Uganda rabbi: Generosity by Jews counters bigotry

When Rabbi Gershom Sizomu was a child in Uganda, the practice of Judaism was forbidden by its despotic leader Idi Amin.

Now decades later, the charismatic leader of the Abayudaya Jews is a well-respected figure whose connections to the American-Jewish community have brought health care and clean water to an African country where few have electricity and where treatable diseases claim many lives.

“We do this in the name of tikun olam and because our Jewish teachings tell us to create peace between you and your neighbors,” said Sizomu during a Nov. 21 program at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

The program at the Alexander Library was cosponsored by Rutgers Hillel, the department of Africana studies, and the Paul Robeson African-American Cultural Center.

The first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa to be ordained at an American rabbinic school, Sizomu received a Be’chol Lashon fellowship to spend five years at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, affiliated with the Conservative movement.

Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, supports isolated Jewish communities. The Abayudaya, founded in 1919, based their traditions on a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible before they began receiving visits from Western rabbis in the mid-1990s. Since 2002, most Abayudaya Jews have converted under Conservative authorities.

Arriving in Los Angeles with his wife, Tziporah, and children, they marveled over the electricity, the “miracle” of the microwave oven, and that they didn’t have to walk two miles to get water — which previously had to be boiled to avoid typhoid fever.

Back in Uganda, Sizomu established both a Jewish high school and elementary school, and a yeshiva to train rabbis from Uganda and other isolated African communities.

Sizomu is now raising money in the United States for his latest project back home: a campus in Nabagoye that will feature a synagogue, Jewish community center, food storage facility, and child care center.

Acts of generosity have gained the 1,500 members of the Abayudaya community newfound respect among their Muslim and Christian neighbors, said the rabbi. When Be’chol Lashon donated 10,000 mosquito nets to protect the Jewish community from malaria, the Abayudaya shared them with their Christian and Muslim neighbors. “This improved our image,” said Sizomu. “We showed people we can live together.”

In 2010, with the help of a challenge grant, they opened the Tobin Healthcare Center in Mbale, which was greeted with great celebration throughout the region.

Similarly, when the Jews opened a freshwater well to the community, Muslims unlocked their previously restricted well.

As a result, when he ran for Parliament three years ago, Sizomu received broad support from Christians and Muslims.

He claimed, however, that he was denied the seat he won by the country’s corrupt leadership. He vowed to run again in 2016, noting, “I want to be elected president of Uganda and I think I can do it.”

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