Rabbi elected as first Jewish member of Ugandan Parliament
The leader of a tribe of Jews in Uganda, a rabbi whose family and community were persecuted under Idi Amin, has been elected to the Ugandan Parliament — the first Jew to achieve that honor in the African nation.
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu has a Los Angeles connection: He was ordained in the Conservative movement at Sinai Temple in 2008 by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.
“I was very proud of him,” Artson said about Sizomu’s election.
Sizomu, 47, and his wife, Tziporah, also recently became parents for the fifth time on March 12. Nadav Sizomu had his naming ceremony on March 21, joining siblings Igaal, 21; Dafnah, 19; Naavah, 10; and Zivah, 4. Today, there are about 2,000 members of Sizomu’s Abayudaya tribe. The Jewish origins of the tribe date to the early 20th century, even before Uganda gained independence from Great Britain. Sizomu and the Abayudaya live in the eastern Ugandan town of Mbale, near the Kenyan border.
“It’s the second-largest town in Uganda, but by American standards, it’s very, very small,” said Artson, who flew to Uganda to formally install Sizomu in Mbale. “His community is on the outskirts.”
Sizomu was elected in an eight-way race in February to represent the Bungokho North district of eastern Uganda in Parliament as a member of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Party, the opposition party. His election was challenged in court by runner-up Peter Magomu Mashate of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the ruling party.
Last week, Sizomu told the Jewish Journal the court had dismissed the challenge and that he is now listed in the Uganda Gazette as a member of Parliament for the district. But according to Diane Tobin of Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization of global Jews with which Sizomu is affiliated, Sizomu is facing a second round of court challenges.
“Obviously, it’s a historical moment,” Artson said of Sizomu’s election. “It’s the first time a Jew was elected to [the Ugandan] parliament. It’s the first time a member of the Abayudaya can participate.”
The story of the Jewish origins of the Abayudaya began in 1919, when Uganda was a British protectorate. Tribal general Semei Kakungulu renounced Christianity after a dispute with the British and converted to Judaism. Sizomu’s grandfather succeeded Kakungulu as spiritual leader of the Abayudaya. Both Sizomu’s grandfather and father were rabbis, although neither was ordained.
“[They had] no formal rabbinic training as there was no rabbinic school in Uganda,” Sizomu said.
Under Idi Amin, the tribe’s existence was imperiled. “We were not allowed to practice or identify with Judaism,” Sizomu said. “We were forced to work on school gardens on Saturday, and they called us Christ-killers.”
Sizomu’s father was arrested for building a sukkah during the dictator’s rule.
“I was inspired by my father and grandfather, who were both spiritual leaders of my community, but the overthrow of Idi Amin on Erev Pesach brought me much closer to the delivering God of Israel,” Sizomu said.
After Amin’s ouster, which Sizomu called “the perfect timing for redemption,” the Abayudaya sought closer relations with worldwide Judaism. Through the organization Kulanu, they connected with the Conservative movement in the United States, resulting in a formal mass conversion of the tribe in 2002.
Sizomu left his country to study Conservative Judaism at the Ziegler School for five years, including one year in Jerusalem.
“He liked that we were focused on God,” Artson said, “and followed traditional texts and the love of mitzvot.” Sizomu also served a rabbinic internship at Shomrei Torah in West Hills while studying at the Ziegler School.
In 2008, Artson flew to Uganda to formally install Sizomu. “It was on the Uganda national newspaper’s front page,” Artson recalled. “We had one week of Torah learning and shared it with the community.”
Artson described the Abayudaya services as “very spirited” and “traditional … like a Conservative congregation. A lot of singing, many psalms and proverbs [set] to their own melodies, an African rhythm and musicality, too. Wonderful, great energy, great spirit.”
In fact, a CD of Abayudaya prayer music was nominated for a Grammy.
Artson called the Abayudaya “generous and dignified” and Sizomu “genuine and real. He loves his community.”
Sizomu called Artson “my teacher and mentor and a big inspiration.”
“[He] is a great teacher with a voice of reason heard in every statement coming out of him, and I admire his clarity in teaching Torah and in explaining the realities of life. When he came to Uganda, everyone loved his lessons and sense of humor.”
Sizomu continues to visit the United States several times each year, including visits to synagogues in Southern California.
In 2011, three years after his historic ordination, he made an equally historic run for Parliament, but lost that election. Between the 2011 and 2015 elections, “I maintained my support” and “[learned] from previous experience,” Sizomu said.
“I would like to use my position to appeal to government and non-government organizations here and abroad to help the people of my constituency have access to basic social needs like running water, health and education,” Sizomu said. “The Abayudaya will benefit alongside others.”
The longtime leader of the Abayudaya is looking forward to joining Parliament, but said he also remembers the past. He will seek to ensure that previous persecutions will not be repeated.
“[The] Abayudaya will benefit by gaining some political recognition, which can translate into some political protection,” he said. “In the past, we have suffered at the hands of people who have used political power to promote their hatred against us.”