See Photos of Uganda's Tiny Jewish Community

In the hills of Eastern Uganda, nearly 2,000 Jews live among their Christian and Muslim neighbors.
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See Photos of Uganda's Tiny Jewish Community Tommy Trenchard for Newsweek

On March 23, 2016, a group of Ugandans wearing masks and costumes gathered in a village in the shadow of Mount Elgon to mark a failed plot against the Jewish people in ancient Persia. Here, in the lush rolling terrain near the Kenyan border—a landscape dotted with churches and mosques in every village—a tiny community of Jews has been living for almost a century.

A month earlier, the Abayudaya, as Uganda's Jewish population are known, celebrated a major victory when their leader, Gershom Sizomu, Uganda's first and only rabbi, beat seven other candidates in the Muslim-majority constituency of Bungokho North to become the first Jew to win a seat in the country's parliament. The charismatic, guitar-playing rabbi comes from a family of Abayudaya leaders and hopes to use his new position to advocate for Uganda's Jews.

"We're still a minority group in Uganda," says Eliyahu Muyamba, a religious leader in the village of Namanyoni. "So we're not politically influential in the current system." Muyamba hopes that having representation in Parliament will help the community, which at times feels neglected by the government in Kampala, gain recognition and funding.

Unlike other isolated Jewish communities, the Abayudaya—which translates as "people of Judah" in the local Luganda language—claim no ancestral link to Judaism. They are the legacy of a warrior chief named Semei Kakungulu. Inspired by the five books of Moses in the Old Testament and feeling shunned by the British colonial administration, he circumcised himself and his two sons and declared himself Jewish in 1919.

In the years that followed, Jewish travelers provided support and Hebrew texts to the fledgling community, who adopted more and more Jewish customs into their daily life. Today, there are around 2,000 Abayudaya, some of whom have officially converted into Conservative Judaism, and others who just practice without official recognition. They eat kosher food, learn Hebrew, pray at the prescribed times and strictly observe the Sabbath and other Jewish festivals.

Today, the community co-exists peacefully with its Muslim and Christian neighbors, although life hasn't always been easy for them. The repressive reign of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s was a particularly difficult time for the Abayudaya; Amin banned Judaism, forcing the community to convert or flee. By the time he fled into exile in 1979 (on Passover, as the Abayudaya like to point out), the number of Abayudaya had dwindled to just 300, down from 2,000 when Amin first came to power eight years earlier.

In May, Sizomu was sworn into Parliament, and the community is now feeling optimistic about its future. In the village of Nabugoye, they are building a large new synagogue, complete with a mikveh—a bath used for ritual immersion—for future convertees. The rabbi's success has also helped raise the Abayudaya's profile overseas, boosting the prospect of more international support for the community.

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Ugandan Jews chat as they walk to a local synagogue in the town of Mbale. The community of less than 2,000 people is known as the Abayudaya, which translates in the local Luganda language as "people of Judah." Tommy Trenchard for Newsweek