Sukkat Shalom: From Uganda to U.S. and Back

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu is very proud that, in partnership with Be’chol Lashon, tap stands now bring clean water to the Abayudaya villages as part of their disease prevention program.
Photo by Judy Gigliotti/Be’chol Lashon

“You are going very far!”

“What?” I yell over the loud drone of the motorcycle as it navigates the bumpy dirt roads of eastern Uganda.

“Very far!” my driver yells back, turning his head to me as I clutch his midriff even tighter, hoping he will return his attention forward to the pebbly path lined with thatched huts and won’t drop my large backpack perched on the front of the boda-boda (motorbike). Or that he will avoid hitting pedestrians and bicyclists carrying enormous sacks, or the barefoot children pointing and running after us shouting, “Muzungu!” (white person).

Indeed, we are very far from my Los Angeles home. The Abayudaya (“People of Judah” in Luganda, the local language) — 1,100 Jews in about eight communities — live mostly outside Mbale, a city some five hours east of Entebbe airport. These Ugandans have identified as Jews since 1919, when military leader Semei Kakungulu decided the Old Testament was true, and, when told that is what Jews practice, he reportedly said, “Then we will be Jewish!” He then circumcised himself and his sons and started a Jewish community.

As Shabbat approaches, I am trying to reach Nabugoye Hill, the main Jewish village, which has a new guesthouse and a newly ordained rabbi, Gershom Sizomu.

In May 2008, after five years of study at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles (four in Los Angeles and one in Israel), Sizomu was ordained, then returned home with his family. Since his return, he has been made chief rabbi of Uganda, completed 250 conversions, opened a yeshiva in Nabugoye Hill, fed nearby villages suffering from starvation and welcomed hundreds of Jewish guests from around the world in a modern guesthouse (with electricity and running water) that was funded by American Jews.

At this time of Sukkot, Sizomu’s story is a reminder of how wide a tent can grow, of how opening one’s home in Los Angeles to an unlikely guest can bring about benefits that will continue to multiply in a faraway land for generations of Jews to come. How the mitzvah of hospitality is so much more than a simple act of kindness.

Those kindnesses helped Sizomu along his journey in Los Angeles, when he arrived with his wife and three children, and now, have continued to pay forward as this small, isolated community builds relationships with Jews around the world.

As I disembark, the sun is setting over the green hills of eastern Uganda, casting an orange glow of serenity as Shabbat arrives. It’s hard to believe that in such verdant lushness so much poverty, starvation and disease exists — although, as I soon learn, the struggle is less dire in the Jewish communities and surrounding areas than elsewhere.

People wordlessly point me down the hill, correctly assuming I am heading toward the guesthouse, where I run into four American women — three college students volunteering in Kampala (the capital of Uganda), and one student’s mother, whose Maryland rabbi studied with Sizomu. They are headed to shul. “Hurry,” they tell me. Behind them are two Israeli women — post-army and on their tiyul gadol, “big trip” for six months in Africa — to them, the guesthouse is positively luxurious.

The yellow light of Shabbat candles glows from the porch of the red brick building, which has housed hundreds of guests in just its first year. Like an Israeli kibbutz visitor center, it has a large common room for eating and reading, and eight guest rooms, and can accommodate as many as 20 (one bedroom is a dormitory). My room has two beautiful, wooden double beds covered by white mosquito netting, a protective covering that has been distributed throughout the local Jewish communities and surrounding areas to prevent malaria, courtesy of American funding.

I quickly change, shower (hand-held showerhead with cold water) and head to the Moses Synagogue. Inside is a sight familiar in many shuls in Los Angeles: a drum circle beating the tune of “Kabbalat Shabbat.” There are about 50 people here — men and boys on the left, and women and girls on the right — no mechitzah (barrier) separating the two — and both men and women lead the egalitarian service.

Not that it was easy, at first, for Sizomu to get his very traditional community to adapt.

“In the beginning, the men were very upset,” Sizomu tells me after Shabbat is over. “You get used to something, so you think something new is bad. Now it’s been three years since we’ve been egalitarian, and they are comfortable.” Which is why Sizomu chose to study at a Conservative seminary. “Conservative theology is the middle ground between two extremes. I felt this community was best suited to this middle ground.” He wanted to involve women in the community, because he knew they are very influential. “They play a very big role in any developing community. So leaving them behind was not an option. Women have always been left in the kitchen in Africa life, but in the modern world women go to school, become lawyers, accountants, become affluent. Our community has picked up from there. We want our women to be very responsible — not only responsible for domestic work.”

