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Sermons and Thoughts

The evolving tapestry of Jewish People

09 February 2021
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein Parashat Yitro

How good it is, how sweet it is when sisters and brothers come together in harmony (Psalms 133:1).

Last night we considered the way in which characters and images are shaped by our cultural frame of reference. The main characters in the opening to this week’s sidrah, Jethro, Zipporah and Moses, Gershom and Eliezer and the girls not mentioned yet alone named, formed a mixed, blended household, combining identity and potentially physical appearance.

We sang music of varied Jewish heritage. We were not bound by having to sing the tune because we always have. We assume it is ‘the tune,’ because it is the one we are used to or grew up with but it may not be the same as the congregant sat next to you. Our service was enriched by the diversity of the music, just as our congregation is blessed by the increasing variety of heritage, new members bring.

I was saddened to read this week, that Israel’s Interior Minister had declared that members of the Abayudaya Jewish community were ineligible for immigration to the State of Israel under the Law of Return.

I recall the absurdity of the situation on our last holiday in Israel – may there soon be another. We witnessed the first Birthright Trip organised by the Jewish Agency for the Abayudaya Jewish community, enjoying the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. At the same time, The Interior Ministry rejected the claim by Kibita Yosef – who was then participating in a study program in Israel run by the Conservative movement – to obtain immigrant status under the Law of Return. According to the Law of Return, any person who converts to Judaism is eligible to immigrate to Israel on condition that the conversion was conducted in a “recognized Jewish community” – regardless of denominational affiliation.

The Abayudaya Jewish community have a history as old as Liberal Judaism in the UK. Originating from the thinking of a Muganda military leader, Semei Kakungulu, who took Judaism upon himself and his small group of followers, they have been influenced at various junctures by those from outside of Uganda. This reinforced their connections to aspects of Judaism they had not experienced before. I try to avoid the word ‘normative;’ for normative is just what we grew up with and know.

Although now living peacefully, in a variety of villages in eastern Uganda and a few in Kenya, the community were sometimes victims of tribal conflicts and significantly in the 1970’s oppressed by Idi Amin. Outlawing Judaism and destroying synagogues, only a few hundred who called themselves She’erit Yisrael – the remnant of Israel continued to practice Judaism in secret. Does this remind you of anything in your Jewish past, in your Jewish heritage?

This very much reminded me of this morning’s Haftarah, Isaiah 6:1-11. In Isaiah’s vision, there seemed utter destruction, yet “a stump that shall be a holy seed” remained. From a few hundred to now a few thousand, the Abayudaya have their own, American trained Rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, and programmes of ‘conversion’ through “recognized Jewish communities.” Yet the Interior Ministry of the Jewish State is refusing to welcome Abayudaya aliyah.

This is not just an issue for the Abayudaya community but for other groups who have just claims of Jewish identity: Bnei Anusin, those whose ancestry is still affected by the Inquisition in the Iberian peninsula and groups in central and southern America. Today they are embraced by Progressive Judaism.

The beauty of the music of the Abayudaya Jewish Congregation is a perfect example of creating a sacred Jewish heritage, universally Jewish and particularly Ugandan. Rightfully, they belong in the canon of Jewish Peoplehood.

Let us hope that sense will prevail and all those who come to Judaism through “recognized Jewish communities” are able to move to the Jewish State, just as they are able to move around the Jewish Diaspora. This Shabbat, we have been enriched by the variety of music from our sisters and brothers from all of our heritage backgrounds in the Ark Synagogue. May it become the ‘normative,’ in other words, the diversified, matzah pudding that is the Jewish People.

See this live:

Hear the original music:
Hinei Ma Tov from the Abayudaya Congregation

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