Jewish Journal

Ugandan Jews Keep the Faith in Isolation

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on May. 6, 2004 at 8:00 pm

In the documentary, "Moving Heaven and Earth," an American Jew describes spying an African, Gershom Sizomu, amid the white expatriates in a Nairobi synagogue in the 1990s.

"After curiously sitting next to him for a while, I finally whispered, 'What are you doing here?'" the American, Matt Meyer, recalls in the film. "So he started telling me about his community in Uganda that he said had mud hut synagogues and had been practicing Judaism for generations."

It was through this chance encounter that the unusual case of the Abayudaya -- villagers who had maintained their faith in virtual isolation -- became known to Jewish organizations, paving the way for the mass conversion captured in "Earth."

Sizomu, now a rabbinical student at the University of Judaism, and producers Debra Gonsher Vinik and David Vinik, will be on-hand to discuss the movie after a screening at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach on May 16.

The simple yet affecting film describes a community where sugar cane farmers read Hebrew; where synagogue pews are hewn from tree trunks, Stars of David adorn shack dwellings and prayers meld Hebrew words with Lugandan melodies.

"Watching the movie makes me a little homesick," Sizomu, 35, says from his student apartment in Bel-Air, where he now lives with his wife and two children. "When I see the people at home, I feel I am here and they are far away back in Uganda."

The poised, thoughtful Sizomu will live abroad for four more years to complete rabbinical school, so that he can become the Abayudayan's first ordained rabbi. While it will be challenging to return to a village without electricity or running water, he says, "I have a responsibility to help maintain the Judaism of our people."

Their story dates back to 1919, when a powerful Christian leader, Semei Kakungulu, discovered what he felt was a discrepancy between the Trinity and the one God described in Scripture. He declared he would become a Jew and circumcised himself and his sons; eventually more than 3,000 villagers followed suit. Because they had no access to rabbinic Judaism, their observance was taken directly from Scripture.

When Sizomu was a boy in the 1970s, he learned about the religion from Bibles left by Christian missionaries -- with the New Testament pages torn out. His studies were clandestine due to the anti-Semitic policies of dictator Idi Amin: "One of my worst memories was when my father was arrested for constructing a sukkah," Sizomu told the Journal. "He was kicked and beaten in front of us."

The elder Sizomu was slated for execution until his family paid officials a hefty bribe: five goats.

After Amin's downfall in 1979, the Jewish community gradually sprang back to life; the most striking change came when Meyer wrote Jewish organizations about meeting Sizomu and convinced the nonprofit group, Kulanu, to help support the Abayudaya. By 2000, plans were in the works for four Conservative rabbis to conduct a mass conversion of approximately 400 villagers in the mountainous region outside Mbale.

Filmmaker Debra Gonsher Vinik learned of the plans during a sleepless winter night at her New Jersey home in December 2001. Around 4 a.m., she says, she read an e-mail from a friend, a rabbinical student, who was scheduled to help with the conversions. Would the filmmaker like to come along? the e-mail said.

Gonsher Vinik and her husband, producer David Vinik, were so awed by the Abayudaya's story that they put up $16,000 of their own money to shoot the ceremony in February 2002. During the grueling 12-day shoot, the filmmakers captured the villagers' joy as they answered questions before the rabbinical court and crowded into trucks to drive to the shallow, brown river for ritual immersion. "The rabbis ... were so impressed by their faith that they stood by the water for hours in 95-degree heat to bear witness," Gonsher Vinik says in the film.

But not everyone has been impressed by the Abayudaya. Orthodox Jews do not recognize their conversion.

In response, Sizomu says the Abayudaya don't need the Orthodox to validate their faith. They do, however, need to feel connected to world Jewry, not just for spiritual sustenance but for their very survival. Back home, Christians continue to aggressively proselytize the Abayudaya and there is the fear of another Amin.

"The goal of our community is to migrate to Israel whenever conditions warrant," Sizomu told the Journal.

The problem is that Israel does not recognize his people as Jewish, because of their Conservative conversion. Sizomu hopes the film will help publicize this dilemma: "It will help us from our isolation," he says.

Admission is $18 per person and proceeds will support the Abayudaya. For reservations and information about the screening, call (949) 644-1999.

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