In February of 2002, a Jewish beit din (court) made up of 5 rabbis from the United States and Israel flew to a remote area in Uganda to conduct a formal conversion of over 300 Abayudaya (the Lugandan term for “Jews”), welcoming them into the community of world Jewry.
The documentary “Yearning To Belong” records this momentous event as well as examines the difficult question: “Who is a Jew?”
For although the Abayudaya have completed the halachic requirements, including a symbolic circumcision and a mikveh or ritual immersion, many in the world Jewish community still will not accept them as Jews
Interviews include among others, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis and Host of WABC Radio’s long-running “Religion on the Line”; Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor Emeritus of The Jewish Theological Seminary; and Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
A roundtable discussion between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Rabbis highlights the range of acceptance of the Abayudaya conversion.
In addition, current photos from the Abayudaya community underline the importance of support by Jews from around the world.
In 1919, following the guidance of their leader, a local governor named Semei Kakungulu, the tribe adopted all the observances of Judaism including circumcision at birth.
In the 1970s, even in the face of rampant anti-Semitism under the reign of Idi Amin, exemplified by torture and murder, many of the tribe held fast to Jewish practice and beliefs.
In the 1980s, with the help of the outside Jewish community from Israel and the United States, a number of small synagogues were built and a Torah donated.
Today the Abayudaya keep kosher according to Talmudic Law, attend to the Jewish holiday calendar and study the weekly parshah.
The documentary shows the ritual conversions, family interviews with the Beit Din, the mikveh and river immersions and the individual stories of the village members. In addition, it presents the story of the spiritual leader Rabbi Gershom Sizomu who is currently studying for ordination at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles as well as the amazing celebration when a Torah is donated to the community and the first wedding is held under a sugarcane chuppah.
“Yearning To Belong uncovers an extraordinary people deeply committed to Judaism amidst wrenching poverty and the persecution that binds them as tightly to the Jewish people as does their perseverance and courage.
Alas, the film also tells the sad story of contemporary Jewish turf wars.
A remarkable film that is a must-see, especially for all those who take Judaism for granted.”
Pamela S. Nadell
Professor of History
Director Jewish Studies Program