Out of Africa
A small community in Uganda claiming to be Jewish fights for legitimacy
Perched atop Mulholland Drive in stately Bel Air sits the University of Judaism. Tucked away in one of the campus’s modest apartments resides 35-year-old Gershom Sizomu, his wife Tzipporah, and their children, Igaal, 10, and Dafna, 8. From their hilltop vantage point, the Sizomus have a breathtaking view of the Los Angeles landscape. Yet it’s a long, long, way from home – Nabugoye Hill in Uganda. Inside the Sizomus’ apartment there are telephones (which ring incessantly), a fancy I-mac computer and an ever-growing library of Jewish texts.
But back home in Nabugoye Hill, there is no running water and no electricity. And while the Nabugoye Hill high school teaches students how to use a computer keyboard, it’s taught via a diagram.
But what Nabugoye Hill lacks in modern conveniences, it more than makes up for in tradition, practice and devotion to Jewish life. Twelve months ago, Sizomu and his family packed their bags to move to California to take up a scholarship at the University of Judaism, where he is studying to receive his smicha (rabbinic ordination), funded by The Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.
Up until then, Sizomu was busy as the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, a group of some 600 people which has been practicing Judaism for over 80 years.
The community was founded in 1919 when Semei Kakungulu, a military leader who had assisted the British in colonizing Uganda, rebelled against the Christian missionaries and declared that after careful consideration of both the New and Old Testaments, he believed in the Old Testament. And so, at the age of 59, he stated in Lugandan (the official Ugandan language), “From this day onwards, we are Jews (Abayudaya).” Semei Kakungulu then went on to circumcise himself and all the male members of his community, practice kashrut, keep Shabbat and live their lives according to the only Jewish laws they knew – those of the Old Testament. By 1920, some 3,000 males had been circumcised and by 1926, the Abayudaya community counted 8,000 men, women and children among its people. It was in the same year that a trader from Jerusalem – known only as Joseph – stumbled across the Abayudaya and stayed for six months, donating a Hebrew/English Bible and teaching them Hebrew.
When Semei Kakungulu died in 1928, Sizomu’s grandfather, Samson, took over the role of spiritual leader. The mantle was then passed onto Sizomu’s father – Yonadav, and eventually Sizomu himself, when his father passed away in 1995. When Kakungulu died, “the missionaries used it as an opportunity to encroach on the community’s youth,” says Sizomu. “The missionaries owned the schools, and if anyone wanted an education, they had to convert to Christianity.” Consequently, over the next three decades, many of the Abayudaya converted. By 1960, there were only 1,000 Abayudaya left.
Yet throughout the 1960s, “Rabbi” Samson forged strong connections with the Israeli Embassy in Kampala. The former secretary at the embassy was Aryeh Oded – now a professor at Hebrew University. At the time, Oded made frequent visits to the Abayudaya community, assisting them in acquiring siddurim, tanachim and Hebrew language teaching texts. However, the fledgling ties were quickly cut off when Idi Amin came to power in 1971. All Israelis were expelled and all religious practices were outlawed.
“Our community was handed two options,” says Sizomu. “Convert to Christianity or face death if you practice Judaism.” Many converted, and the remaining practicing Abayudaya were forced to go underground. In 1980, a year after Amin was overthrown, an unofficial house-to-house census was undertaken, which found there were only 300 identified practicing Jews left in the community. “Had Amin continued for another 10 years, Judaism in Uganda may have collapsed completely,” says Sizomu. Today, though, the Abayudaya community numbers 600 and if Sizomu has it his way, it will grow. It’s part of the reason why he organized for a Conservative beit din (religious court) to come to Nabugoye Hill in February 2002 and officially convert some 400 Abayudaya members.
Sizomu’s eyes light up as he talks about his ultimate vision for his community, and why the conversion ceremony was so important. “I have a big dream,” he says. “I don’t want us to be a small community. I want Judaism to have a very big place in Africa. There are many tribes in Africa which have connections with Judaism. If I get support, I’m going to make sure those people become observant Jews.”
