A new African chief

The installation of Uganda's first chief rabbi is a milestone to the continent's unique converts.

uganda jews 88 224 (photo credit: Jonathan Pulik)
uganda jews 88 224
(photo credit: Jonathan Pulik)
This was no run-of-the-mill rabbinical inauguration. At the end of a muddy, potholed red clay road snaking past thatched-roofed mud huts, banana groves and grazing goats, dancers, drummers and singers feted last week's installation of Uganda's first chief rabbi. "We are so happy to receive you," serenaded a group of high schoolers before a crowd of about 1,500 dignitaries, guests, wide-eyed NGO volunteers and bedraggled Israeli backpackers. "Your love and your patience will never be forgotten." After five years in the United States, and freshly ordained by the Conservative-aligned American Jewish University, Gershom Sizumo was named chief rabbi of Uganda in his native Nabugoya. The tiny village, with the Moses Synagogue at its center, overlooks a tree-covered escarpment at the foot of volcanic Mount Elgon on the border with Kenya. He returns to a people enjoying somewhat of a renaissance after nearly being wiped out by relentless religious persecution at the hands of Idi Amin in the 1970s. This is thanks, in part, to American Jewry, which among other projects is footing the bill for a yeshiva in Nabugoya. Sizumo is following in the footsteps of the Ugandan military leader and administrator Semei Kakungulu, who in 1917 responded to Christian missionary efforts and a falling-out with British colonial authorities by adopting a heavily Judaized form of Christianity. He and his followers circumcised themselves, and gradually drew closer to mainstream Judaism as they came into contact with Jewish travelers who taught them Hebrew, brought them ritual objects and instructed them in the ways of contemporary practice. After renditions of Uganda's national anthem and a more muted "Hatikva," Sizumo kicked off the expertly choreographed celebration by cutting blue-and-white ribbons tied across a white, plastic gate reminiscent of outdoor wedding decor. Arm in arm with his mother, Deborah, he walked down the red carpet toward a marquee where an assortment of VIPs sheltered from the intermittent rain. His beaming wife, Tzipporah, and three children, Nava, Igaal and Dafna, trailed behind. Local chiefs, an imam, leaders of neighboring Muslim and Christian villages, top American Conservative rabbis, as well as 260 new converts to Judaism from Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa and Uganda came to pay homage to Sizumo, who will officiate at weddings, act as a mohel and assume other communal responsibilities for the approximately 900 Abayudaya who worship at five area synagogues. NOW HEADED by Rabbi Sizumo, and buoyed by support from Conservative and Reform Jewry in the United States, the Abayudaya may well serve as a beacon to thousands of Africans who have embraced Judaism and hope for full-fledged acceptance by Israel and the Jewish world. Rahman, a 21-year-old musician and student, is one of several area youths who have converted to Judaism from Islam, something his still-Muslim family gave their wholehearted support. The day before Sizumo's installation, he says, he and dozens of others stood before the beit din to finalize their conversions. Others underwent a ritual circumcision. "Jews are a very special group of people. When I worship as a Jew, I feel connected directly to God," he explains his choice to adopt Judaism. Like other young men in the Abayudaya community, serving in the IDF is something Rahman said he "dreams about." "Israel is connected to Africa," he said, adding that there should be intermarriage between Israelis and the Abayudaya. Avraham, 22, one of millions of Ugandan AIDS orphans, says a desire to serve in the IDF has accompanied him since childhood, admitting that he is aware that his community's Conservative affiliation and Orthodox skepticism of his Jewishness may complicate his ambitions. A minority of Abayudaya, which calls itself She'erit Yisrael, or remnant of Israel, is pursuing Orthodox conversion and the right to immigrate to Israel. Sizomu's ordination "represents the way God's love spills across borders and people to unite us," proclaimed Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at Los Angeles's American Jewish University. It is the traditions and wisdom of Africa combined with those of God, Torah and the sages of Israel, he told the crowd, before he and four other prominent Conservative rabbis recited the priestly blessing, while Sizomu rounded things out with the sheheheyanu prayer. "As I take my position as the chief rabbi of Uganda, I have a lot of responsibility," said Sizomu, his inauguration speech punctuated by ululating women and onlookers jumping to their feet in celebration. Saying he wants to work with members of all faiths, he said that he hoped relations with surrounding communities would serve "as a model of peace to the entire universe." Responding to those doubting the authenticity of his Judaism, Sizomu says he is willing to bridge the gap with those skeptics in the Jewish establishment ready to engage the Abayudaya, but flatly rejects any questioning of his legitimacy as a Jew.