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What The Yom Kippur Fast Means To A Ugandan Jew

Shadrach Mugoya Levi, right, at his recent wedding in Uganda. From left: his son Oren Levi and Moshe Isiko.
Merissa Nathan Gerson
Shadrach Mugoya Levi, right, at his recent wedding in Uganda. From left: his son Oren Levi and Moshe Isiko.

The idea of giving up food for 25 hours for the Yom Kippur fast can seem daunting.

But for Shadrach Mugoya Levi, it's not so unusual. In his impoverished village of Magada, Uganda, there are many days when there's not enough food to eat.

"On Yom Kippur I am asking God to pardon me," Levi says of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. "On other days when I don't have food, I still pray. I pray that I get what to eat, so that I can continue to live."

Levi, the 28-year-old spiritual leader of Uganda's Namutumba Synagogue, had an especially tough childhood. Orphaned at age 7, he raised three younger brothers as well as a sister who later died. Days with just one small meal, or sometimes no food at all, were routine. The nearest water well was a three-hour walk from the home of the relatives they lived with after their parents died. Their source of food were small plots of maize, potatoes, rice, cassava and millet that were planted and harvested by hand. Lack of rain meant lack of food.

Those memories are now far away, at least physically. Levi is spending Saturday's Yom Kippur holiday in Israel, where he arrived three weeks ago to spend the academic year studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. This is his first Yom Kippur outside Uganda.

So this year he'll be fasting in a developed country, where grocery stores have been crowded all week as people stock up to cook for the festive last meal before the fast — and the refreshing spread of food to break it.

"People are buying so much food here," he said during a break in his studies this week. "We never had a special meal before the fast. If there was any food around, we would just eat it, and if there wasn't any food, you just say, 'OK, God's there for me, so let's go fast.'"

Come Friday night and Saturday, as he prays in a Jerusalem synagogue, his empty stomach will no doubt remind him of his own past difficulties and the continuing food struggles in Uganda, which only recently emerged from a year-long drought and famine.

Neighboring African countries on the brink of famine will also be on his mind, he says. While these food shortages and his memories are difficult — he avoids giving details about his parents' and sister's deaths — the upcoming day without eating will be good for him, he says.

"Fasting gives me an opportunity for empathy," he said. "And when I think of others and their problems, I really want to help."

In fact, helping his religious community is what has ultimately allowed him to carve out a brighter future. His Jewish community is one of several in Uganda established nearly a century ago when thousands of citizens followed in the footsteps of a local military general, Semei Kakungulu, and converted. Uganda's Jews are known as Abayudaya, meaning "People of Judah," in the local Luganda language. Levi grew up observing the Sabbath — no electricity and no driving, for example — although he admits it was difficult to break it in a village without power or cars. Eventually he studied Hebrew and Jewish texts under the country's chief rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, who had been ordained by the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Since Levi's appointment as a local spiritual leader in 2014, he has studied in the United States and now, in Israel. Through contacts abroad he was recently able to raise enough money to hold a Jewish wedding ceremony not just for himself and his long-time fiancee, Naomi, but also for four other couples in his community. The joint ceremony, party and meal for 1,500 guests --- Jewish, Muslim and Christian--- attracted a lot of attention and was covered in the New York Times.

"We invited everyone because this was like my sacrifice, something I wanted to offer to everyone after everything I have been through," Levi recalls. "It was really something amazing, and I am happy it brought more awareness about my community."

Spending the year in Israel is also a type of sacrifice. He has left his wife and two sons behind in Uganda, as Israel, not fully recognizing the Abayudaya communities as Jewish, has yet to grant them visas. Levi hopes to return to Uganda at the end of the school year with more knowledge of Jewish texts and history to share with his community of about 400 people, who live largely isolated from the rest of the Jewish world.

"I have an obligation to learn more," he says. "Everyone calls me rabbi, but I am not really a rabbi, I'm just serving as a rabbi."

Determined that his community will not face famine again, he has also launched Operation Joseph, with the Maryland-based Ezra Uganda Assistance foundation. The new Operation Joseph project raises money to buy oxen and plows to harvest surplus food in good years and store it for times of drought.

"It's like what Joseph did in the Bible," Levi says, referring to the story of how Joseph organized the agricultural system to help people survive famine in Egypt. "Because now without any animals or plows we can never grow any extra food."

As far as advice on how to have the so-called "easy fast" that many Jews wish each other before Yom Kippur, Levi says it is a matter of mind over body.

"Whether it's on Yom Kippur or not, getting through the day without food is something you need to commit your whole heart, soul and being to," he says. "You really need to be committed. Then you can do anything."

Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based journalist. You can follow her work @saratothstub.

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Sara Toth Stub