A Sefer Torah’s Unlikely Journey to Remote Uganda Village


sefer-torah-ugandaBy Scott Farwell

ALLAS – Dr. Isador Lieberman, a world-renowned spinal surgeon, is the kind of guy whose work life is scheduled to the minute.

So, when a man appeared unannounced in his office 11 years ago with vague questions and a hard-to-decipher accent, Lieberman’s response was frosty.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” he said to his secretary. “Does he have an appointment? Who is he? What does he want?”

She shrugged and offered thinly, “He’s pretty persistent.”

“OK,” he relented, “bring him in.”

The decision changed the trajectory of Lieberman’s life.

Next month, he will lead a small team of Texans into the foothills of Mount Elgon, a towering, dormant volcano in eastern Uganda. He will carry a dirt-proof, waterproof, insect-proof acrylic cylinder containing…a Sefer Torah.

How did a 51-year-old Jewish physician from Plano, Texas, end up delivering a Sefer Torah to a remote village in Uganda?

The story begins in the early 1900s with an elephant hunter named Semei Kakungulu.

Protestant missionaries and European colonialists swarmed across Africa, importing Christianity while exporting the continent’s natural resources.

Kakungulu, a charismatic and opportunistic leader of the Baganda tribe, learned to read the Bible in Swahili and to understand the language and ambitions of the British, eventually helping them conquer vast swaths of his homeland.

Some called him a traitor; others called him Uganda’s first king.

But as Kakungulu’s power grew, he became disillusioned with the moral and political agenda of the white men. Around 1917, he retreated to the jungles encircling Mount Elgon and began learning the Torah.
He claimed a conversion to Judaism, wrote a 90-page manual of rules and prayers and planted a Jewish community called the Abayudaya, which flourished even after Kakungulu died of tetanus in 1928.

Ugandan leader Idi Amin outlawed Judaism soon after he seized power in 1971, and later proclaimed that Adolf Hitler “was right to burn 6 million Jews.”

The Abayudaya fractured in the face of persecution, but some tribesmen continued to worship in private, keeping Shabbos  and circumcising their sons.

Religious freedom was eventually restored in Uganda, and today about 1,500 of the Abayudaya remain in a scattering of villages on what was once Kakungulu’s estate.

They exist in relative obscurity, unknown to many Jews – including Lieberman, until he came upon a collection of clay huts imprinted with menorahs and Magein Dovids last year.

Lieberman, who runs a spinal surgery mission in Uganda, celebrated a Friday evening davening last year with about 200 Jews in a small village called Putti.

“In typical fashion, it was a culture shock to us North Americans, as privileged as we are,” he said. “I saw how they lived, and their grass hut, which was their synagogue.”

Villagers danced and sang, blending African rhythm with traditional Jewish rituals.

Lieberman’s spirits soared, until the people opened their Aron Kodesh.

“I saw this little paper Torah scroll, maybe 12 inches high, one of those things you buy in some Judaica shop for kids to draw on with crayons,” he said. “I was just troubled by that.”

Lieberman listened as community members described their struggle to live as Orthodox Jews and their desire to undergo conversion and be recognized by rabbinical authorities in Israel.

The Abayudaya are not accepted as Jewish by all Jews.

“I don’t know what came over me, but I said, ‘I’m going to work on getting you a Sefer Torah,’ ” Lieberman said. “I had no idea what it would take to get one, the logistics involved, the resources needed.

“And that just triggered this incredible chain of events.”

A turning point in the story, Lieberman said, was the afternoon 11 years ago when the man showed up unannounced in his office.
His name was Mark Kayanja. He had traveled from Uganda to learn spine surgery.

Lieberman was skeptical.

“Mark, do you have a license?”


“Do you have any support?”


Kayanja interrupted. He said he’d do anything, including work for free.

“I started him off in our research lab,” Lieberman said. “Within six months, I realized I was dealing with – this is no stretch – one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever had the privilege of being associated with.”

