Culture, Global, Identity

Kippot for Hope – Passover in Uganda

This is a guest post by Adam Davis, founder of Kippot for Hope. Jewschooler David A.M. Wilensky bought his mom’s significant other a kippah from Kippot for Hope for Chanukah and he loves it.
Did you know that there is a thriving community of almost a thousand African Jews living in Uganda?
After spending an incredible seder night with them last year, I set up Kippot for Hope—a non-profit initiative which aims to improve the communities living conditions by selling the handmade colourful kippot, beautifully crocheted by the women of the community.
In the remote hills of eastern Uganda, in the shadow of the Mount Elgon, live a small community of Africans who are also practising Jews.  My wife, Genevieve, and I, currently living in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, asked the community leader if we could join their Seder.  He was most welcoming and so we set out on the six hour bus ride to Mbale.
On the journey we read more about the community and their history.  In 1919, a Christian Ugandan leader called came to believe the customs and laws in the Old Testament were quite true.  When he was told that it is the Jews that observe such laws he explained “Then we will be Jewish”. These people became known as The Abayudaya (“The People of Judaea”) and the population grew to over 3,000.  During the Idi Amin era, most of the population were forced to convert to either Christianity or Islam although 300 members remained committed to Judaism and worshipped in secret.  Today there are almost a thousand Jews of the Abauudaya, divided into six smaller communities spread across 100 miles in the hills overlooking Mbale.
When we finally reached the community, we were greeted by small Ugandan children, the boys all wearing kippot, with shouts of “Shalom Shalom”.  As the sun set on the distant horizon in a stunning display of oranges and crimsons, the entire community made their way to the synagogue for the Seder.
The community synagogue is one large rectangular room built from red brick with glass windows.  It has bookcases all the way along both sides, crammed with books and encyclopaedias on world history and Judaism.  The young men from the community carried in tables which they arranged in a line down the middle of the room.  With the women and girls on one side of the tables and the men and boys on the other the Rabbi began explaining the schedule for the evening to the community.  There were at least 200 people in the room of which at least half were small children.

I’m not sure the women in my family would cope with having to make charoset for 200 people but the Abayudaya women did an incredible job of preparing not only the charoset but also egg & salt water, and maror for everyone.  While the rabbi had the Seder plate on the table in front of him, vast quantities of the traditional items were carried into the room in large plastic buckets and huge cooking pots.  Some of the other overseas guests had brought boxes of matzah (a gesture which the entire community were exceptionally grateful and excited about) and this was meticulously divided into small bite size chunks so that every single member of the community could have a piece to go with their scoop of charoset.
While we had bitter herbs in abundance there was very little kosher wine.  Only two bottles were to be shared between the entire community.  Wine is not something that the Abayudaya have the privilege of being able to drink regularly and generally only to mark special occasions.  The first night of Seder is certainly one of those times.  Not wanting anyone to miss out on sharing the wine it was mixed with a locally brewed alcohol (made from fermented bananas) before being poured out into plastic cups.
While the rabbi addressed the community in English (the national language of Uganda), his young assistant translated everything he said into the local language to ensure that absolutely everyone could understand.  The principle of making sure that the story of the Jews exodus from Egypt is passed onto the children is not lost on the Abyudaya.
A group of thirty or so children gathered at one end of the table to sing the Ma-nishtanah.  After the first question was asked so beautifully the entire community joined in with the remaining three questions.  The tune was identical to the one I have grown up with.
The ten plagues and the dipping of the little fingers into our cups was carried out with incredible excitement by all.  The elders in the community all sat at the back, allowing the children to be more involved.  The elders are all in their 60s and, over time, have seen their community shrink by ninety percent. Their smiling faces made it clear to me that they were very happy with the enthusiasm of the children when it came to Jewish traditions.
I usually find myself eagerly turning the pages of the Haggadah hoping to hurry up time so the meal can be served.  On this occasion the joy and positivity in the room led me to hoping that the food was delayed just a while longer while I absorbed the atmosphere.   When the food finally came many of the children were asleep and were awoken by their mothers so not to miss a meal.  Everyone was service a plate of typical Ugandan food – beans, plantain and some greens.
After we’d all eaten, the young boys and girls took it upon themselves to stand up and sing all the traditional Seder songs.  One of the older boys had an African drum which he beat with his hands in time with each song.  After the third or fourth rendition of Had-Gadya the children moved onto other Jewish songs and prayers such as Moshiach,  The Shema, Gesher Tzar Meod,  Hineh Ma tov u-Manayim and Ein Kelohaynu.  For me, it was just incredible to see Africans singing songs that I have always associated with people from my own culture.
The drinking and singing continued into the night.  It was a truly magical experience.
Full details of Kippot for Hope and the projects we have set up and aim to establish in the future can be found on  Any queries can be emailed to [email protected] and purchases of kippot can be made directly through the website.

4 thoughts on “Kippot for Hope – Passover in Uganda

  1. Yes, I did know there was a thriving Jewish community in Uganda! “Abayudaya” means “people of Judah,” as in the tribe of Israel, not “Judea,” as in the land settled by that tribe. The Ugandan leader who founded the community was named Semei Kakungulu (omitted above). The British recruited him to be a Christian missionary, but he rejected the New Testament, circumcised himself and his sons, and began practicing Biblical Judaism. The current leader of the Abayudaya is Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. He was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in May 2008 and has introduced his community to rabbinic Judaism. To learn more about the Abayudaya, please visit Chag sameach!

  2. Welcome to the network of people who are supporting the Abayudaya community! I’m glad you had a wonderful seder.
    Kulanu has also been working with the Abayudaya community since 1995, working on twenty different projects. We welcome readers to learn more about the Abayudaya and the 20+ projects that we support and plan with them at
    Harriet Bograd, President, Kulanu, Inc.

  3. It is worthy to point out that the community does not claim a tie to any lost tribes or any genetic connection. They have all been converted in keeping with demands of Halacha.
    The community has a Jewish school, Mikveh, coffee growing project (together with Christians and Muslims) and fulfill as much of tradition as circumstances allow.
    The above post mentions
    Here one can also order the(Grammy nominated-no kidding) music of the Abuyadaya.
    There are also some short cuts on YouTube.

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