When Rabbi Jon Cutler, a Navy chaplain stationed halfway across the globe in East Africa, heard that there was a rural community of Jews in the nation of Uganda, he decided to make a visit.
He got the chance earlier this summer, davening the Shabbat service with the community, kniown as the Abayudaya, with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu — the only Jewish religious leader in the region.
“I needed to meet with him and his community as well to learn about (a) unique Jewish community in east Africa that I didn’t know about before,” Cutler wrote in an email.
At the Abayudaya Synagogue, Cutler, who is from the Philadelphia area and has been active in both the first and second Iraq Wars, held Friday and Saturday services for a Conservative congregation of both men and women. All shared a knowledge of Hebrew, but when he delivered a sermon and Torah study session in English, Sizomu needed to translate it into the local Lugandan language.
“[It] struck me the mountains and the jungle in the background and here I was really in Africa so out of my environment but very comfortable,” Cutler wrote.
Since January, Cutler has visited many different religious environments: Orthodox Christian churches in Ethiopia, Jewish communities in Kenya and Uganda, and of course his home base at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. It’s all part of his responsibilities as director of religious affairs for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).
“It’s hugely important work,” said Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council, through which Cutler is certified (he has stayed in touch with Cutler). “It’s nation-building and peace-creating … Greater stability will reduce the likelihood of conflict within and across borders.”
Cutler, a Reconstructionist Navy chaplain in his 50’s, has truly fulfilled the Navy motto of “seeing the world.” His tours of duty included Anbar Province in western Iraq, where he fostered a nurturing environment for Jewish servicemen and women during the Second Iraq War. Now, his mission is to travel throughout East Africa, from Djibouti to neighboring nations, as the military seeks to foster ties that might offset any al-Qaida influence.
“The aim of CJTF-HOA is to build peace and security in a region that is prone to religious extremism,” Cutler wrote, noting, “that can only be done when people start talking to each other.”
Among the religious leaders Cutler has met are the patriarch of the Ethiopian church, whom the rabbi presented with a Hebrew English Bible; as well as the president of the Grand Islamic Supreme Council of Uganda, at a mosque named after (and built by) embattled Libyan ruler Moammar Kaddafi. He has also been in touch with key American diplomats, including Michael Battle, the U.S. ambassador to the African Union, and Donald Booth, the ambassador to Ethiopia.
Robinson said that there is a “symbolic significance” in Cutler’s role as a rabbi in East Africa. He said that that significance is “to demonstrate to religious leaders that the armed forces come in all varieties.”
He added, “It also means he’s pretty much assured that he’s never going to be perceived as representing one of the contending parties within a country.”
For example, he said, “In Kenya, the navy is divided between Muslims, Protestants and Catholics. He can speak to all equally.”
Robinson has firsthand knowledge of the Horn of Africa, having served in that region as well as nearby nations, such as Bahrain, Qatar and Afghanistan.
“I never found my being a rabbi to tighten the risk issues,” he said. “I was seen much more as an American than as a rabbi. That’s not to say it couldn’t play a factor.”
In Cutler’s travels, he has also helped Jewish communities celebrate Shabbat and holidays such as Passover (he is currently planning for the High Holy Days), and he has answered any questions leaders of other religions may have about Judaism and Israel.
“(This) is the first time anyone of them met a rabbi,” Cutler wrote after meeting with the three principal chaplains of the Kenyan military, as well as a commanding general, “and the questions that I get are the basic questions about Jesus, keeping kosher, etc. But what is so great about these experiences is that I am able to educate people about [being] Jewish and it is not so foreign nor threatening to them.”
He added, “One of the questions that I get from other Africans who know that I am Jewish is if I am Israeli. There is a real conflation between being Jewish and Israeli.”
He has also learned quite a bit about the local Jewish communities he visits.
“There are Jewish communities in the world that live on the edge of life, subsistent farming, not having enough food, clean water, medical treatment and prone to diseases,” Cutler wrote after visiting Abayudaya, “but it is their faith and piety that gets them through their daily lives. It is their strong belief in God.”
Among the Abayudaya he was impressed by the Jewish school and its 380 young students.
“It is a self contained Jewish community,” Cutler wrote. “They will (end) up marrying each other and stay within the villages and continue to grow in number and prosper. Maybe the future of Judaism is in Africa.”
(Richard Tenorio is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer.)