Women and children join the men in songs, which are transliterated into Luganda, and the Tehillim (Psalms), but the only ones going up for aliyahs are the visitors to the synagogue. It’s a cavernous, high-ceilinged rectangular space that holds 200, and like many synagogues back home, it’s usually only filled to capacity on the High Holy Days.

“We get people who have not been appearing for the entire year, so we are seeing people for the first time,” the rabbi says. “It’s an opportunity for the community to come back home here. We have them for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then they disappear.”

Also like in America, the rabbi sits in a chair facing the congregants. He chants along with the service, leading and correcting occasionally. On this night, he is also dedicating a new ner tamid — a solar-powered eternal light — and a menorah made by woodworker Gabriel Bass, an American oleh (immigrant to Israel), who came for the installation. Bass built it with the wood of an Israeli Cypress tree he found three years ago and blew glass into it, incorporating the colors of the Ugandan flag. The project was commissioned by Jill and Steven Edwards, a Los Angeles couple who “fell in love” with the Abayudaya community, Bass tells me over dinner at his home.

We sit in Sizomu’s living room on couches and chairs — me, Bass, the four visiting Americans — as his wife, Tziporah, lays out the food on the dining room table: homemade challah, cassava and rice — the starchy mainstay of the African diet — as well as a treat: kosher goat and chicken, shechited (ritually slaughtered) by the locals here a day before.

Food, Jewish geography, conversation, Torah, benching (grace after meals) — it all seemed like a regular Shabbat, with morning Shacharit services, Torah reading and a small Kiddush followed by a discussion with the rabbi, his students and the community about the week’s Torah portion, followed by rest, afternoon and evening services and Havdalah.

A regular Shabbat — except it’s in Uganda, where Christians make up about 87 percent of the population, Muslims 11 percent and Jews don’t even rate. Many of the 3,000 Abayudaya were killed or converted during Idi Amin’s rule, and it is only in the last two decades that they have started to rebuild the community. Still, in a region suffering from intense hunger, disease and poverty, should religion — especially such a foreign one like Judaism — be a priority?

“When there are problems, you need a synagogue. If you are hungry and you have no community, you have no one to complain to. So I think Judaism is very important,” the rabbi explains. “The problems are always there, but you need a community for support. It’s a consolation. If someone’s sick, we say a bracha, and we go visit the community and pray with them, and they feel more secure.”

“It’s a very loving community and people feel very secure here,” says Lorne Mallin, a 62-year-old volunteer from Vancouver pointing to a toddler waddling into a hut. “Two-year-olds can wander all day from home to home without supervision, because they know they are cared for wherever they go,” says Mallin, who is showing me around Nabugoye Hill. Here is the outhouse they need to complete, the eggplants Mallin is planting. There, beyond the guesthouse, is a kitchen being built just to serve visitors, and on the pathway out of the village is the failed Internet cafe one family is now converting to a general store. Mallin, a journalist and chant leader, is volunteering here on myriad projects — teaching writing to 11th-graders, coaching a spelling team, launching an orphan’s lunch program, coaching teachers, working to bring cervical cancer screening here and to neighboring towns, putting together a cookbook of Abayudayan recipes. All in a day’s work.

“We need volunteers,” Sizomu says. “We have three schools, and we would like experts to come teach our children, people to come work in the health center, rabbis to come and teach and bring knowledge and skills from the outside.”

Sizomu learned many of his skills in America. “He learned how to be a community professional,” said Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills, where Sizomu did his rabbinic internship. “He learned how to plan programs, how to organize events, all the things he was not expert at, coming from the community he came from.”

But the L.A. community benefited in turn from having the rabbi and his family there. “It helped us understand that we are part of a much larger Jewish community,” Camras said. “We often think about our relationship to Israel, but now our community was able to involve itself hands-on in the development of a larger community in Africa. It gave us a personal connection to Jews around the world, even if they’d never been to Africa and didn’t know them personally.”

Camras said the community feels, through their continued contributions, they are “doing God’s work.” He estimates their help — fundraising for the yeshiva, buying a car for the community — at tens of thousands of dollars. They have also sent health care missions to plan for the needs of the community, and their United Synagogue Youth (USY) kids raised $12,000 to bring three Ugandan youths to Los Angeles for two weeks last December to participate in the USY national convention so they could learn how to start a USY chapter in Uganda. “It’s a very concrete way where your dollars can make a difference in the lives of Jews — and donors like that,” Camras said.

Sizomu’s, and his people’s, commitment to Judaism impacted the Shomrei Torah community, Camras said — as it has others who came into contact with them. “It helped us think about what Judaism means in our community; here, where religious practice is not seen as incumbent upon them, it allowed our members to pause and reflect on how they might more intensely embrace their own Jewish commitments, which they don’t necessarily feel in Los Angeles.”

