As an associate professor at Drew University who specializes in teaching courses on religion, anthropology, and the Middle East, Jonathan Golden is a well-traveled man.
But few trips carried as deep a spiritual meaning for him as the one in June to eastern Uganda, where he had the opportunity to share a personal Jewish ritual with members of the local Jewish community, known as the Abayudaya.
After the spring semester at Drew in Madison ended, Golden became a “kind of chaperone” for 20 undergraduates who volunteered to build classrooms at a Catholic elementary school — Saint Pius — near the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
Once that mission was over, Golden made a side trip on his own to visit an unusual community of Jews who have lived — as Jews — in Uganda for nearly a century.
He journeyed to the town of Putti, one of 10 villages surrounding the eastern Ugandan city of Mpale near the Kenyan border.
The impoverished but thriving Abayudaya have been struggling to maintain a vibrant religious community since the late 19th century (see sidebar).
In 2002, some 800 Abayudaya underwent formal conversion by a visiting delegation of Conservative rabbis, and in 2008 a member of the community was ordained in Los Angeles as a Conservative rabbi.
Today there are some 600 Jews in Putti and the surrounding towns. They live in harmony with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Golden said, and they experience no anti-Semitism.
Many Ugandans share the common Third World struggles against food shortages, lack of education, and diseases that include malaria, typhoid, and pneumonia. “HIV/AIDS is making a bit of a comeback,” Golden said.
The Jews among them have another survival issue to cope with. “They struggle to maintain their Jewish identity,” Golden said. “It is remarkable that they are adamant to add on this extra layer of complication and challenge in their lives, but they just roll with it.”
In Putti, the Abayudaya worship in a mud brick synagogue, where men and women sit in separate sections and a rabbi named Enosh Keki Mainah leads them “in what we would call Orthodox practice in the Sephardic tradition,” said Golden, who serves as director of Drew’s Hillel.
“They go out of the way to keep the Sabbath, and they will not eat meat that is not kosher, so most of the time, they just don’t eat meat,” he said. “They keep chickens, but just eat the eggs.”
Few are fluent in Hebrew, Golden said, and they are struggling to develop a Hebrew school for their children, as well as provide them with a secular education.
He brought with him a Talmud and dozens of prayer books, including special ones for holy days, in addition to children’s clothes and a laptop computer, all donated from synagogues in New York and New Jersey.
“It was a great moment when I got there. I turned on the laptop and played them recorded music of their own people. They were hearing themselves for the first time on the recording,” he said.
He arrived June 10. “It happened to be my mother’s yahrtzeit,” he said. “Before I left, I looked at the calendar and wondered, ‘How am I going to get a minyan? How am I going to say Kaddish?’”
The Jews of Putti “waited until I got there and we davened together. It was a wonderful moment.”
Back home in Florham Park, Golden is now seeking speaking engagements in New Jersey’s Jewish communities as he works to raise funds for a religious school in Putti.
While he noted that some in the Orthodox world may question the legitimacy of the Ugandans’ Jewishness, “they are hoping to get an Orthodox beit din to come to Uganda, and they are two-thirds of the way there.”
Golden said he believes firmly that Halacha, or Jewish law, must be followed to determine the validity of a community’s identity.
However, he said, “my take on this is, if people who struggle with things just to get through day-to-day life, and on top of that, they have the challenges of living Jewishly,” those with authority “shouldn’t just sit there and say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ They should go out of their way to reach a hand down to help.”
A number of Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Kulanu, and Be’chol Lashon, have been helping strengthen the community.
“People ask me, ‘Why don’t they just go to Israel?’ But that’s not a perfect solution. It’s not all milk and honey,” said Golden. “They have their lives in Uganda. And thank God they were there — fellow members of the tribe — when I was in Uganda for my mother’s yahrtzeit. I travel all over the world for my university, and having this network of family all over the world is one of the great benefits of being Jewish.”