‘Am Yisrael Chai’: Ugandan Jews Enter Israel With Song and Dance
Some 40 Ugandan youths landed in Israel this past Tuesday, as part of the first-ever Taglit-Birthright group from the Jewish Abayudaya community.
The group entered the arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv while dancing and singing in Hebrew, “David, the king of Israel, lives and endures,” and, “Am Yisrael Chai!”
Others in the hall soon joined the celebration, which was accentuated by drum beats and occasional blows of the shofar. They later recited the “Shehecheyanu,” a Jewish prayer of gratitude for new or special occasions.
The group spent the first two days of its trip in northern Israel, before arriving in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath.
While Birthright, which offers eligible young Jews from across the world free 10-day tours of Israel, is partially funded by the Israeli government, the Abayudaya community’s religious status is not officially recognized by Jerusalem.
In June, a member of the community was denied a request to obtain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return pertaining to the Jewish Diaspora, in a decision the Interior Ministry said extended to all Abayudayas.
That stance has been rejected by leaders of Conservative Judaism, whose rabbis converted a majority of the 2,000-member Ugandan community starting in 2002, as well as by the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body that oversees Jewish immigration to Israel and officially recognized the Abayudayas as Jewish since 2009.
Now led by Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the group traces its roots to African chieftain Semei Kakungulu, who began observing some Jewish religious practices in the early 20th century. It has since adopted more formal Jewish observances and withstood persecution, including under the dictatorial rule of Idi Amin, who outlawed Judaism and destroyed synagogues after assuming power in 1971.