What a pleasure and an honor it has been for our community to host the chief rabbi of Uganda, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, for South Hills Torah Weekend/Global Day of Jewish Learning. During his visit, Rabbi Sizomu taught us about the history of the Abayudaya Jewish Community in Uganda, as well as the health and economic development projects in the community which could use our help and support. We were also treated to a wonderful musical performance with Rabbi Sizomu singing, playing guitar, and teaching us new melodies to familiar songs.
Rabbi Sizomu, the leader of the Abayudaya community in Uganda, is the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa to be ordained at an American rabbinic school. In 2003, Rabbi Sizomu was awarded a Be’chol Lashon Fellowship to attend the 5-year Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, the same school attended by the Rabbis Greenbaum. In 2008, he was ordained and returned home to Uganda to lead his Jewish community and establish a yeshiva in Uganda to train Jews from ancient and emerging communities throughout Africa.
Abayudaya is a tribal name meaning “people of Judah.” Rabbi Sizomu taught us that since all Jews are “people of Judah,” we are all Abayudaya. The community traces its Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century. The Abayudaya began their journey to Judaism under the leadership of Semei Kakungulu, a great warrior who was to be a missionary for the British. Instead of converting the people of Mbale to Christianity, however, Kakungulu embraced the Hebrew Bible and began practicing Judaism with his followers in 1919. Rabbi Sizomu is the grandson of community elder “Rabbi” Samson, who succeeded Kakungulu as spiritual leader of the community in 1928. In 1971, Idi Amin Dada came to power in Uganda and banned Jewish practice. After Amin’s oppressive reign ended in 1979, Rabbi Sizomu gathered what was left of the Abayudaya community while serving as youth leader of the Abayudaya from 1988 to 1998.
Today, the Abayudaya are a growing community of over 1,500 Jews living among their 10,000 Christian and Muslim neighbors in scattered villages in the rolling, green hills of Eastern Uganda.
The highlight of the weekend was the presentation of a Torah to Rabbi Sizomu as a gift from Beth El to the Jewish Community of Uganda. On Sunday, the children of our religious school gave both Rabbi Sizomu and the Torah a proper send off with song, letters and many good wishes. The children were mesmerized by Rabbi Sizomu and asked him many thoughtful questions.
It is our hope that this visit is just the beginning of a relationship with the Abayudaya of Uganda. The most important and distressing news we learned this weekend is that this community of primarily subsistence farmers has been experiencing a drought and faces a famine in the coming year. Beth El would like to help. Our religious school, as well as that of Temple Emanuel, will be collecting and donating tzedakah money help relieve the effects of the famine. Please continue to read this blog and watch your email to learn additional ways in which we can help.
Kippot made by the Abayudaya can be purchased in the Beth El gift shop. Rabbi Sizomu’s CD may be purchased on Amazon. The community also makes beautiful jewelry made with recycled paper beads. These may be purchased on the Be’chol Lashon website. If you would like to learn more about the community, please watch this video from D’vora Biderman-Gross about her experience on a dental mission to Uganda.