades after the Marxist revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel.

Though their exodus was related to turmoil, "the desire to return to Zion [also] was a very important part of Ethiopian tradition," says Len Lyons, author of a new book, The Ethiopian Jews of Israel: Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land.

Ethiopian Jews came out in three successive waves: Operation Moses, Operation Joshua and Operation Solomon. Rabbi Josef Hadane, chief rabbi of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel, says in Lyons' book that the events were "a big miracle, like the parting of the Red Sea. This was our exodus. This is what I teach at our family's Passover."

Integrating more than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews into the Israeli mainstream has been a challenge.

"The issue is, how to become integrated without being assimilated," says Lyons. "The job for Israel is how to accommodate this diversity, how pluralistic can Israel be in embracing its immigrants."

This effort has captured the imagination of numerous Central Florida Jews. Several young members of the Congregation of Reform Judaism have become involved in efforts to help Ethiopians find a home in Israel.

Alex Maxwell, 19, of Longwood, now a freshman at the University of North Florida, raised money for Ethiopian Jews in Israel by selling the distinctive tapestries made by the Jews for his bar mitzvah project.

In 2001, he became interested when he saw the tapestries in a South Florida synagogue, and read about the plight of destitute Ethiopian Jews stranded in the capital, Addis Ababa.

"It said how much they ate and showed the living conditions," he recalls. "I saw what they had to do to get by every day, and how little they had."

Through friends, relatives and members of the Congregation of Reform Judaism, he sold about 200 tapestries, raising $1,500 for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. Some of the money, he later learned, went for bribes to Ethiopian officials to help the Jews get out of the country, and on to Israel.

Kyle Spector, 22, of Altamonte Springs, has visited and volunteered at Ethiopian refugee centers in Israel since 2004.

"Their Hebrew was very good; they were fully integrated into the Hebrew society," says Spector, a senior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

"They all feel very much a part of Israeli society," he says. "All of them feel like they are Israelis, at least people my age."

This article appeared in The Orlando Sentinel. Mark I. Pinsky can be reached at

Mark I. Pinsky

Thursday, April 12, 2007

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