Who are the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda?

This Rosh Hashanah, World Jewish Relief is shining a light on the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda. With your help, the charity will continue its 6-year long engagement with local NGO Jewish Response Uganda (JRU), whom they helped establish in 2016.

Together, we can help Jewish families in Uganda out of the intergenerational cycle of poverty, because kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, all Jews are responsible for one another. 

What should you know about Uganda’s Jewish community? 

1. History 

2. Agricultural Livelihoods

3. World Jewish Relief's TransFARMation Programme

4. Amos' Story

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1. History 

In eastern Uganda, the Abayudaya Jewish community has been practicing Judaism for over 100 years. Their name has its roots in the Luganda word for ‘people of Judah’. Established in 1919 when a local chieftain began to study the tenets of Judaism, the Abayudaya community developed over time in the predominantly Christian and Muslim society. They became deeply connected to Jewish traditional and global Jewish peoplehood. 

The Abayudaya set up their first Yeshiva in 1920 and the first synagogue in 1923. They began to thrive. But in 1971 Ugandan leader Idi Amin came to power and banned Jewish practice. Many were forced to convert to other religions. A core group of 300 Jews remained committed to their religion, practicing in secret. 

At the turn of the millennium, the community numbered about 3,000. Today this number is closer to 2,000. They are spread across eastern Uganda, living amongst their non-Jewish neighbours. The largest group is based in Nabugoye, where there is a synagogue and a Jewish primary and secondary school. 

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2. Agricultural Livelihoods

The region where many Abayudaya Jews are based in eastern Uganda is almost a 5-hour drive from Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, it is a region that tourists visit to hike and explore.  

The climate and terrain are perfect for growing high value crops. Yet, for most local farmers even growing enough to feed their families is a challenge. Many farmers have not had access to training, to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to yield high value crops and make a profit from their land. Some cannot afford essentials like seeds or fertilisers. And for others, even owning farmland is a far-off dream.  

Against this backdrop many Jewish men, women and children are trapped in the cycle of intergenerational poverty and face an uncertain future. That’s where World Jewish Relief comes in. 

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3. Our TransFARMation Programme

World Jewish Relief believes that the solution to breaking the cycle of poverty within the Ugandan Jewish community lies in the hands of educated, committed farmers. They helped establish local partner JRU and together in 2017, launched their TransFARMation programme.  

The aim is simple: to help Jewish families in Uganda lift themselves out of poverty through commercial farming, so their entire community can thrive. The programme staff work with the most vulnerable community members, helping them to rent fertile land, buy seeds for lucrative crops like watermelon, peppers, and onions, and become skilled at using modern agricultural techniques. They are taught financial management, so they can plan for the long term. They no longer rely on handouts. Theirs futures are in their own hands. 

94% of participants on TransFARMation complete the programme, and some earn more than £1,000 per season, the equivalent of a primary school headteacher’s salary. 

Amos is just one Jewish community member who, with the help of TransFARMation, has turned his family’s life around. 

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4. Amos' Story

As a child, Amos dreamed of being a doctor and healing the sick. But having left school early because his parents couldn’t afford the fees, Amos worked as a bricklayer earning just pennies for his hard work. He went home exhausted every day. 

Amos’ 11 year old son, Sinyana Moses, was born with a condition that means he needs nutritious food, regular hospital visits and physiotherapy to stay strong. But on his bricklayer’s salary Amos couldn’t afford to feed him properly, let alone pay for his medical care. He watched his son get weaker, unable to keep up with his siblings. 

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When Amos joined TransFARMation our staff helped him to develop his land, teaching him modern irrigation methods and how best to fertilise his soil. He learned to yield lucrative pepper, watermelon and onion harvests, as well as the importance of financial planning and accessing local markets. 

Amos’ hard work began to pay off and his confidence grew. He began to harvest his crops, which he sold for more than he could’ve imagined. He said:

There was never enough food before, but now we can eat whatever we want and share food with the community. My children go to school. And I can finally afford to take Sinyana Moses to the clinic for treatment and pay for his physical therapy and medication.
But the most important thing is the change in my mindset. Before the programme we relied on handouts and had to beg our neighbours for help. Now I know I can change things myself.

Sinyana Moses is healthier than he’s ever been. He loves charging around with his brothers and sisters and singing songs at the top of his voice. He wants to run his own business one day. His future looks bright.  

Help Jewish community members in Uganda to thrive this Rosh Hashanah, by visiting www.worldjewishrelief.org/roshhashanah

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