By Masada Siegel
The Jewish Advocate
September 5, 2008
The African drum beat was combined with the violin, clarinet and myriad musical instruments. The energy in the room was overwhelming and the room was filled with a sea of white faces, with dots of color interspersed. All eyes were on Ugandan Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, his brother JJ and his son, all wearing colorful African kippoth. They were surrounded by musicians from the Scottsdale (Ariz.) community.
Sizomu recently became the first ordained rabbi from Africa. He was able to pursue his dream after receiving a fellowship from the Los Angeles-based Be’chol Lashon. The organization brought Sizomu and his family to California, where he attended a five-year rabbinic program at the American Jewish University. He began to tell his story to the crowd.
“In the 1900s, Missionaries came to convert my tribe, the Mbale, to Christianity,” he said. “The leader of the community, Semei Kakungula, went home and read the bible he was given. He came back to the man who gave it to him, and returned half of it. He told him, ‘I believe in the first half and I want to be Jewish!’”
One can only imagine the look on the missionaries’ faces when Kakungula returned telling them that he and his household had all undergone circumcisions. They became known as the Abayudaya Jewish Community. In 1958, when Kakungula died, Sizomu’s grandfather took over as leader.
Sizomu finished his story and the music resumed. It was a combination of Jewish prayers with African melodies sung in both Hebrew and Luganda. Sizomu enchanted the audience with his story of struggling to practice Judaism in secret under the dictator Idi Amin. It reminded me of stories from the former Soviet Union and of Spain during the Inquisition.
Sizomu then recounted his first Pesach. “It was April 11, 1979,” he said. “I remember on that day in the morning the new government had overthrown Idi Amin and they announced freedom to worship. The next night we had 200 people at the Seder.”
Pesach, the celebration of freedom, was especially powerful that night because the Abayudaya rabbi spoke to his congregation freely for the first time in years. The community, once three thousand strong, was now reduced to 300 people.
“Our rabbi said it was more than a coincidence,” Sizomu explained. “It was a sign. It was God’s plan. He was watching our community. It was a turning point for me, a defining moment.
“To bring people back to their Judaism, the youth movement, led by my brother JJ, began to go door to door and tell people that the leaders of the community were ready to lead again and it was time to have religion again.”
But the story of the Abayudaya community and Rabbi Sizomu might never be known if not for Diane Tobin, Be’chol Lashon’s director and associate director of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research. She invited Sizomu to the Be’chol Lashon International Think Tank.
“Gershom [Sizomu] is a visionary and charismatic leader,” she said. “It has been an honor to support him over the past five years and we plan to stay involved in building the Jewish community of Uganda and others in Africa and around the globe.”
I was intrigued by my first encounter with Sizomu, his music and stories, and so I asked Tobin to arrange an interview. Having myself lived in Los Angeles during college, I was curious about what it was like to move from Africa to California.
“It was like going to the Garden of Eden, coming from a place with no running water,” Sizomu said.
He and his family also spent a year in Israel. “Everyone there understands what being Jewish means,” he said. “We also loved speaking Hebrew. It was a wonderful experience, and it was like being home.”
Changing countries and continents is always an adventure, and not necessarily an easy adjustment. Upon returning to Africa, Sizomu explained that it was good to be home, though it is still a far cry from America. Just this week, Sizomu, his son and daughter were afflicted with malaria.
But there are many positive changes on the horizon, both for the Jewish community of Uganda and its neighbors. There is now a coffee company there comprised of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers. The Abayudaya community is helping neighboring villages by giving them access to clean water and an education. And B’chol Lashon is hoping to raise $500,000 to build a health center.
The Abayudaya Jewish community is just starting to make music again. They hope the changes they’ve brought can be an example to the African community and the world.
If you are interested in
learning more and helping
raise money for the much
needed health center, contact
Diane Tobin at Be’chol Lashon,