Two leaders of a Ugandan Jewish community traveled to Pittsburgh last week to meet members of their communal namesake. The nearly 7,000-mile introductory trip enabled Wanani Esau and Yonatan Katz Lukato, both of Kampala, Uganda, to speak with dozens of Pittsburgh’s Jewish residents and personalize a process originated months earlier. In the days following Oct. 27, 2018, after 11 Jews were murdered inside the Tree of Life building, Esau, Lukato and others decided to rename their community in memory of the martyred Jews.
Calling themselves “Tree of Life Kampala Uganda” would be a fitting way to honor the victims and families, and connect diverse Jewish people, explained Lukato, 27.
On Aug. 19, after flying across the world, Esau and Lukato entered a room at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside filled with Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregants and others. The joyous gathering, which featured speeches, singing and the collective recital of “Shehecheyanu,” allowed listeners to hear the history of Uganda’s Abayudaya community, which started in 1919 after the circumcision and conversion of Semei Kakungulu. Since Kakungulu’s establishment of the Abayudaya (Luganda for “People of Judah”), the Ugandan Jewish community grew and now numbers almost 3,000 residents between nine communities.
The Abayudaya enjoy good relations with their Christian and Muslim neighbors, explained Lukato.
It is a welcome change from decades ago, as the years under Idi Amin’s rule “were hard times,” said Esau.
Between 1971 and 1979, with Idi Amin as Uganda’s president, Jewish rituals were prohibited, yet despite having to often observe in secret, the small Jewish community survived.
“We are part of the people who persisted with Judaism and we are proud of the fact that we are still practicing,” said Esau.
Every Jewish community has challenges, and that is why “it was very sad for us,” to hear of the pain inflicted in Pittsburgh, he continued. Traveling to the Steel City and showing support for fellow Jews was a way to further relations between the communities.
“Even in hard times, there are always people on your right hand or your left hand,” said Lukato.
Prior to completing their presentation, the visitors invited attendees to join in singing “Shema Yisrael,” while Lukato strummed his guitar.
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, recited the “Shehecheyanu” prayer and expressed thanks for the unique occasion.
“This is the beginning of a relationship between Tree of Life and Tree of Life,” he said.
Moving forward, Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life will send books to Kampala’s Jewish community and “bring the love to them,” continued the spiritual guide.
The efforts will build on previous acts of Steel City goodwill. Nearly a decade ago, former Beth El USY co-president Zoe Tabachnick arranged for prayer books to be sent to Ugandan Jews, reported the Chronicle.
Several years later, supportive efforts continued as Beth El’s Men’s Club sold Ugandan yarmulkes at Beth El and to other Men’s Clubs nationwide, USY participants raised money for the Abayudaya and the South Hills congregation gifted a Torah to Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leader of the Abayudaya, wrote Rabbi Alex Greenbaum in a message to congregants.
The fact that Uganda’s Jews want to give back and recognize Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is moving, explained Joe Charny, a member of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.
“It’s amazing that we live in a world that we can make these connections,” said Audrey Glickman, a Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha member.
Hearing the story of Ugandan Jewry afforded a particular resonance, explained Barry Werber, of New Light Congregation.
“They’ve suffered for their religion, as we have, as did those Jews in Europe,” he said.
“They are in a really difficult situation and for them to have this consideration of us when they are in a very hazardous situation is very touching,” echoed Charny.
“Neighbors come in many different ways and it’s an honor that they thought of us out of the ashes,” said Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha past president Suzanne Schreiber. “This is something really wonderful and unique. We need more neighborly moments.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.