Abayudayan Rabbi in the Big Apple
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, A Ugandan Jew who spent the fall semester of 2001 studying at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, comes from a long line of what might be described as “rational spiritualists” –––they Judaism because it make sense. “My grandfather thought the Five Books of Moses provided the best guideline for his people,” Rabbi Sizomu says “excellent guidance for both relationships among individuals and between individuals and God.”
Sizomu is a small man whose almond- shaped eyes radiate joy and vitality. At thirty-two, this father of two is a rabbi and mohel of the Abayudaya– a group of approximately 600 Jews who live near Mbale. Uganda and Observe Jewish holidays study Hebrew, and keep kosher. Most are descended from the followers of Semei Kakungulu, a charismatic warrior who, about 100 years ago called on his mostly Christian followers to embrace the laws of Moses. Kakungulu helped to bring several areas of Africa under British control, subsequently served a s governor, then founded Kibina Kya Abayudaya Absesiga Katonda ( The Community of Jews Who Trust in the Lord). The community’s Jewish observance deepened in the 1920s after encountering Orthodox Jews working in Uganda as mechanics and engineers for the British government.
“Their commitment to Judaism is extraordinary,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, professor of ethnomusicology and Hillel director at Tufts University who during his stay, he got to know Rabbi Sizomu–a high school history and economics teacher in the town of Mbale who had received his rabbinic ordination at twenty-three from his father and grandfather, with whom he had studied since he was thirteen (he had also studied with an Israeli rabbi in Nairobi, Kenya). He approached Rabbi Summit about the possibility of studying in the U.S. because he wanted to learn about Jewish life in America and to obtain formal Jewish education. Impressed by Rabbi Sizomu’s spiritual leadership, his Jewish learning, and his vision for his people. Rabbi Summit arranged a four-month study program at HUC-JIR. “I knew both he and his community would benefit greatly from his studying at our Reform seminary,” Summit says.
AT HUC_JIR, Rabbi Sizomu studied Tanach, biblical Hebrew, Jewish education, cantorial studies and more. “My experience at HUC_JIR exceeded my expectations,” Rabbi Sizomu said, eager to bring home his newfound knowledge, especially of the prayer melodies. “Some of the tunes were familiar, but some were new to me and I have recorded them for my people.”
His favorite subject was Midrash. “We were encouraged to write our own midrashim, ” he says, “which encourages individual insight and reasoning. I believe the origin of all community is individual inspiration and motivation.”
The man who embodies this spirit of individualism most for Rabbi Sizomu is Semei Kakungulu, who, despite external pressures to accept other paths, insisted upon following the spiritual path that made the most sense to him and then led his people to Judaism. In particular, Rabbi Sizomu admires the rational and commonsense considerations underlying Kakungulu’s decision to be a Jew. In areas of the developing world such as Africa, he says, Kashrut and circumcision have practical as well as symbolic value. “Look at the pig and the goat. In Africa, the pig goes into mud, into sewage, but the goat is so clean, it will only eat grass. And there are illnesses. Circumcised men are less prone to [than uncircumcised men].”
Nowhere is the logic and beauty of keeping the Sabbath and other festivals more evident than in Africa, where the serenity of holy days stands in stark relief against the workweek’s arduous toil. “In Uganda, most people are farmers,” Rabbi sizomu explains. “So during the week, you are working hard on the farm, getting dirty. Then on Saturday you are commanded to put on fresh clothes, to relax and refresh yourself. Human beings, psychologically, need time to relax, to laugh, to dance, and to eat, and in Judaism, we have plenty of festivals set aside for relaxation and joy.”
Judaism’s understanding of human needs motivated the conversion of Rabbi Sizomu’s grandfather, Rabbi Samson Mugombe, now ninety-three. Rabbi Mugombe believes that the Jews’ history of oppression had deepened Judaism’s moral character, a position his grandson shares. “It is better to be among the oppressed than to be the oppressor,” he says.
Looking to the future, one of Rabbi Sizomu’s goals is to expand women’s participation in Abayudaya religious life. “In the Reform and Conservative congregations in the U.S., women play a very big role, and I think that is beautiful,” he says. “In my community women have not been encouraged to study. But I would like to see women study and occupy positions of religious leadership.”
He also wished to secure educational resources for the Abayudaya to end his community’s isolation from world Jewry and to help his people make aliyah to Israel. “We need Hebrew grammar books and funds for synagogue school construction,” he says. To raise funds, the Abayudaya create and sell kippot: congregations can help by buying and distributing them (for more information, contact Karen Primack at primack @ starpower.net).
On his last day in America, a grateful Rabbi Sizomu gazed at the glistening white crystals on the sidewalks of New York. “This is my first snow,” he said smiling. “I’m blessed to see it.”