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Africa's first-ever egalitarian yeshiva opened in Uganda


RUTH EGLASH, The Jerusalem Post, August 2, 2008
The Conservative Movement in the US has dedicated Africa's first modern, egalitarian yeshiva in the rural Ugandan village of Mbale, just over 160 kilometers from the country's capital, Kampala, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Having opened its doors just over a week ago, the yeshiva will primarily educate men and women from the Abayudaya tribe, a group that converted to Judaism in the 1920s and who remain practicing Jews.

"There is only one rabbi in Uganda [Rabbi Gershom Sizomu] and when I asked him what it would take to strengthen his community, he told me that they needed a place to study and books to continue their learning," Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told the Post last week, days after returning to Israel from visiting Jews in both Uganda and Ethiopia.

"In Uganda, the Jewish people are spread out in villages and Sizomu felt that in order for their Judaism to remain strong he had to start training new rabbis to work in those villages," he explained, describing the community as extremely poor.

Sizomu, the first rabbi of Ugandan origin, recently returned from five years of study at the Conservative Movement's seminary, where he was ordained last month.

"In contrast to the Jews in Ethiopia, who dream of making aliya, these people are committed to living in their homeland and building up the Jewish community there," explained Epstein, adding that the majority of the funding for the yeshiva ($15,000 for the building and $35,000 for the books) had been donated by the Conservative Movement's youth division, United Synagogue Youth (USY).

"We really identify with this community," said Adam Berman, USY's international president, who accompanied Epstein to Uganda to dedicate the new building. "The community in Uganda is similar to our own in that they promote pluralistic Judaism and are trying hard to learn and live a positive Jewish existence."

Berman said that it was "extremely satisfying" to see the enthusiasm of the Abayudaya people when "giving them the tools they need to succeed in building a Jewish community."

According to Epstein, students from across Uganda and as far away as Ghana and South Africa have already expressed an interest in studying at the yeshiva.

"This is a serious community. They keep Shabbat, observe the laws of kashrut and study Jewish texts at an extremely high level," said Epstein, who represents the Conservative Movement's congregational arm, which accounts for about a quarter of affiliated Jews in the US. "This community is really thriving. They just had a mass conversion of some 200 people last month."

"[The] Conservative Movement's conversion process is indistinguishable from [that of] the Orthodox movement's. We just don't put impediments in the path of people who want to become Jews," he continued. "All we want to know is that people believe in God, observe Shabbat and keep kashrut."

Asked whether African converts would encounter recognition difficulties by Israel's dominant Orthodox leadership if they make aliya, Epstein admitted "it's a very complex issue."

"Their acceptance in Israel has not yet been tested," he said. "However, it just falls in line with the whole problem of all types of conversions not being accepted by Israel's Orthodox rabbinate."

(Tags: USY, Uganda, Abayudaya, Synagogue, Conservative Movement)