An open letter to Shadrach Levi Mugoya

An open letter to Shadrach Levi Mugoya

My Dear Shadrach:

Shalom Aleichem! How proud I was – and how happy for you – to read of your desire to make aliyah to Israel, and there to assume your rightful place as a member of the Jewish people and as a citizen of the Jewish state. May you go from strength to strength!

Your application to the Israeli Interior Ministry has been described, in Haaretz and elsewhere, as a “test case” for the Law of Return. That is because you are the first member of Uganda’s Abayudaya community, converted to Judaism by a Conservative bet din in 2002, formally to request recognition as a Jew, and to seek license to move from Uganda to Israel. As you undergo what may be an arduous process of government bureaucracy and hurtful religious politics, please remember that I and many others are behind you, praying for you, and looking forward to your successful, productive, and historic aliyah.

The Interior Ministry has been quoted as saying: “This is the first time we have received a request to recognize, under the Law of Return, conversions performed abroad (whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox) of an entire tribe that has no Jewish roots.” Indeed, the Abayudaya (a community of thoughtful, pious Jews; not a “tribe”) claim no Jewish ancestry, but embraced Jewish tradition out of sincere conviction in the early twentieth century.

I trust that the Israeli government will view this fact in terms articulated long ago by Maimonides. Addressing himself to “Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte,” Maimonides wrote: “Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we (those born as Jews) are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your religious pedigree derives directly from God, the Creator.”

It may have been the bet din that with exacting attention to the strictures of halachah certified your Jewish status, but it was God Himself who brought you and your community into the Covenant of Israel. Surely, in time, those credentials will satisfy even the Israeli establishment!

It was a great personal privilege for me to serve on the bet din that interviewed you and supervised your conversion on February 11, 2002. I still have my handwritten notes from the day’s proceedings. While the hundreds of Abayudaya appearing before our rabbinic court already all proudly bore Hebrew names, drawn from Biblical, talmudic, or contemporary Israeli sources, “Shadrach” was among the more unusual, so I remember meeting you and your family well. Your biblical namesake was a prince of Judah, taken into Babylonian captivity by Nebuchadnezzar.

Much like the Abayudaya over the last 95 years – five generations and more – Shadrach (together with Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel), were tenacious in their religious principles and defiant in their observance of Jewish practice, even in exile and under despotic regimes. Refusing to abandon his faith, Shadrach was cast into a fiery furnace. An angel of God rescued Shadrach (see Daniel, Chapter 3), delivering him and his companions from their captors’ cruel designs. It is my prayer that the remarkable faith in God, which is at the very heart of your Abayudaya heritage, will sustain you, as well, and that no trial or obstacle will keep you from taking your place among the Jewish people in its own land.

Shadrach, among the many enlightening conversations I had with members of the Abayudaya community during my time in Uganda was one concerning Jewish identity. Many among your community were taken aback that members of the rabbinic court, religious leaders living in countries far more hospitable than Uganda to acts of Jewish identification, nevertheless used distinctively English names: Rabbis Howard Gorin of Rockville, Maryland; Scott Glass of Ithaca, New York, and Andrew Sacks of Jerusalem were my colleagues on the bet din. Pride in Jewish identity, the Abayudaya insisted to their rabbinic guests, requires Hebrew nomenclature. Bearing as I do the name of a biblical hero, I was spared this criticism, and responded with gratitude to my Ugandan hosts then from Genesis 45:4, as I do now with conviction to you: “Ani Yosef achichem – I am Joseph, your brother.” In other words, “Nze Yusufu muganda wammwe!”

I pray that I will be privileged to see you next year in Jerusalem. Until that day of blessing, be assured of my concern, affection, and admiration for you, feelings that are shared by countless fellow Jews. May the God of Israel fulfill for you the blessing found in the closing verse of the Hebrew Bible: “Any of you of all His people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up” (II Chronicles 36:23)… or as the Abayudaya would render these hopeful words of Scripture: “Buli ali mu mmwe ku bantu be bonna, Mukama Adonai we abeera naye, ayambuke.”