Ugandan Jews and politics get native rabbi fired up

As part of his latest visit to America, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu stopped in Florida for an important errand. He was there to pick up a Torah scroll for one of the six synagogues he has built in his native Uganda.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu

The scroll was a gift from a local congregation eager to support Sizomu and the Abayudaya, the century-old community of 1,500 Ugandan Jews he leads. Though small in number, the Abayudaya have captured the imagination of the Jewish world, especially in the Bay Area.

It was the late Gary Tobin, founder of Be’chol Lashon (an S.F.-based organization that advocates for racially and ethnically diverse Jews) who took Sizomu under his wing and helped him get into American Jewish University’s rabbinic studies program.

Sizomu was in town last week, participating in a series of lectures and seminars, including Be’chol Lashon’s weekend-long International Think Tank.

Already known in the Jewish community, his international profile rose even higher after a failed run for a seat in Uganda’s parliament. It was an election he believes he won, yet had stolen from him by corrupt officials.

“Many Ugandans were excited about the possibility of a rabbi in parliament,” he said. “They were very supportive. Running for parliament created respect for me and my community, and also sent a message that we are not passive Ugandans but very actively involved in the governance and future of our country.”

He intends to run again in 2016. In the meantime, he continues to build his Ugandan Jewish community and deepen his own knowledge of Judaism.

Thanks to his efforts to raise funds, he and the Abayudaya have been able to drill water wells, acquire and distribute mosquito nets (which he says have reduced malaria rates by 80 percent) and build a hospital.

“The medical facility has been named after Gary Tobin,” he said. “There, people are treated, so malaria is not a threat now. Infections can be easily handled.”

He is also training several young rabbinic students hailing from Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and other African nations.

With a name that translates as “People of Judah,” the Abayudaya trace their origins to the turn of the last century, when Christian missionaries tried to convert the tribespeople in the green hills of eastern Uganda.

Some of them, near the town of Mbale, resisted, finding much more spiritual resonance in the story of the Jews.

 By 1920 they had adopted Jewish practice, though they were not considered halachically Jewish. Thus in 2002, Conservative rabbis from the United States and Israel traveled to Uganda to oversee the official conversion or affirmation of Abayudaya, including immersion in a community mikvah.

Sizomu says his community has forged numerous ties with individuals in Israel, though it appears the Abayudaya have a ways to go in being fully accepted by the religious establishment there. But he remains hopeful.

“The Masorti [Conservative] movement is reaching out to our youth,” he said. “Through the embassy and other agencies, I would love to see my young people visit Israel and have a very close connection.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.