At the schools run by the Abayudaya, the tiny Jewish community in Uganda, students of Jewish, Christian and Muslim backgrounds learn side by side.
"We study Judaism, we study Christianity, we study Islam in harmony. All the children sing 'Hatikvah.' There is no problem," said Aaron Kintu Moses, director of the primary school.
Aaron Kintu Moses
The 46-year-old recently wrapped up a four-week speaking tour of the United States. His stops here included Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, as well as a Center City talk, co-sponsored by the Brandeis Law Society, a Jewish organization, and the Barristers' Association of Philadelphia, which serves African-American attorneys.
Moses said he hoped to raise funds for his community's two boarding schools: One is called Hadassah, the other is named after the founder of the community, Semei Kakungulul. Altogether, they have about 770 students, he said, and are situated outside the mountainous eastern city of Mbale, about 100 miles from the Kenyan border.
The educator said he was also seeking support for Kulanu, a nonprofit that organized his lecture tour and works to support isolated and emerging Jewish communities worldwide. "I would like to see that the school is having enough facilities to enable the children to study well," Moses said in an interview here.
He added that the school needed better classrooms, more books and new dorms, as students come from distant areas. Running the schools is an economic struggle, he said, since the community needs to pay teachers' salaries and make sure the students have enough to eat.
The Ugandan community bears no genetic relationship to other Jewish communities. It got its start in 1919, when tribal chief Kakungulu rejected the interpretation of the Bible preached by missionaries. Moses said that Kakungulu, who learned to read the Bible in Swahili, was surprised to learn that Christians didn't do many of the things outlined in the Old Testament, such as keep kosher or observe Yom Kippur.
In that year, he and other males circumcised themselves and declared themselves Jews. Moses's grandfather was among Kakungulu's earliest followers.
The community grew but suffered during the 1970s under dictator Idi Amin. It has rebounded since, now numbering about 1,000 members, as contacts with other Jewish communities have become more regular.
Generally, the Abayudaya are recognized by the liberal streams but aren't considered Jews by the Orthodox. Moses said that the community members try to observe Jewish laws as best they can.
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, their leader, graduated from the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He ran for the Ugandan parliament last year but lost.
Officially, the State of Israel does not consider the Ugandans Jews. On the whole, Moses said that they are not interested in making aliyah.
Many would like to study in Israel but it's an economic burden, he added.
During the interview, Moses was dressed in sweats and wore a knitted kipah and tzitzit, with the fringes visible. He appeared to relish the break in his hectic speaking schedule. He was hosted by Philadelphia immigration attorney Enid Adler and her husband, David, and had the chance to spend a day touring the sights.
This was his second trip to the United States. Other than coming here, he said he's only left Uganda to visit neighboring Kenya.
All in all, he said that Jews in Uganda are in a good place now.
"I think we are in a better position because the politics of Uganda does not prohibit us from doing anything. There is freedom of worship," he said, adding that he views the interreligious cooperation at his school as a model for others to follow.
What the Abayudaya want most is to feel less isolated and part of the worldwide Jewish community, he said. More and more American Jews are visiting Mbale, in part as volunteers for groups like Kulanu, he added.
"What we need is to have connection to all the people from around the world as brothers and sisters."