Kayanja, today a spinal surgeon in Cleveland, was the first graduate of an orthopedic program in Uganda to train abroad.

Lieberman was his mentor at the Lerner Research Institute’s Cleveland Clinic, but in some ways, he learned more than he taught.

“He was always asking me about Uganda, what the conditions are like, what is the state of spine surgery there, what could be done to improve it,” Kayanja said.

“I told him a lot of the patients have conditions that are treatable, especially the children.”

Lieberman said Kayanja began a relentless campaign.

“He pestered me for four years, ‘Let’s go to Uganda. We need to work in Uganda,’ ” Lieberman remembered, laughing. “I was like, ‘OK, Mark. May 2005, we’ll go to Uganda. Now get back to work.’ ”

In April 2005, Kayanja appeared in Lieberman’s office again with airline tickets and a list of patients.

“At that point, I realized I did promise,” Lieberman said. “We did go to Uganda. I was hooked, and we’ve been going back ever since.”

In six years, Lieberman, Kayanja and other physicians have operated on more than 200 patients through the Uganda Spine Surgery Mission, which is operated under the auspices of a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, Health Volunteers Overseas.

Their work focuses on treating spinal injuries, correcting children’s congenital deformities and training local doctors.

After a few years volunteering in Uganda, Lieberman began hearing rumors about Jews living in remote villages in the shadow of an ancient volcano.

Last year, he set out to find them.

It took about six hours to drive from Uganda’s capital of Kampala to Mbale, a city of about 80,000 near the country’s eastern border with Kenya.

From there, Lieberman’s group followed red-clay motorcycle trails into the jungle. It was nearly dark by the time they arrived in Putti, a village of about 200 subsistence farmers who live in mud huts without electricity or running water.

Tribal leaders seemed thrilled at the prospect of having a legitimate parchment scroll.

“When you’re looking at a village that’s struggling to survive, a Torah doesn’t seem like the first thing they need,” said Lieberman.

“From a religious standpoint, sure, but when you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there’s no Torah scroll on there.”

After he returned to his home in Dallas, Lieberman said, he received emails nearly every day from the religious leader in Putti, Rabbi Enosh Keki Mainah. He either walked or caught a ride to the nearest Internet cafe about seven miles away from his home.

“He was like, ‘We’re so thankful that you promised to bring us a Torah. We can’t wait until next year to see our new Sefer Torah,’ ”

Lieberman said. “And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh, my God, what have I gotten myself into?’ ”

His anxiety grew as he started making calls.

Lieberman learned that Sifrei Torah can cost $25,000 or more and often require expensive repairs. To withstand the climate in rural Uganda, it would need a special protective case.

In December, he scheduled a meeting at a Starbucks in Plano with Rabbi Nasanya Zakon, director of the Dallas Area Torah Association, and Rabbi Avraham Bloomenstiel, an expert in the rare art of writing and repairing Sifrei Torah.

“That place was empty,” Lieberman said. “And we’re sitting there, drinking tea with music in the background, planning how to get a Torah scroll into Uganda. And I’m thinking, ‘This is not real. You couldn’t write a sitcom like this.’ ”

Months later, Bloomenstiel – who was admitted to Harvard University at 16 and later received a master’s degree in music from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University – found five stolen Torahs in a police evidence locker in Brooklyn. They had gone unclaimed for more than a decade and were available for purchase.

With the help of donors, Lieberman bought a Sefer Torah for $12,000 – a Sefer Torah created in Poland about the time his father was a prisoner at Nazi death camps in Buchenwald, Germany, and Auschwitz, Poland. He survived and ultimately immigrated to Canada.

“I must admit that I was a less-than-enthusiastic religious Jew until my father passed away in 2001,” Lieberman said. “Some things have happened the last few years that are just not explainable to me. I feel like there’s something guiding all of us.”

Bloomenstiel said it’s hard not to see divine intervention in the story of the Sefer Torah and how it has intersected with lives on three continents.

“Here we have a story that starts with a leader of the Baganda tribe who is living in the jungle and develops a connection with Judaism,” he said.