Rabbi Howard Gorin of the Tikvat Israel Synagogue in Rockville, Maryland, put together the beit din after members of an organization devoted to helping lost and dispersed Jewish communities called Kulanu asked him to perform the ceremony. Gorin met with Sizomu and his brother JJ Keki, who were studying for six months at Hebrew Union College in New York, and read several articles by people who had visited the community in a book edited by Karen Primack entitled Jews in Places You Never Thought Of. Gorin says he was convinced the Abayudaya were “an authentic Jewish community.”
Knowing he was going into “unchartered territory,” Gorin says he chose the three other beit din members very carefully. The first was Israeli Rabbi Andrew Sacks, “because I know he has an adventuresome spirit and he’s also a mohel.” While the Abayudaya were all circumcised, part of the conversion process would require a hatafat dam ceremony, in which a drop of blood is symbolically taken. The other two rabbis were Rabbi Scott Glass of Ithica, New York and Rabbi Joseph Prauser of the Jewish Center on Long Island and a member of the Rabbinic Assembly Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards. Several articles were written in the Jewish press about the community’s conversion, but most focused more on whether the community could be officially recognized by Israel, given that the conversion was not an Orthodox one.
Gorin scoffs at the question. “Those who focus on this are missing the point,” he says. “These people have been faithfully practicing Judaism begun by one guy who read the Bible and said ‘This is what our religion should be,’ without ever having met a practicing Jew. That’s why,” he continues, “we didn’t like to use the word ‘conversion ‘ seeing the ceremony more of an affirmation because the word ‘convert’ implies a change of religious identity. “All of us [rabbis] went over there with varying degrees of skepticism but were immediately won over by this strong, dynamic, Jewish community. They need to be embraced,” he continues, “not as exotic individuals in a strange location, or as a footnote, a curiosity in Jewish history, but fully part of the fabric of modern Jewish life, part of Am Yisrael.”
One person who can vouch for the Abayudaya’s commitment is Chaya Weinstein, a 46-year-old occupational therapist who spent nine months living and working with the Abayudaya community in 2002. Traveling to Uganda as part of a self-funded volunteer program called Visions in Action, Weinstein was determined to check out the Abayudaya and first made her way up to Nabugoye Hill for Simhat Torah in 2002. “I was so overcome with emotion,” she recalls. “It was so moving. I had no idea what to expect. Rabbi Sizomu picked me up and I thought he would be white,” she recalls, laughing. “He took me to the main synagogue and I met his wife Tzipporah and had this amazing Simhat Torah experience. The men and women were dancing separately with the Torah around lighted candles. There was genuine faith and joy in their celebrations, and before I knew it I was asking Rabbi Sizomu if he needed assistance.”
During her nine-month stay with the Abayudaya, Chaya, who was raised in a Conservative home, taught basic Hebrew, Jewish liturgy and Jewish history. “The education system there is all about teaching by rote,” she says, “so I introduced craft projects, singing, Kabbalat Shabbat services. And they were so hungry to learn. They had such pride in being Jewish.” Another person who was moved to help the community is Debra Gonsher Vinik, a New York-based documentary filmmaker who, together with her husband, traveled to Uganda to film the Abayudaya conversion ceremony. The result is a film called Moving Heaven and Earth, which is currently making the rounds at various film festivals. “When you see the place,” she says, “well… it makes any other discussions of poverty seem ridiculous. I mean, we knew the conditions were bad before we went, but we weren’t prepared for people sweeping the dirt to make the dirt look nicer.”
Of the community’s five synagogues, there is only one, she says, that is in “reasonable condition.” “It has no windows and no light. When we were there we hooked up lights from our car battery to light the Havdala service,” says Vinik. Yet despite the harsh conditions, Vinik says the trip was a transformative experience for her and her husband. “These people were so joyous, in their love and commitment to Judaism, and being involved in this conversion process. They are so cut off from the world Jewish community. Yet their joy was palpable. Especially when it came to the conversion.” The banner on the poster for her film reads: “Fourteen million Christians, 4 million Muslims, 400 Jews.”
