From Arizona to Africa, Rocking out with Rabbi Gershom Sizomu

I hurried into the hall, late, with my yoga mat bag slung over my arm, feeling like a true traveler girl, skipping continents in mere moments, from Asia to Africa. Ah the beauty of living in modern times. The African drum beat combined with the violin, clarinet and a myriad of musical instruments greeted me, as I ducked under a video camera and found a seat. There was a bewitching energy in the room and an indescribable force pulled at me.

The room was filled with a sea of faces. All eyes were on Ugandan Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, his brother JJ and his son, all wearing colorful African kippoth. They were surrounded by musicians from the Scottsdale, Arizona Community.

Sizomu recently became the first ordained Rabbi from Uganda. He received a fellowship from the Be’chol Lashon Organization, which moved him and his family to Los Angeles to attend the five-year rabbinic program at the American Jewish University.

Rabbi Sizomu began the audience his story. “In the 1900’s, Missionaries came to convert my tribe, the Mbale to Christianity, The leader of the community, Semei Kakungula, went home and read the bible he was given. He came back to the missionary and told him, “I believe in the first half, and I want to be Jewish!”

One can only imagine the look on the missionaries face when some time later, Kakungula returned telling him he and his household had all undergone circumcisions. Thus the Abayudaya Jewish Community was born. In 1958, when Kakungula died, Sizomu’s grandfather took over the role as leader of the community.

Just then, the music resumed. It was a combination of Jewish prayers with African melodies sung in both Hebrew and the Luganda language. In-between songs, Sizomu enchanted the audience with his story of struggle, of walking for miles from his village (through wildernesses filled with lions, elephants and leopards) to help earn money for his family, to the hardship of secretly practicing Judaism when the dictator Idi Amin was in power.

Sizomu recounted celebrating his first Pesach, “It was April 11, 1979. I remember on that day in the morning the new government had overthrown Idi Amin and they announced freedom to worship. We did not observe the Passover until the next night, as we weren’t sure he was really out of power. The next night we had 200 people at the Seder. We made our own Matza and we made Macco, (banana wine) which is 80 percent Alcohol.”

That night the Abayudaya Rabbi spoke to his congregation freely for the first time in years and said, “It was more than a coincident that of all nights our freedom came on Erev Pesach, it was a sign, it was G-d’s plan, he was watching our community.” Sizomu was deeply affected that night. He said, “It was a turning point for me, a defining moment.”

The Abayudaya community once three thousand strong prior to Amin was reduced to 300 people, but they came together once more with the hopes of rebuilding their community. Sizomu explained, “To bring people back to their Judaism, the youth movement, led by my brother JJ, began to go door to door and tell people it was time to have religion again. People were still fearful. We lived in complete isolation and if Amin had chosen to destroy everyone, I don’t know that anyone in the world would have known that we had existed.”

One of the reasons we know about the Abayudaya community and Rabbi Sizomu is because of Diane Tobin, Be’chol Lashon Director, and Associate Director of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research. Tobin had heard about Sizomu, and invited him to the Be’chol Lashon International Think Tank. When she met him, she experienced the same pull, the same positive energy force I was feeling.

“Gershom is a visionary and charismatic leader. It has been an honor to support him over the past five years and we plan to stay involved in building the Jewish community of Uganda and others in Africa, and around the globe” she explained.

The magic in the room kept pulsating, just like the drumbeat, it was as if fairy dust had been blown into the room and everyone was mesmerized by the melodies and the miracle of the story. So when the concert and conversation with Sizomu ended, I was still intrigued and wanted to know more.

I called Diane, and she helped me set up an interview with Rabbi Sizomu. So from Scottsdale, to San Francisco to Eastern Uganda via cell phone we conversed on life back in Africa after spending four years in Los Angeles and one year in Israel.

Having myself lived in Los Angeles for College, I was curious to what it was like to move from Africa to the California. Sizomu responded, “It was like going to the Garden of Eden, coming from a place with no running water. I remember when we opened the door to our apartment in Bel-Air and the bathroom was so clean that my daughter asked me permission to use it.”

The family also spent a year in Israel. “Oh man, we were so in love with Israel. Time went by so fast, we didn’t want to leave. People there have such an amazing sense of community.” Thru the crackly phone line, I could hear his enthusiasm. “Everyone in Israel understands what being Jewish means, you don’t have to explain what you are wearing on your head. We also loved speaking Hebrew, it was a wonderful experience, and it was like being home.”

Changing countries and continents is an adventure but, not necessarily an easy adjustment. Sizomu explained how it was good to be home, as they have loads of friends, and family. He described how much joy he felt having Shabbat once again with the community, but life was simply different. Daily conveniences such as washing machines don’t exist in his village, so it’s back to hand washing every piece of clothing. Also Sizomu, his son and daughter have all fallen sick with malaria upon their return to Africa, and are just now recovering.

Many changes for the good are on the horizon, both for the Jewish Community of Uganda and their neighbors. In the region, they have a coffee company comprised of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers who all work together. The Abayudaya community, which now has clean water, is helping neighboring villages by giving them access to water as well as to an education.

B’chol Lashon is working feverishly to raise a half a million dollars to build a health center for the community and these positive changes are being noticed by every level of the community, including the government.

Prior to our interview, Sizomu had attended a rally with the President of Uganda, who is now planning on meeting with him personally next month to discuss his experiences and the positive changes to the entire community.

My conversations with Rabbi Sizomu took me back to that enchanted evening where magical melodies mesmerized the musicians and audience alike. That night, the 500 plus people in the room didn’t want the moment, the motion and the music to stop, but it did. However, the Abayudaua Jewish Community is just starting to make music again, by growing both spiritually as well as showcasing positive change for their community and their neighbors.

If you are interested in learning more about the Abayudaya Jewish Community and helping them raise money for the much needed health center. Contact Diane Tobin at Be’chol Lashon 415.386.2604 or BecholLashon.org

Masada Siegel, otherwise known as the “Fun Girl Correspondent” is a freelance writer living in Scottsdale. She can be reached at fungirlcorrespondent@gmail.com

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