Before Yom Kippur begins at sundown Tuesday, members of Uganda’s Namutumba Synagogue will sit down to a festive meal to prepare themselves physically and spiritually for the Day of Atonement.
This Jewish custom of the seuda hamafseket is new for this community, whose members have often entered the 25-hour-long fast on empty stomachs due to drought and food shortages.
“But this year, we will really be able to prepare for the fast and enter it with happiness, with gratefulness,” says Namutumba’s spiritual leader Shadrach Mugoya Levi by telephone from the Ugandan village of Mataba. They will eat eggs, rice and flat wheat-based chapati bread.
“We believe that these particular foods stay in the stomach longer and really keep us full,” says Levi, adding that ample rainfall over the past months, along with the community’s first oxen and plows, bought this past year with assistance from an American charity dedicated to the Jews of Uganda, have made this meal possible.
Levi first experienced the festival meal in 2017 during a year spent learning in Israel. It is one of the customs that he has taken back to his growing but largely isolated Jewish community in Uganda.
“The community still has a lot of challenges, but this has been a good year, really not too bad,” Levi says.
Last week, Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year holiday, ushered in the ten days of repentance that end with Yom Kippur. And there was a special treat for worshippers. The synagogue community has long struggled to meet even basic needs. But this year, because of donations and a better farming season, these Ugandan Jews had enough money to buy honey to dip apples in — a Jewish custom that speaks to hopes of a sweet year.
“The celebration this year was really big, and we had more than enough food for everyone,” Levi said. About 380 people attended, chanting prayers for hours and feasting on a freshly-slaughtered bull.
The past year has been joyous for him personally as well. Levi and his wife, Naomi, welcomed a third child, a baby girl born in August. Although the couple has been together for a number of years, they were one of five couples married in a large Jewish ceremony in 2017, an event covered by The New York Times, bringing global attention to the small community.
But things haven’t always looked so promising for Levi or his community.
Levi, 30, had an especially tough childhood. Orphaned at age 7, he raised three younger brothers as well as a sister who later died. He remembers days with just one small meal or sometimes no food at all. The nearest water well was a three-hour walk from the home of the relatives they lived with after their parents died. Their meals came from small plots of maize, potatoes, rice, cassava and millet planted and harvested by their relatives. Lack of rain meant lack of food.
Uganda has several Jewish communities established about a century ago when thousands of citizens followed in the footsteps of the general, Semei Kakungulu. He had taken on Jewish practices and beliefs, inspired by the story of Moses, which he discovered in a Christian Bible he got from missionaries.
Levi grew up observing the Sabbath — although in a village without electricity or cars, many of the traditional Sabbath restrictions, like no driving or turning on and off lights, were easy enough to keep. He was always drawn to the prayers and eventually studied Hebrew and Jewish texts under Uganda’s chief rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, who had been ordained by the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
Levi continues to study to become an ordained rabbi himself through online and in-person coursework at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal in the U.S. He has committed himself to helping build his community, sharing his knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish texts with the community. He didn’t see his family for much of the 2017-2018 academic year, which he spent in Israel learning at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for Conservative Judaism. His wife and children were not granted visas.
Ugandan Jews, known as Abayudaya, meaning “people of Judah” in the local Luganda language, are one of many communities around the world not fully recognized as Jewish by the state of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate. Increased recognition, as well as access to running water and electricity, are some of the community’s goals. The American nonprofit organization Ezra Uganda, established by rabbis who met Levi during his studies in the U.S., raises money to help the community.
After a joyful Rosh Hashana last week, Levi says he is overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude and optimism as Yom Kippur approaches, along with a feeling of readiness.
“We have prepared well, and we really hope that God helps us have a great Yom Kippur,” he says.
At the end of the fast, after sunset on Wednesday, like Jews around the world, the Ugandan community he leads will listen to the sound of the shofar, or ram’s horn, and sit down to break the fast. They will eat porridge and bananas and again give thanks for their new oxen and plows — and for the ample rainfall.
And even though he looks forward to the meal after the fast, Shadrach looks forward to fasting as well. “Fasting gives me an opportunity for empathy,” he told NPR last year. “And when I think of others and their problems, I really want to help.”
Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based journalist. You can follow her work on Twitter: @saratothstub