Rabbi leads 2,000 Ugandan Jews by celebrating differences

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, left, chief rabbi of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, speaks at the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale on Tuesday. At right is Shane Lloyd, assistant director of the center. Sizomu’s visit was sponsored by the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. (Ed Stannard / Hearst Connecticut Media)

NEW HAVEN — Rabbi Gershom Sizomu is the spiritual leader of Uganda’s 2,000 Jews, a tiny portion of the east African nation’s 41.5 million people.

But he knows he and his people, who will commemorate Rosh Hashana beginning at sundown on Sunday, are accepted beyond his Abayudaya community because he was elected to Parliament by the larger, mostly Christian population even though he was listed on the ballot as “Rabbi Gershom Sizomu” and wore his yarmulke in his campaign photos.

“We feel very, very much accepted. Otherwise, a Christian would not cast their vote for a man who is a rabbi and who wears a kippah,” he said. “Muslims and Christians cast their vote in my favor and that was a vote for the Jewish people.”

Sizomu, 49, was in New Haven Tuesday as a guest of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale and gathered with a small group for conversation Tuesday at Yale University’s Afro-American Cultural Center. He said he is proud that the Jews he leads live in peaceful coexistence with other religions.

“By engaging and participating, we gained … respect and nobody can ever … say anything bad about the Jewish community because I will speak for them in the house of Parliament,” he said. “I have ambition to become president.

But he said it’s important to stand proudly as who you are. “The moment we play victim and lament, the moment you put your head down, they will step on it,” he said. “You must stick your head up.”

Sizomu said he teaches that “we are all created in the one image of God. Whether we are Christians, Muslims or Jews, we are all human. Why I am elected is because that is the message I give to the people. Otherwise, politics is determined by religion and tribal differences.”

He said his people also have gained acceptance because they dug wells in their villages and opened them up to anyone who needed water.

Judaism arrived in Uganda when “one gentleman studied the Bible, which fortunately was brought by Christian missionaries, which wanted the people of Uganda to be Christian,” he said. “When he started the Bible he ripped it into two parts. He chose the Old Testament and the Torah. He circumcised himself” and brought up his family to be Jewish.

Now, the nation is 84 percent Christian (mostly Roman Catholic and Anglican) and 14 percent Muslim, according to the CIA’s “World Factbook.”

Ugandan Jews follow similar traditions and laws as those in other parts of the world, keeping kosher by not eating certain animals and not eating dairy and meat products in the same meal,” Sizomu said. They take off their shoes when entering the synagogue, based on the story of Moses taking off his sandals at the burning bush because it was holy ground. But they have brought African culture into their worship as well.

“We use our African musical traditions and musical beats and melodies and put Hebrew words on them,” he said. “When you hear the Hebrew and the African beats and melody you can see how we bring the two together.”

The worst time for Uganda’s Jews was during the dictatorship of Idi Amin, from 1971 to 1979, when many left the faith.

“We were faced with a lot of anti-Semitism. During Idi Amin’s time, we were not allowed to practice and it was punishable by death” if Jews wore the kippot or followed Jewish customs, Sizomu said. “Idi Amin was a dictator who had no regard and respect for Judaism at all. And so people feared that if they still had the connection, maybe one morning they would come up with an order to kill all the Jews. So many people left the community.”

But Sizomu, who was ordained a rabbi in 2008 and whose father also was a rabbi, said, “the African continent has a very big potential Jewish population, more than anywhere else.” He said there are groups who follow Jewish customs, such as keeping kosher and circumcising boys, as part of their tribal traditions and not because they were taught by a rabbi. The 33 million Ibo people in Nigeria as well as groups in South Africa and Rwanda “believe they are a lost tribe” of Israel.

Sizomu said that in his yeshiva, or rabbinic school, he has three students from Nigeria and one each from Ghana and Ethiopia. “They are deeply connected. They have that thirst and desire but it is very difficult to maintain Jewish traditions,” he said.

One of his biggest challenges is serving both his Jewish community and as a member of Parliament, having to drive five hours each way each week. He spends the Sabbath with his Jewish constituents and Sunday with the much larger non-Jewish population he represents. “I am getting some negative rating for that. I have to find more ways of accessing more people — not on Saturday. That day is for my community.”

Sizomu said he’s seen other changes in his life. Because they had no calendars, the Jews calculated Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot by counting days according to the full moon. His father “was an expert in sighting the moon,” he said. But they didn’t celebrate Hanukkah because it’s not mentioned in the Bible.

“Hanukkah came in 1962 when the Israeli Embassy opened and they began to get calendars,” he said. The holiday resonates with Uganda’s Jews because it’s “the same story of persecution. The story of Idi Amin comes alive during Hanukkah.”

Sizomu has also brought changes from the Orthodox Judaism practiced by his father. “Since I was educated in a Conservative rabbinic seminary … I said women are allowed to lead services, to read the Torah and do everything men do.” People in one of the six villages disagreed and remained Orthodox.

“I allowed the break,” he said. “I invited them whenever we have a special occasion; they invite us. There is no strife. We respect each other’s opinion. Differences are normal and we move forward with respect.”

His father would not have approved of the changes, “by my mom … supported it and she was very happy,” he said.

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