“Then Izzy contacts me to get a Torah scroll that was written pre-World War II, somehow survived being stolen, ends up in an evidence locker in Brooklyn and now has found its way to a synagogue in the mountains of Uganda.”

The journey may also challenge some people’s religious reference points.

“Judaism is always thought of as an ethnicity, but it’s not – it’s a community of the soul,” Bloomenstiel said.

“This story has the potential to remind the greater community that you have to step outside of this very narrow European view of what it means to be Jewish.”

{Jewish World Review/Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. It is indeed a touching story, but this community is made up of 100% non-halachic Jews. This is not a community descending from the lost tribes like those elsewhere in Africa. The article describes how one man brought “Judaism” to this village and taught them and the followed along.

  2. I agree with Akiva.

    Caution is needed here. It is a nice story, but we are supposed to follow halochoh, and not let that be swept aside by emotions aroused by a nice story about people who want to identify with us in an exotic place.

    Most of the people of the group discussed, have, in the past, have been involved with non-Orthodox Jews, especially Conservative ones.

    We welcome friends, but accepting a stranger’s claim that they are a member of your family is a different matter, which is handled differently.

    If a stranger came to you on the street and said that he is your cousin, would you just accept it and ask no questions? I don’t think so. You would ask him to prove his claim. Same here.

    We have had many problems in recent years in Ethiopia and elsewhere with people claiming to be Jewish, about whom there are questions. It behooves us to be very careful with such cases. There are many people in the third world who wish to identify with Judaism, because they think it will get them assistance, perhaps get them to a better place, such as Eretz Yisroel, etc.

    It needs to be decided by poskim of stature, not just by an outreach professional and a BT sofer, fine people though they may be.

  3. Yasher Koach to Rabbi Blooenstiel.
    Bli Neder, will see you Sunday in Dallas at your new store, Bloomenstiel’s Israel Judaica.

  4. interesting. but are you allowed halachically to bring non-jews a sefer torah? its a nice story but i dont think that it’s so kosher

  5. A documentary was done on this group. It is clear that the Geirus was NOT done properly at all. The poor people were scammed by a group of conservative clergy.
    Our Kiruv personel need to be more discriminating and not fall prey to the sensational.

  6. These are NOT kasher geirim.
    See the following article by the Avi Weiss Musmach who sits on inter-denominational beid dins for giyur, who also took up the cause of the people. Even he admits that these are not geirim:
    “the Abayudaya do not consider themselves converts to Judaism – only that they performed the rituals of conversion as an affirmation of their Jewish identity”

    Sending a kasher Torah to them is a shandah. That a frum Kollel participated makes it worse.

    See more at http://www.jewishaz.com/issues/story.mv?090213+travel1

  7. Clarification is needed here:

    I am the sofer mentioned in the article. There are two completely unrelated communities in Uganda, both of which, however, originated with Semei Kakungalu. The first is the Abuyudaya – they are primarily in Mbale and are not halachically Jewish. They Are affiliated with conservative “Judaism.” Ever comment posted here thusfar pertains to this community.

    The second community, Putti, is committed 100% to Torah Judaism. They have NO connection with the community in Mbale. Several members have been sent to EY to learn, and have done so in mainstream yeshivos, many have undergone recognized geirus by legitimate Batei Dinim in EY. Their desire is mass conversion as part of klal yisroel. Sounds strange, I know, but that is their ratzon and their situation is known to many Gadolei yisroel.

    It is to this latter community that we are bringing the sefer.

    Before getting involved with this project, the shailo was posed to two poskim, one American posek and one in EY. The American posek is a leading figure in Adugas Yisroel and the one in EY is with the Badatz. From both we received the “green light.”

    So to clarify – the sefer torah IS NOT being brought to the conservative community of Mbale, rather it is being brought to the Orthodox community of Putti, whose overall goal is a complete conversion to Torah Judaism. Their conversions have been deemed legitimate and we did seek daas torah before proceeding.

    Avraham Chaim Bloomenstiel


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