One of a Special People
An Excerpt from “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl.”?
“I am Jewish,”? were the words Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl spoke to his terrorist captors shortly before they murdered him. To honor Pearl’s life and work, his parents Ruth and Judea asked Jews from all walks of life to reflect on what these words mean in their own lives. Many of these pieces can serve as powerful sources of inspiration and reflection during these Days of Awe. Following are excerpts from “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl.”? I am the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya (Jews) in Uganda, Africa. Our number is small, but we are a strong, spiritual and deeply religious Jewish community. There are more than 600 of us, although our numbers have dwindled from several thousand.
Born in 1969, I am 34 years old. My wife, Tzipporah, and I have brought our two young children with us on my 5-year journey through rabbinical school here in Los Angeles. We are far from our home. In 1919, Shimei (Semei) Kakungulu, the founder of our community, was a military general. After reading the Bible, he abandoned his military service, broke away from the Imperial British East African Company, where he served as a local governor of the eastern region, and rejected ongoing missionary efforts still prevalent in our country.
Shimei circumcised himself, his children, and the males of our tribe. He started strict observance of Shabbat every Saturday. More than 3,000 of his followers – our previous generation – celebrated Jewish festivals, observed fasts and began complete adherence to kashrut, as written in the Five Books of Moses. When I was only 2 years old, Iddi Amin Dada, legendary for his cruelty and corruption, grabbed political power and the presidency at gunpoint. Between 1971 and 1979, Amin ordered us to stop our religious observance and warned us against calling ourselves Jews. He gave us three alternatives: convert to Islam or Christianity, become unaffiliated, or face public execution.
While many of our people succumbed to the first alternative and converted, my family and several other families continued to observe Shabbat and the other mitzvot in secret. Most often, we held services in bedrooms, where we would worship in whispers to our God. In 1989 at the age of 20, I was arrested with three fellow Jews. We were caught mobilizing our youth to learn about Judaism and the Hebrew language, and we were also rebuilding the foundation of our main synagogue, which had been destroyed during Amin’s regime. We suffered in the hands of local Christian and Muslim government administrators, who were not at all interested in the existence of a Jewish community.
To be Jewish in Uganda we must withstand many levels of intimidation, oppression and abuse. We face restricted access to social services owned or managed by Christians and Muslims. But Uganda is not our only challenge. I do not look Jewish in the eyes of the international Jewish community and I am frequently asked, “How did you become Jewish?” and “Who converted you?” A beit din (rabbinical court) of Conservative rabbis performed “mass conversions” for our community members to bring us officially into the Jewish world family in February 2002.
When I’m weak from my Yom Kippur fast, I realize I am a fragile being, but my God lives forever and ever. I look forward to every Shabbat, which brings meaning, joy, comfort and spiritual restoration into my life for 26 hours. Communal Pesach seders and celebrations of every holiday from Shavuot and Sukkot to bar and bat mitzvot connect me at once to the past, present and future of the Jewish people.
I will forever walk in the path of Torah and identify with the holy traditions of Judaism passed down from one generation to another. I will work hard to ensure that Judaism continues for the sake of maintaining an even stronger bond between me and my God, who is most high. He is the creator of space and all its mysteries, world architect, the source of life, and a permanent force behind nature and cosmic order. Although I have faced life-threatening dangers during my 34 years as a Jew in Uganda, I am also one of a special people – the Jewish people – who have resisted many centuries of hatred and oppression and continue to say shalom to the world.
Gershom Sizomu, leader of the Abayudaya (Jews) of Uganda, received his bachelor’s degree at the Islamic University in Uganda and is currently studying at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism.