When world Zionist leaders rejected Uganda as a possible Jewish homeland at the turn of the century, they probably never imagined that one of the native tribes in the eastern African nation would adopt Judaism.
In 1919, the Buganda tribe in western Uganda began to follow the Old Testament.
The tribe leader, Semei Kagungulo, had been struck by the special relationship described in the Bible between the Jewish people and God, said Jacques Cukierkorn, the rabbinic adviser to Kulanu, an organization now aiding the tribe in their quest to become more knowledgeable about Judaism.
As a result, Kagungulo abandoned the New Testament and lived a Jewish lifestyle by adhering to the scriptures of the Old Testament.
The Buganda tribe in western Uganda had initially been converted to Christianity by European missionaries who frequented the region.
Kagungulo took to heart the apocalyptic passages in Isaiah about how the people of the world will want to be Jewish.
Kagungulo also was a highly respected general and an adviser to the king of Uganda.
“He was a macher,” Cukierkorn said.
After he wrote a book of religious guidelines based on the Old Testament for his 500 tribal members, they decided to start calling themselves the Aba Yua Daya – or “I am a Jew” in their native Luganda.
The book included traditional Jewish practices such as ritual circumcision and separation of milk and meat.
“Evidently, he didn’t know of rabbinic Judaism and actually composed a primitive prayer book,” Cukierkorn said.
Every time they came into contact with Jews, they would change their ways and adopt new practices, he said.
In the mid-1920s, a Jew known only as Joseph spent time with the tribe teaching them more about prayer and about the different holidays, he added.
There was little contact between the Jewish world and the Aba Yua Daya from that point until the early 1990s, when two graduate students happened to stumble upon them.
While visiting Kenya, the two American graduate students, Matthew Meyer and Julia Chamowitz, met one of the leaders of the Aba Yua Daya in a synagogue in Nairobi and were invited by him to visit the tribe.
The visit was so inspiring that upon returning to the United States Meyer wrote more than 150 letters to different organizations about the Aba Yua Daya.
“When I read the letter I immediately saw that Kulanu could play a pivotal role,” Cukierkorn said.
Kulanu, based in Silver Spring, Md., is dedicated to helping Jewish fringe groups in different regions of the world learn more about Judaism and possibly undergo conversion, said Cukierkorn, who was born in Brazil.
In June, Cukierkorn was part of a 14-member delegation Kulanu sent to visit the Aba Yua Daya and distribute prayer books, tapes and a Torah to them.
The tribe’s current population is between 500 and 600, below the 2,000 Aba Yua Daya members the tribe had before Idi Amin took over Uganda and made life difficult for them through his brutal regime.
The group has expressed an interest in converting to Judaism and moving to Israel.
When asked by Cukierkorn why they wanted to convert, they said they rejected the practices of those around them such as female circumcision.
One of the group’s leaders added: “A Jew has the potential to make the world a better place.”
Although they would like to immigrate to Israel, the Aba Yua Daya insist that they do not want to become Jewish because of that.
They point to the fact that they began to follow the Old Testament long before Israel became a state.
Kulanu’s first priority is to further their knowledge of Judaism and maintain their physical well-being.
“The goal of Kulanu is to continue educating them and then down the road to do conversion,” Cukierkorn said.
Meanwhile, he is trying to raise the $36 per year needed to educate each of the Aba Yua Daya children.
The community does not have running water or electricity.
Cukierkorn said that when he was there, the community leaders asked him a “sheilah,” or question that was indicative of their impoverished state: “Can we light two candles for the entire community?”