Chief rabbi recounts Ugandan Jews’ trials, triumphs for JFSA

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu

As the first black rabbi from Sub-Saharan Africa, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, chief rabbi of Uganda and leader of the Abayudaya Jews, may seem like an anomaly to some, but his commitment to Judaism is staunch. “I grew up in eastern Uganda with no electricity or water,” Sizomu told around 70 people at a Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy luncheon on Oct. 29, part of the Federation’s 2014 Leadership Campaign Summit, held at Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort.

“We live among our Christian and Muslim neighbors,” Sizomu said. With assistance from Be’chol Lashon — a global nonprofit that strives to reduce the isolation of racially diverse Jews — the Abayudaya have launched a capitol project to build a new synagogue and community center in rural Uganda. The hope is to “promote peaceful coexistence and help combat anti-Semitism,” he said.

The Abayudaya, a 100-year-old community whose tribal name means “People of Judah,” trace their origin to Semei Kakungulu. Selected by the British to be a Christian missionary in Uganda, Kakungulu favored the Old Testament. “He read the truth of the Torah, which contradicted the New Testament, so he gave it back to the Christian missionaries,” said Sizomu, adding that in 1919, there were 8,000 members of the community who began practicing Judaism.

Through the support of a Be’chol Lashon fellowship, Sizomu attended the five-year Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He was ordained in May 2008 and returned to his village of Nabaguye with his wife, Tziporah, later that month. The couple has four children.

Life in Uganda hasn’t always been easy for the Abayudaya. “In 1962, the Israeli Embassy opened, with less than 2,000 Jews left,” said Sizomu. “The rest had converted to Christianity to get education and healthcare.” By the 1970s, Idi Amin, Uganda’s dictator, “outlawed Jewish practice. We weren’t even allowed to wear kippot, have a Bar Mitzvah, or step into the synagogue,” said Sizomu. “We drank banana wine at our first Seder after Idi was defeated” in April 1979.

“It was my happiest moment ever,” he said, “until my Bar Mitzvah in 1983, when I announced that I would be the next rabbi, like my grandfather. Imagine how I felt when we landed in Los Angeles [in 2003 to attend rabbinical school]. My wife misses the dishwasher and everything we had in the house. ‘You could lock yourself up in that house and never go out,’ she would say.”

In the past, said Sizomu, there was a code of purity for women in his village. “Women were not allowed to eat chicken. It was a delicacy [reserved] for men. Girls were not allowed to go to school, lead services or read Torah in the synagogue.” But his study partner at rabbinical school was a woman, who “is now a rabbi in San Francisco. When we went back home I called a meeting in the community: ‘We are going to have a fundamental change, I said. Women shall go to school, shall lead services. Women will not kneel down for you men.’”

The men weren’t happy. “They wanted to kill me,” joked Sizomu. “My daughter is now 17. She had a Bat Mitzvah when we went back home. She said, ‘Abbah, I am going to be the [next] rabbi.’”

Currently, “we encourage married women to go to school. We have daycare at the synagogue. I thank you very much for what you are doing for women here,” he said. “Now in the United States and around the world, women are doing amazing things for tikkun olam (repair of the world).”

Sizomu, who spoke at several JFSA leadership campaign events and also met with students at the Tucson Hebrew Academy while he was here, invited women at the luncheon to “come lead a tour group to Uganda and help strengthen our women” even more. And some Tucson Jewish women, celebrating philanthropy and tikkun olam at the Federation luncheon, seemed ready to take him up on the idea.