Jews do not worship things.
God, we are told, is invisible and unknowable, never incarnate. We are forbidden to worship idols, and we are not allowed icons.
Still, there are some material objects that have an inherent sacredness to us, because of what they are and what they represent. Chief among those objects is a Torah scroll — the off-white, slightly irregular parchment with its black careful lines of straight-and-curving letters, filigreed at the top, black fire on white fire, rolled around the wooden rods called the trees of life, dressed in rich embroidered velvets and silks, hung with silver bells, crowned with silver caps.
It is the sefer Torah that contains the text at the heart of the Jewish tradition, which says that it was dictated by God on Mount Sinai.
It is possible to hold religious services without a sefer Torah, but it is far better to have one. Sifrei Torah are not easy to get, though; the need for the best possible materials and the painstaking care that must go into the writing means that they are expensive, often out of reach for new or resource-poor communities.
Sometimes, though, a shul can have more sifrei Torah than it can use. That’s the situation facing Rabbi Joseph Prouser and Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes. “Over the years, we have acquired a number of Torah scrolls, both from our own history and mergers with other congregations,” Rabbi Prouser said. “We have about 20. Some are in need of work, some have been refurbished, but most of them are in good shape.
“Because we have more Torah scrolls than we need for our own purposes, we thought that we should share them with communities or organizations that need them. The Abayudaya in Uganda are close to my heart, so I proposed to my congregation that we could provide them with a sefer Torah.”
The Abayudaya is a tribe of Ugandans whose leader, Semei Kakungulu, chose Judaism in about 1920, opting for it over the Christianity to which he had been converted. A powerful and charismatic chief, Mr. Kakungulu was able to convince many of his followers to become Jewish along with him; their practice was aided by the teaching of a European-born Jew who found his way to their settlement around then.
Now, the Abayudaya live mainly in seven villages. Aided by a nonprofit organization called Kulanu, which, according to its website, www.kulanu.org, “works around the world to support isolated and emerging Jewish communities who wish to learn more about Judaism and (re-)connect with the wider Jewish community,” many of them were converted to formal Judaism by a Conservative beit din. The community’s first rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, was ordained by the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles and since has returned to Uganda. The community he leads practices normative Judaism as filtered through an African sensibility.
Although Uganda has been through some very hard times, “at this point, the Jewish community there is living in peace and equality in a religiously tolerant atmosphere,” Rabbi Prouser said. “They serve openly in the government and in the army as Jews. They paint their houses with Jewish symbols, so everybody knows they’re Jewish.”
The reason that the Abayudaya are particularly dear to Rabbi Prouser is because he was part of the first Conservative beit din, held in 2002; the three-judge panel was made of two American rabbis and one from Israel. “There were then about 750 members of the community,” he said. The conversions were done by family group. “We were there about 10 days, and met personally with about half the community,” he said. “Since then, it has grown to almost 2,000 people, both through internal growth and from people coming in from the outside.
“It is such an appealing community that people have been asking how to join it,” Rabbi Prouser said.
He was so moved by his experiences in Uganda that the next year, when Kulanu asked him to return to lead Purim services, not only did he go, but “I brought my whole family with me,” he said. “We led Purim services, and read the megillah by lantern-light in Uganda’s main synagogue.
“There weren’t a lot of costumes — they made crowns, and so on — but they put on a lengthy Purimspiel, and they enacted the story of Esther in a distinctly African production. The king was dressed like an African tribal king, and all the members of the royal court were dressed like an African tribal court. The dancing all was African.
“It was very exciting, and fulfilling, and in some ways transformative. You see people who have sacrificed so very much for their Jewish identity, who find that identity so very precious and inspiring. That really sets a lofty example to which American Jews might aspire.”
So when Rabbi Prouser heard that Nasenyi, the village in which he spent the most time, not only needed a sefer Torah but already had built an ark to house and protect it, he was glad to be able to present the opportunity to his congregation.
“I said that we have so many Torah scrolls, and Torah scrolls don’t belong in a closet,” he said. “Torah scrolls are meant to be read and celebrated, to be kissed and embraced and danced with.”
When he proposed the donation to the synagogue board, “There was not a dissenting voice,” he said. “That is very unusual.”
“So we are giving them a big, beautiful — and kosher — sefer Torah,” he said. “It’s big and heavy and substantial, and the script is beautiful.
“We hope they will be delighted with it.”
On Sunday, at a public celebration, the Temple Emanuel community will give the sefer Torah to the Abayudaya community, which will be represented by some young Abayudaya who have been in North America working in Jewish summer camps and now are on their way home. They will receive the Torah on August 30 and it will be in its new home by next Shabbat, September 4, ready to be opened and read for the first time in many years, in place to be dressed in white and read on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and then to be paraded and danced with on Simchat Torah.
“There is one element that I always find to be particularly exciting and significant about transporting a Torah to Uganda,” Rabbi Prouser said. “We experienced this with the beit din, when we brought a sefer Torah with us.”
“Going to the Abayudaya means flying into Uganda and going through the airport at Entebbe.” In 1976, a breakaway group from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist organization that specialized in airplane hijacking, diverted an airplane en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. The plane was forced down in Entebbe, where it was welcomed by dictator Idi Amin, a man who would have seemed grotesquely buffoonish were he also not murderously evil.
All but three of the plane’s passengers famously were rescued by a team of Israeli commandos, in a raid of jaw-dropping courage and inventiveness.
So “when we carried the story of Esther, as we did on Purim, or the sefer Torah itself, through Entebbe airport, we can’t help but be moved by the historical significance,” Rabbi Prouser said.