Beth Shalom Congregation To Welcome Ugandan Rabbinic Intern for Weekend of Programming

Samson Nderitu Njogu (Courtesy)

Next month, Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia will be hosting a special guest who hails from a Jewish community most Baltimoreans might not be familiar with.

The synagogue’s Rabbinic Intern-In-Residence Weekend will feature Samson Nderitu Njogu, a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies who hails from Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community.

From Friday, April 12 to Sunday, April 14, Beth Shalom congregants and any other interested attendees will be able to observe Shabbat with a service incorporating African Jewish traditions, and participate in programs that focus on the Abayudaya community, its history and its connection to Israel.

Beth Shalom has hosted scholars-in-residence before, as well as rabbinic intern visit weekends for students from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, but this is its first time giving a rabbinic intern the floor for an entire weekend. This was due in part to Njogu’s unique background and Beth Shalom’s connection with his father-in-law, Uganda’s first Chief Rabbi Gershom Sizomu.

“In the past, we had rabbinical interns come down to help with services and give a d’var Torah. This opportunity is because Samson has such a unique story,” explained Rabbi Jennifer Romano Greenspan, Beth Shalom’s senior rabbi. “It’s a special opportunity for our congregation to learn a little bit about a part of the Jewish world that not many are well exposed to.”

Born in Gathundia, Kenya, as one of 13 children, Njogu joined the Abayudaya community in Uganda when he was 15. According to the Jewish Museum of London, the Abayudaya community was first founded in 1913 by Semei Kakungulu, a statesman who converted to Judaism because of disagreements he had with Christian missionaries about the correct way to interpret the Bible. The community follows Jewish law very closely, keeping kosher and covering their heads according to halachic rules.

While they were persecuted in the past by the likes of dictator Idi Amin, who outlawed Jewish rituals in Uganda, the community has been growing at a steady rate since the fall of Amin’s regime and currently consists of around 2,000 people.

Njogu served as president of Abayudaya’s youth movement and tutored young community members preparing for their b’nai mitzvahs. He also served as Sizomu’s assistant and later married his daughter, Dafnah Sizomu. Currently, he is an intern at Hamakom, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles, and is working toward returning to Africa as a full-fledged rabbi.

“I remember seeing [Sizomu] around Los Angeles when I was attending the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. We did not go to school at the same time, but I would see him around the community,” Greenspan recalled. “One of my mentors worked closely with Rabbi Sizomu, and is now working closely with Samson as he goes through his rabbinic journey, which is how he linked us up.”

The Shabbat service held during the Rabbinic Intern-in-Residence Weekend will incorporate melodies using a djembe drum, a traditional West African instrument, as well as several Shabbat traditions that the Abayudaya community follows. Later in the weekend, Njogu will be speaking about his own story of joining the community, as well as its history and relation to Israel.

The relationship between Abayudaya Jews and Israel has been in flux in recent years — while there have been efforts led by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to have the community officially recognized in Israel and by the Orthodox Jewish community, the Israeli Ministry of the Interior ruled in 2018 that they would not recognize the Abayudaya community.

In 2021, the Jewish Agency withdrew its recognition, effectively eliminating Abayudaya Jews’ ability to make aliyah to Israel under the Law of Return. This decision was met with backlash from the Conservative and Masorti movement, who condemned it due to the potential consequences it could have for Jews living outside of Israel.

Njogu will also be instructing Beth Shalom’s religious school when they meet for class that Sunday.

“Being in Howard County, we pride ourselves on being a diverse congregation. So it’s important for us, when we have a diverse congregation, to recognize the diversity of the greater Jewish world,” Greenspan said. “Jewish practice can be a very colorful tapestry, and we have a lot in common all over the world. I was taught in Hebrew school that no matter where we go, if we can use a little bit of Hebrew or a Torah portion, we can connect with Jews anywhere and everywhere, and that we all have something special to bring to how we celebrate Judaism, and especially Shabbat.”

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