May 21, 2008
Ugandan Gershom Sizomu ordained as first black sub-Saharan rabbi
Gershom Sizomu has had a wonderful five years—four spent enjoying the for-granted luxuries of Los Angeles and one indulging in the spiritual gravity of Jerusalem—and now he is set to return home to lead a small Jewish community in rural Uganda.
The final step in his preparation occurred Monday, May 19, when he was ordained a Conservative rabbi by the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies—the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa, a teacher with a mission and a purpose etched deep into his soul.
“I have the obligation to my community that my father and grandfather had,” Sizomu, 39, said in an interview before his ordination at Sinai Temple. “My purpose of coming here was to acquire knowledge; I have this knowledge now, and I have the obligation to take it back to my community.”
Sizomu, his wife, Tziporah, and their three children are scheduled to return to their village of Nabagoye at the end of the month. Rabbi Richard Camras of Shomrei Torah in West Hills, where Sizomu served as intern rabbi while in Los Angeles, and the Ziegler School’s dean and associate dean, Rabbis Bradley Shavit Artson and Cheryl Peretz, will join them for Sizomu’s installation.
In addition to leading from the pulpit, Sizomu plans to start a rabbinic school with the help of Be’chol Lashon, the Jewish nonprofit that paid his tuition and living expenses and is building a health clinic in his village. Last year, the organization set up an Internet cafe at Shalom Shopping Centre, a Nabagoye stand-alone store.
“My dream is to make Africa Jewish, and it is a very big dream,” he told this paper during his first year of seminary. “I want to unite the communities. There are many African societies that believe they are part of the lost tribes, and I want to reawaken that.”
It’s been quite the Jewish journey for Sizomu, who didn’t attend synagogue as a young boy. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to; he simply couldn’t. Uganda in the 1970s belonged to tyrant Idi Amin, and his persecution of Jews kept observance confined to the home.
“The only minyan we had was in my father’s bedroom, and we would ask God to get rid of Idi Amin,” Sizomu said. “And Amin was overthrown on erev Pesach, the 11th of April, 1979. The government declared freedom of worship that morning, and the first time I went to synagogue was for communion on the second night of Pesach.”
But even before Amin’s ouster, there was never a doubt that Sizomu would become a rabbi, said his brother, Aaron. Their father and grandfather had been rabbis, though neither was ordained, and had led a community of Jews that numbered as many as 3,000 and as few as 300.
Today, Uganda’s Jews number about 800 and are known as the Abayudaya, which in the Luganda language means “People of Judah.” They bear no ancestral line to ancient Diaspora communities but are the descendants of those who followed military leader Semei Kakungulu and converted, adult circumcision and all, about 90 years ago.
Followers of the rabbinic tradition, the Abayudaya are strictly Torah observant. Although many in the Reform and Conservative traditions accept them, Uganda’s Jews eagerly await the embrace of Orthodox Jewish leaders, which would bring with it an official conversion and the ability to make aliyah.
Having an ordained rabbi won’t expedite immigration to Israel. But it is expected to foster ties between the isolated Abayudaya and Jews throughout the world.
“He represents the changing face of Judaism and really the future of who we are as a people,” said Diane Tobin, director of Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), the arm of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research that funded Sizomu’s education. “Jews live all over the world—originally, of course, we came out of Africa—but there are Jewish communities everywhere. Some are counted, and some are not. And our goal is to have everybody be counted.”
Monday night sealed the deal for the Abayudaya.
Sizomu’s family had flown in and filled half a row of seats in Sinai’s sanctuary, three-quarters full. All smiles and laughter before the ceremony began, the crowd erupted in applause as the eight rabbinical students proceeded down the aisle, side by side with their mentors. Seated beside Camras was Sizomu, short and thin, wearing wire-rim glasses, a blue-and-white knitted kippah and a million-dollar smile.
“Standing now on the brink of your ordination,” Artson said, “I offer you the mantle of freedom, not so you can keep it to yourself but to share with a world so badly in need of liberation and God’s love.”
Fifteen minutes later, Artson introduced each student, one by one, concluding with Sizomu. And as Artson wrapped Uganda’s first-recognized rabbi in a tallit, Camras, like the other mentors had done, recited, “Once my student, now also my talmid chaver, my colleague and my friend as rav.”