Out of Africa, Into a Yeshiva

Moses (Moshe) Sebagago, a 32-year-old lawyer and father of two, was the first candidate ever to apply to the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem from the Abuyudaya Jewish community of Uganda.

Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz

For many young Jewish adults around the world, taking a break from academic pursuits or busy careers for a year of Jewish studies immersion has become a sort of rite of passage.

Not necessarily if they come from Uganda, though.

So when the admissions office staff at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem earlier this year received an envelope bearing the postmark of a small village in East Africa, they were quite intrigued. Moses Sebagago, a 32-year-old lawyer and father of two, was the first candidate ever to apply to their institution from the Abuyudaya Jewish community of Uganda.

Today, Moses (or “Moshe” – as he now prefers to be called) is completing his first month as a yeshiva student in Jerusalem, what he sees as the first step in his quest to become a future Jewish leader in his home country, perhaps even a rabbi.

Aside from that, he says, the nice thing for him about being in Jerusalem is not so much the running water and electricity (both lacking in his village back home) but the meat. “Having kosher meat is a real treat for me,” he says. “It’s now becoming available in Uganda, but not near where I live, so I’ve been a vegetarian until now.”

Sebagago is a member of the roughly 1,500-strong Abuyudaya community, whose members are scattered among five separate villages in Uganda. The original Abuyudaya, among them Sebagago’s great-grandfather, split off from Christianity in the early 20th century when they began identifying as Jews and observing Jewish laws and customs. In 2002, the Conservative movement sent a delegation of rabbis from a Jewish rabbinical court to Uganda, at which time most of the community members underwent official conversions.

Today, the community operates seven synagogues – one Orthodox and six Conservative – and a mikveh or ritual bath. It has one rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, who was ordained by the Conservative movement, and two ritual slaughterers trained in Israel. It also runs a Jewish school and Jewish youth groups.

Getting himself accepted to the yearlong Jewish studies program at the yeshiva, which caters mostly to students from North America, turned out to be just one obstacle Sebagago would have to overcome before arriving in Israel. Once notified of his acceptance, he needed to make sure he could get a visa to Israel and find some funding to pay for his studies. “Getting the visa turned out to be extremely complicated,” recalls Rabbi Andrew Sacks, head of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, an organization of 160 Masorati or Conservative rabbis. “We had to deal with the fact that he comes from a country with which Israel has no diplomatic relations, he’s a convert, and his skin color is not white.”

Sacks, the rabbi who converted Sebagago in Uganda 10 years ago, took it upon himself to wage the battle on his behalf with the Interior Ministry. After much back and forth, Sebagago eventually received a three-month tourist visa, which was recently extended to allow him to stay in Israel until the summer and complete his program. The World Council of Conservative/Masorati Synagogues, for its part, provided him with a scholarship to finance his studies. “We’re absolutely thrilled to have him here with us,” says Zvi Graetz, executive director of the council.

Other individual supporters chipped in with everything from a used bicycle to a spare room and a winter jacket. (“I didn’t realize it gets cold here,” says Sebagago, “so I didn’t bring any warm clothing along.”)

Wearing a crocheted purple kippah adorned with bright-blue Stars of David, Sebagago takes a short break from his jam-packed day of studies -- which includes classes in Hebrew language, Talmud, Halakha [Jewish law], the Book of Psalms, theology and Jewish liturgy -- to reflect on his first few weeks ever outside his country.

“It’s a challenge,” he says, “especially not speaking Hebrew. I can read it, but I still have no idea what I’m reading. Plus, I miss my family.” In his absence, says Sebagago, his wife Esther, and their two children, Yonatan and Ora, have been living off the crops they grow in their village of Namanyonyi. They are among the 345 Jews who live in this village of 3,000, mostly Muslims, located about five hours by car from the capital of Kampala.

Unlike other small Jewish communities in remote corners of the globe, the Abuyudaya, says Sebagago, have never been persecuted or ostracized because of their religious beliefs. “Most people around us don’t even know what Jews are,” he says. “They see me with my kippah and think I’m a Muslim, so they greet me with ‘Salaam.’” He recalls that when he attended law school at Kampala University, his classmates couldn’t figure out why he and his small group of Jewish friends kept lighting candles every night for a week in December. “They had never heard of Hanukkah, so they wanted to know why we were having so many birthday parties this week.”

Sebagago arrived in Israel in the middle of the Sukkot holiday, a few days after he had already built his own Sukkah for his family back home, as he does every year. “Seeking Sukkot all over the place when I arrived in Jerusalem was nothing new to me, but it was the first time I’d ever seen a real lulav and etrog,” he said, referring to the four species that are the other symbols of this holiday. “Straight out of the Bible.”

Moses Sebagago. 'Having kosher meat is a real treat for me,' he says.Credit: Emil Salman
Ugandan convert Moses Sebagago, right, participating in a Hebrew language class. Credit: Emil Salman