Sizomu also gave his fellow rabbinical students a broader perspective, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice president of American Jewish University. “It was inspiring. You often start to focus on your own local Jewish community, and you can lose sight of the community out there,” said Artson, who describes Sizomu as a man “with a certain majesty of bearing,” with a generosity and kindness and love of Torah. “There’s a singularity that can creep in, but having a community that says they want to be part of [Judaism] helps us see, ‘Wow, there’s a whole community that wants to be a part of it, that’s attracted to it.’”

Not that it was easy for Sizomu or his family when they first arrived in Los Angeles. “For the first year it was really difficult. I knew how to drive here, but we don’t have traffic lights in Mbale, so the first time I went for driving lessons, I ran a red light, and the instructor was not happy,” explained Sizomu, a compact man with a wide, bright smile.

“At school I wasn’t used to the American accent, it was very difficult — I’d miss a lot from my professors, and I had to go back and recapture with fellow students on a much slower basis. I also didn’t know how to type. I was expected to write papers, and it took an extremely long time.”

But the hardest part may have been the different attitude. “Uganda is not a tolerant society, especially about gays and lesbians. When I went to America, I felt if someone was gay, I almost didn’t want to greet them or speak to them,” he says. “But the five years have changed me, I have begun to look at people as they are.”

Artson remembers the first time he taught Sizomu Maimonides. “He was shocked — he wasn’t used to the dynamic give-and-take of Talmud and anything that was open to question.” Artson loved watching his student open up to the diversity of Jewish thought, “He was shocked, but in a good way.”

Artson told Sizomu: “Being a rabbi means you can make your own decisions for your own community, not ours.”

And in the last year and a half, Sizomu has had his work cut out for him. First, getting his family re-adjusted to Uganda was a challenge. “They had all gotten used to America,” he says of his wife and three kids. “It was difficult for my wife to leave her dishwasher and the washing machine and the Ralphs” grocery store. Navah, his youngest, was very sick. “She was afraid of everything. She’s not used to the dust. She was afraid of chickens. She did not understand why she was to live in this environment,” he says. Moreover, his kids returned with all kinds of American gadgets and had lost touch with their friends, so it took time to resettle.

But that didn’t stop him from starting a yeshiva with eight students. “I wanted a yeshiva in which I successfully trained people to be my shelihim [emissaries]. They will teach others. That’s my religious dream,” he says. “The goal is to make Jewish knowledge accessible to every Jewish person in Uganda.”

In addition to the yeshiva, the primary and high schools — which have both Jewish and non-Jewish students — make Hebrew and Judaism compulsory to Jewish students.

“Young people here feel like Judaism is more reasonable. They are attracted by the fact that we have a lot of free learning, that a person can ask a question — it’s an open religion, you can wonder why God does this, it’s a freedom to play around.”

He also is starting a health clinic in Mbale — this after getting malaria under control by distributing mosquito nets, digging wells and teaching about sanitation and health — all with the support of Be’chol Lashon in San Francisco, which advocates for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people. “He’s an extraordinary person — extremely charismatic, incredibly bright, and he has such a strong dedication and focus,” said Diane Tobin, president of Be’chol Lashon. The group first brought Sizomu to America, in 2002, to be part of a think tank in San Francisco, and then they sponsored his education.

“At the time I questioned what would happen, but we took the risk,” Tobin said. Over the years they have contributed half a million dollars.

One of the lessons Sizomu learned in America had less to do with religion and more to do with economics: He’d like to transform his community from a subsistence-based economy to a cash economy. “This community is over-dependent on agriculture, and that’s a problem with the rain,” he says. “We should be harvesting now, but this summer there’s a drought here so the whole country is suffering — there’s not enough food now…. That dependence on nature can be disastrous.” He also would like to see people invest in trade opportunities so they can buy food. (Sizomu’s brother is the founder and director of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative, a coffee cooperative with Jewish, Muslim and Christian farmers.)

All their work in the last few years — the health clinic, the schooling, the economic help — is good for the entire Jewish community. “I want to teach Ugandans and Africans to be tolerant of the Jews. It is good for the Ugandan community to know they have a Jewish community in their midst and they will learn to deal with the community. We want to have a vibrant community that can also contribute to the development of Uganda.”

Sizomu invites the American Jewish community — especially his former fellow Angelenos — to get involved in the development of the Ugandan Jewish community, either by volunteering, fundraising or coming to visit (if you do, bring kosher wine!).

“We are very isolated from the other communities and we want to be connected very closely with the communities outside Uganda,” he says. “Through such relationships we can lead a better life here.


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