Featured in the TIMES (U.K) newspaper on Saturday Feb 9 2019

THE TIMES

Saturday February 9 2019 | thetimes.co.uk | No 72766

Ros Eisen, London based secretary of PVAO was recently interviewed and we are delighted to inform you that a huge article was written about KKSY/World Jewish Relief which appeared on p 81 of The Times UK newspaper.

The group, founded 100 years ago, have been supported by Jewish charities to grow produce such as peppers and onions

When Ros Eisen embarked on a gorilla trek in Uganda ten years ago, she had no idea that her trip to Africa would have such a lasting impact.

She had reserached Uganda before she left, and had been intrigued to read about a Jewish group living there. A member of a mainstream Orthodox synagogue in London, she was curious about Jews who lived in faraway places. Yet the businesswoman from Belsize Park in north London had been unaware of the existence of the Abayudaya, as Uganda’s Jews are called.

While Ethiopian Jews, now mostly settled in Israel, were long established — descendants of the Queen of Sheba according to their lore — the Abayudaya are a new community.

They were founded 100 years ago by Semei Kakungulu, a chieftain who converted to Christianity in the 1880s and helped the British to gain control over eastern Uganda. However, disenchanted with the British, he began to set out on his own spiritual path, circumcising himself in his fifties and adopting a lifestyle based on the Old Testament.

The Abayudaya survived the tyranny of Idi Amin, who suppressed their synagogues in the 1970s. Now they number an estimated 1,500 to 2,000.

Eisen headed for Putti, a village in the east of the country where a few hundred Jews have lived peaceably alongside Christian and Muslim neighbours.

She was “horrified” to find the villagers had no running water or electricity. “I noticed a lot of the children had distended stomachs and didn’t have shoes,” she says. “I asked somebody what the major cause of death was in the community; and they said malaria.”

They could not afford mezuzot (the receptacles containing passages from the Torah that Jews are commanded in Deuteronomy to affix to their doorposts) for their ramshackle homes. “They would scratch out Magen Davids [Stars of David] and menorahs [the Temple lamps] with a chalk or a stone on a piece of wood and they would also write, ‘Shalom’. It was very moving.”

Eisen ordered mosquito nets through a local doctor and bought shoes and eggs for the children.

Back in the UK, she co-founded a charity, the Putti Village Assistance Organisation (PVAO), to provide practical and religious support.

Over the years, the Putti Jews have acquired prayer shawls and Hebrew prayer books. “They lit Shabbat candles, they would have a Friday night service, they wouldn’t work on Saturday,” Eisen says. “They abstained on fast days and observed the Jewish holidays. The male children were circumcised and the boys were bar mitzvah’d in a very simple way.”

When she met them, they couldn’t eat chicken because they didn’t have the implements for kosher slaughter. So her charity arranged for a rabbinically approved knife and grinding stone to be sent from Israel.

Although the Abayudaya practised Judaism to the best of their knowledge, it took some time before they were recognised elsewhere. Most were formally converted in the early 2000s through the Masorti (Conservative) Jewish stream; Masorti conversions, however, are not considered valid by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

In time, the PVAO focused on a group of Putti Jews who wanted to affiliate with Orthodoxy. Rabbis travelled to conduct conversions, but one of the requirements is immersion in a mikveh, a ritual bath.

“So they had to have a mikveh,” Eisen says. “My charity put up the money to buy the land and we had plans drawn up in Israel.”

The Putti Jews call themselves the Kahal Kadosh She’erit Yisrael (KKSY), “Holy Congregation of the Remnant of Israel”, following the Sephardic rites. A group from KKSY have studied at a yeshiva in Israel. PVAO’s chairman, Rabbi Sjimon den Hollander, conducts weekly religion classes for the community in Uganda via Skype or WhatsApp.

“They are hungry for more knowledge,” Eisen says. “Some of them want to become rabbis.”

PVAO is also helping the community to become self-sufficient. With the British Jewish charity, World Jewish Relief, it has funded agricultural training for the KKSY, enabling them to grow produce such as watermelons, peppers and onions. It plans to develop vocational training, in dressmaking or carpentry for example, during the year.

Like other Abayudaya, the KKSY will be celebrating its centenary this year. Jews from nearby Buseta will join them for the festivities. “They are also going to buy orange and mango trees and plant them in each corner of their land,” Eisen says.

For Mama Ros, as KKSY have affectionately dubbed Eisen, “the old lady from England with the raven voice”, helping this community will be “a lifetime’s work”.

The Abayudaya may not be alone. Other more recent Jewish outposts have sprung up in Africa, in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. More than a hundred people in Madagascar converted to Judaism three years ago. A new chapter of the diaspora may be only just beginning.

-Article written by Simon Rocker, for the TIMES (U.K) newspaper Feb 2019