Sizomu says it’s always dangerous being a Jew in Uganda. Aside from the constant pressure by the country to convert people to Christianity, the increase in terror attacks around the world has left the community a little on edge. “We have a fence around some of our synagogues now,” he says. “We never used to. We have learned to be suspicious and to make sure we try and screen people who come into our community – especially those who come claiming to be guests.” It’s important for him that the Jewish world knows, recognizes and accepts the Abayudaya. “I want people to know that we are Jewish and feel very connected to the land of Israel. Israel should open her gates to us, because we have no other destination, should we need to leave here one day,” says Sizomu. “And if Jews want to come to Uganda then they will know they can come here, to us, and have a welcoming community.”
Born to lead
Born in 1969, one of nine children (only six of whom are still alive today), Gershom Sizomu spent his formative years under the brutal regime of Idi Amin. “We were not allowed to pray, to go near our synagogues, not even walk by them,” he recalls. “The synagogues were left to collapse, others were confiscated and used by the local government for offices and stores. I remember once the [corrugated iron] roof of one of our synagogues was blown off in a storm, and several people went out at night to gather the sheets.” The unlucky culprits were caught and imprisoned. They weren’t killed but they were tortured. “They died later, though,” says Sizomu, “as a result of their treatment in prison.” By far his most harrowing memory is that of his father being arrested for building a succa in the backyard.
“He only survived because we paid a bribe of five goats to the officials who arrested him. After that incident, we made sure to pray in secret. And my father used to recite a prayer that went ‘Oh Lord help us get rid of Idi Amin.'” Those prayers were answered in 1979, shortly before Pessah, when Amin was overthrown and the new government permitted freedom of worship. “I remember the first thing we did once Amin was gone, was to celebrate – not Shabbat – but Pessah. We celebrated real freedom that year.” Despite the fears, and dangers, Sizomu says he feels he was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. “My father was a mohel,” he explains. “And one day, when I was about seven, I was playing circumcision games with my friends,” he states, without batting an eyelid.
“I had a blunt knife – my non-Jewish friends in the neighborhood weren’t circumcised – and I decided I was going to circumcise one of them. I landed up giving him a nasty bruise and he ran away screaming. At that point, I think my father realized I was interested in what he did.”
Sizomu says he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t trying to imitate his father – whether it was reading prayers, studying Torah, or practicing mohel techniques on his unsuspecting friends. “But by the time I had my bar mitzva, I led the whole service. Everyone was impressed and thought that I could be the next leader, and inside, I felt I could be too.” Nor has he regretted his lifestyle choice for one moment.
“It has been very good for me,” he says, “seeing everybody comes to me for spiritual guidance. I conduct lifestyle events, funerals, weddings, bar mitzvas, circumcisions (properly!). “I feel good getting involved in such activities, especially compared to other young people who get involved in businesses which [are basically] stealing.” He points out that most businesses in Africa involve a great deal of smuggling. “I prefer to do spiritual work,” he demurs. Ever cognizant of his potential role as spiritual leader, in 1994 – a year before his father died – Sizomu met Tzipporah at the local Jewish youth movement. “We married that same year,” he recalls. “I was going to be the next leader of the community and I didn’t want to run around.” In that same year, Sizomu decided to return to high school. “I’d dropped out to do spiritual work in the community, but I realized that now that I was going to get married and start a family, I needed to get an education and get a job.”
After graduating high school, Sizomu earned a degree in education, history and economics at college. He returned to Nabugoye Hill and established the Semei Kakungulu high school. Now, having handed the spiritual reins over to one of his brothers, Sizomu will spend the next four years out of his community – three more in Los Angeles and one year in Jerusalem. But, he says, it will be worth it when he finally returns. He also hopes that one day his son, Igaal, will follow in his footsteps. “Both my children have a wonderful opportunity to learn Hebrew and Judaism here. I am building a great Jewish library for Igaal – and by the time I finish my five years here I will have an entire set of the Talmud and the Mishnayot,” he states proudly.