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uganda exteriorExterior View (2008), 15” x 11” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker


Synagogue (1990s)
Abayudaya Jewish Community
Putti, Uganda 30 and 31


uganda interior

Interior View (2008), 11” x 15” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker



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Uganda is home to the Abayudaya (from the Lugandan word for “Jewish People” or “People of Judah”) community of Jews, a group made up of the large Bantu ethnic group native to Buganda, a subnational kingdom within the country.  The black Abayudaya Jews live not at a single place in this region but in a string of unassuming and peaceful villages in the eastern part of Uganda.   There a collection of modest synagogues building over fairly recent years can today be found.   These Jewish houses of prayer are located to the east of Mbale, Uganda’s seventh largest city and the main municipal, administrative, and commercial center of Mbale District and the surrounding sub-region. 

Christian and Muslim neighbors once looked on the Abayudaya with contempt, but inter-faith relations in recent times have improved, and some now view members of the Abayudaya with respect and admiration.  Whereas the Abayudaya Jewish population was estimated at three hundred individuals at the time of the fall of Idi Amin in 1979, the community is said to now number up to two thousand people.

Besides the five synagogues located in the towns of Namutumba, Nasenyi, Putti, Namanyonyi, and Nabugoye, Abayudaya Jewish schools have been established in recent years with outside help from individuals and international Jewish organizations such as Kulanu.    As the Abayudaya community has increased its interactions with outside Jews, mainly those from the United States and Israel, over the past dozen or so years, its religious ideology and customs has shifted towards more mainstream and normative Judaism.  Members attend Shabbat services regularly following a conventional prayer book, maintain a kosher diet and slaughter their own animals in accordance with its regulations and, out of character from most Jews, remove their shoes before entering the synagogue in reverence to a practice by Jews in biblical times.

The synagogue in the village of Putti is constructed out of locally-made rough bricks, a thatched hipped roof set on hand-cut wood framing, and wood-framed openings without proper windows and doors.    The simple structure is built directly on the ground without any type of foundation, and it is surrounded by a dirt path and overgrown vegetation.   Today the Jewish population of Putti is small, but the community is relatively active, devout, and continuing to grow.

The synagogue in Putti, Uganda is a one-room structure measuring approximately 17’ x 26’.   It contains a dirt floor, hand-made brick and mud walls, and hand-cut roof framing exposed on the inside covered in thatching.  The space is intimate:  8’ high walls sloping up to 11’ along the roof ridge, nine wood-framed openings without proper windows, and one opening without actual doors.   The space is filled with four flat wooden benches and three stools and a projecting raised Ark intended to house the Sefer Torah, and a freestanding bimah (table where the Torah is read).   To the west side of the sanctuary is a narrow dedicated area for women’s seating as per Orthodox Jewish custom. 

Putti Synagogue’s walls are bare, and there are no decorative architectural or ornamental liturgical flourishes popular to other synagogues around the world or personal to this particular congregation within in the space.  The building has no electricity or other utility services.  Despite its seemingly rudimentary character, one needs to remember that a synagogue is technically just a gathering interior or even exterior place (albeit with the Sefer Torah) for a minyan (quorum) to congregate for prayer services, and it does not by any means need to be a well-appointed and lavish space.

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