Uganda’s Rabbi Comes To Baltimore

Growing up amid central eastern Africa’s tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, Gershom Sizomu knew that being Jewish was far from usual. After all, his father — a rabbi like his father before him — was once arrested for building a sukkah and ransomed from the arresting police officer with five goats.

He was 13 when in 1976 Israeli commandoes stunningly raided his country’s Entebbe Airport, freeing Israeli hostages from Palestinian terrorists. “People in the general community were speaking of the rescue as a miracle from God,” the leader of Uganda’s Jewish community — known as the Abayudayah — said during a recent visit to the Baltimore Jewish Times. “They were recalling the rescue of the Jewish people from Egypt and said, ‘God protects them wherever they are.’ ”

When Idi Amin’s brutal dictatorship fell in 1979 on the eve of Passover, it was seen as yet another sign from above. “That put me closer to God because that year we especially celebrated Pesach as a season of freedom,” he said. “I thought it was a miracle.”

It also awakened his desire to spiritually lead his people, whom then numbered only 300. Today, the Abayudayah — the word comes from the local Lugandan language for “People of Judah” — has grown to about 1,500. The community is based around the eastern town of Mbale and its infrastructure includes five synagogues, an elementary school, a high school, a clinic, a guesthouse and a yeshiva.

The Abayudayah traces their origins to Semei Kakungulu, a native military leader whom the British converted to Christianity in the 1880s, but who embraced Judaism in 1919. With the help of a European man only known as Yosef, he set up learning institutions and communal rituals.

During his May 2 Baltimore visit, Rabbi Sizomu related such stories during talks at Beth Israel and Beth El Congregations, as well as privately with supporters. He had last been here in March 2009 at the behest of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

A genial and warm man, the rabbi wanted people to know that this community appreciates Jewish pluralism.

“The Abayudaya Jewish community does not want to be very involved in Jewish denominations, so we’re not comfortable with saying Orthodox, Reform or Conservative,” he said. “We have chosen our Judaism and it’s one that is more suitable to our environment. That means songs with African melodies set in Hebrew. We do bring in customs from the outside world that suit our environment.”

Rabbi Sizomu is the first Abayudaya leader ordained by a western Jewish institution, having graduated in 2008 from the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. In July of that year he converted to Judaism 250 people from the village of Nabogoya.

“We may not have a classical Conservative outlook; we have separate seating, but women on our bimah,” he said, “But we respect halachah and Torah and respect strongly Shabbat and festivals. We have our own style.”

That includes being public with his Judaism. Rabbi Sizomu ran for a seat in the national parliament in the February 2011 elections. His loss, he said, was due to the illegal meddling of supporters of President Yoweri Museveni, who has held power for 24 years.

Why would a rabbi enter politics?

“I grew up Jewish under Idi Amin and he had outlawed Judaism. It was a rough time because Amin could kill anyone who dared to disobey his rules,” he said. “Later in life I resolved that I would not leave politics to dictators and that’s why I’m involved, to make sure that we resist another Amin. Unfortunately, as we speak this president is turning into a dictator.”

With such talk, does he have security concerns? “I have much concern for my safety,” he said. “I know that the Amin can repeat itself. We are not safe as a minority.”

But on this day, with an election challenge still being pressed, he is more interested in talking about the help his community receives from groups such as Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based foundation that bills itself as “advocating for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people.” The group, for example, has helped provide clean running water to 25 villages as well as a health center, both of which are open to Muslims and Christians as well as Jews.

Erik Ludwig, the group’s chief operating officer, said he wanted American Jews to understand that “In order for Judaism to grow effectively in Uganda and other communities, there has to be an understanding that it has to be organic. While Jewish customs and rituals are in place, so are the Ugandan customs and rituals.”

Likewise, Baltimorean Joel Shalowitz, who visited Rabbi Sizomu’s community last summer, was struck by the community’s commitment to Jewish living.

“You see that it’s an observant community,” he said. “You would watch the service with women as gabbaim and see women embracing and respecting Shabbat and hear African tunes to traditional songs, and it would make you feel proud of any community.”