Gershom Sizomu, First Abayudaya Ugandan Ordained at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Gershom Sizomu, First Abayudaya Ugandan Ordained at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

In the first few minutes that you are with Gershom Sizomu, a 5th year student in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, you realize that you are in the company of someone extraordinary. He is a spiritual leader from a distant world that has come to our realm to acquire knowledge for the betterment of his community; his very presence embodies the mythological hero?s journey.

Gershom, as his father and grandfather before him, was and will return to being, the spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Uganda. He presides over their life-cycle ceremonies – and yes, Jewish Ugandan grooms do break the glass at their weddings – he conducts their religious services, and is the official word in their Torah study.

The story of the birth of this community, less than one hundred years ago, seems an astonishing tale. During an effort to convert traditional Ugandans to Christianity, a tribal leader, Semei Kaungulu, was urged to influence his followers to submit to the new faith. Kaungulu, who was like a king to his people, was given the bible to read as support material for promoting Christianity. Instead, Kaungulu found the first five books of Moses to make more sense than the New Testament. He became so enthralled in the teachings of Torah that Kaungulu circumcised himself and began to observe Shabbat and the laws of Kashrut.

From this one ruler sprang eight thousand converts to Judaism who observed Talmudic law for the next decade. Unfortunately, ten years after his own conversion, Kaungulu succumbed to pneumonia, and along with him died the principle source of inspiration for Jewish life for many in Uganda.

Kaungulu?s death was the first of three factors that contributed to the decline of the Ugandan Jewish community from eight thousand to seven hundred and fifty today. The second threat came from missionaries who demanded that families convert to Christianity if they wanted their children to be allowed into schools. This was enough incentive for many Jewish families to accept the Christian faith. The third menace to the community was Idi Amin?s reign of terror from 1971 to 1979. But, those who remained Jews throughout these hardships became even more strengthened in their commitment to a life of Torah.

When Amin left power, the Jewish community in Uganda felt relatively safe, but remained isolated from both their fellow Ugandans and the international Jewish community. In the nineties, with the expansion of the internet, Ugandan Jews began to communicate with other Jews around the world. This correspondence led to Gershom?s invitation, in 2002, by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, to a conference in San Francisco on marginal Jewish communities.

At this conference, when Gershom was asked what would be helpful to his community, he expressed their desire to be integrated into the international Jewish world. A suggested beginning would be for Gershom to be ordained by a recognized rabbinical school. Conference leaders arranged an interview for Gershom with Rabbi?s Artson and Peretz at the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies, along with two other Rabbinic schools in New York. The Zeigler interview went well and concluded with Gershom bringing various written exams back with him to Uganda. Once these exams were completed and submitted, an interview with a panel of nine representatives from Ziegler was conducted over Gershom?s cell phone in Uganda, resulting in Gershom?s acceptance as a student at Ziegler.

When Gershom, his wife, and two young children moved to the U.S. they entered a new domain. Among the many novelties that Gershom encountered in America, what delighted him most was kosher meat and a variety of foods officially marked kosher, opening up an entire new cuisine for the family.

But Gershom’s most profound discovery was realizing, through his studies at Ziegler, that spiritual and theological perspectives could peacefully coexist. In Uganda Gershom was raised to view religious texts as absolute, leaving little room for interpretation. At Ziegler, however, he learned that the interpretation of text is a centuries old Jewish practice allowing for creativity and diversity. He began to realize that this approach could strengthen rather than undermine his faith. In Gershom?s words, “Ziegler has given me a larger field in which to explore and live my faith.”

This May, Gershom will return to his home in Uganda and resume his leadership of the Jewish community as an internationally recognized ordained rabbi. He brings back with him a potpourri of Jewish American culture and leaves those of us who had the opportunity to meet him inspired by the presence of one completely devoted to his community and God.

Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, will travel to Uganda, along with Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, and Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, where Rabbi Artson will officially install Gershom as the Rabbi of the Abayudayas (Jews) and join in the celebration of this long-awaited sanctification.


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