(Editor’s note: This is a corrected version of a story posted earlier.)
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu carries an impressive resume for a citizen of Uganda, one of the world’s poorest countries and best associated with a brutal dictator.
Known to authorities in Uganda as “the short, stubborn one” (by his own account), Sizomu can boast the following:
• He is the first native-born black rabbi in Sub-Saharan Africa and the first-ever chief rabbi for Uganda’s 2,000 Jews.
• He raised money to build a health center in his home city of Mbale, serving his Conservative Jewish community as well as Muslims and Christians. He says Typhoid fever and Malaria have now been eliminated.
• He plays guitar and sings on the 2005 album, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda, which was nominated for a Grammy award.
• He was elected to Uganda’s parliament in 2016, the first Jew to serve and the first member allowed to wear a hat, his kippah.
In the future, Sizomu may add another item to his resume: He plans to run for president of Uganda.
“We (Jews) feel very, very much accepted,” Sizomu has said. “Otherwise, a Christian would not cast their vote for a man who is a rabbi and who wears a kippah. Muslims and Christians cast their vote in my favor and that was a vote for the Jewish people.”
Sizomu, 50, spoke at Adath Jeshurun on Sunday, April 7, during a visit to Louisville.
Unabashedly proud of his accomplishments, Sizomu noted that if he’s elected president, he would be the world’s first head of state with the dual titles, “president” and “moyl.”
He quipped to the crowd about how willing he was to perform the duties of moyl while in town, “so I can make some money to bring back to Uganda.”
There were no takers at AJ, but the money part is no joke. Ugandan Jews, called Abayudaya, (“People of Judah), like most Ugandans, live in poverty. Famine, drought and two-mile hikes for water are harsh realities in his homeland.
But living conditions do not erase the proud history of the Abayudaya community.
Judaism arrived in Uganda in 1919, when a Christian missionary committed himself to worship by the Old Testament, circumcised himself and brought up his family as Jews. The Abayudaya community formed in 1919 and will celebrate its centennial in June.
In a historical footnote, the Sixth Zionist Congress, meeting in Switzerland in 1903, briefly considered Uganda as an alternative to Palestine as a Jewish homeland.
The murderous reign of Idi Amin (1971-1979) was a brutal time for Uganda, Sizomu said, particularly its South Asian merchant class (largely Indian), which was forced to leave, and the Jews who were threatened with death if they continued to practice their religion. Brises were performed in the bushes to avoid detection. Sizomu was among those circumcised in hiding.
The 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe’s airport – which rescued passengers from a hijacked French airliner, including 103 presumed to be Jewish, who were threatened with death – humiliated Amin. But Sizomu saw the raid as a “miracle.”
When Amin was overthrown on April 11, 1979, Sizomu recalled, the Jews drank four cups of wine – a banana wine more than 80 percent alcohol, he recalled.
“You can imagine how happy the people were,” he said.
Amin’s departure led to another significant event.
“On that very day, I told myself that I would be a rabbi, because I saw the redemption coming,” Sizomu said. His decision meant he would be following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had been leaders of the Abayudaya.
Sizomu kept his promise to himself. He enrolled at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles in 2003. He was ordained in 2008, “a dream come true,” he said.
When Sizomu and his family returned to Uganda after five years in relative comfort in the United States, his people still had no electricity, running water or nearby medical care.
Sizomu rolled up his sleeves, rolled out a campaign for financial support, and raised enough money from donors around the world for two big projects: the clinic and a yeshiva to train African teachers and rabbis.
But he wasn’t finished. In 2016, he was elected to Uganda’s parliament, the first (and still only) Jew ever elected.
Entering politics meant absences from home and family every weekday while parliament was in session. He insisted, however, that he would spend every weekend at home.
“I need Shabbat,” he said.
Sizomu’s battles are not only in parliament: He also is fighting the Israeli government for recognition of the Abayudaya, who follow the laws of conservative Judaism and are entitled to the same treatment as the orthodox. The government – beholden to right-wing, ultra-orthodox parties for their majority in the Knesset – has tried to block recognition. Citizenship, Right of Return and other important issues depend on Israel’s Supreme Court.
Last year, Sizomu won a small, but significant, victory when one of his daughters became the first member of the Abayudaya to take a Birthright trip to Israel.
The rabbi appreciates the victories that he and the Abayudaya – a community with more than 2,000 members – have won. He conveyed that message as he ended his AJ appearance, accompanying himself on guitar as he sang an Abayudaya version of Adon Olam.