Leader of Uganda's Jewish community balances spiritual, mundane matters
“Like being president of a country,” Rabbi Gershom Sizomu says of his work on behalf of his African Jewish community(James D. Davis, Sun Sentinel staff / May 16, 2011)
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu knew he wanted to be a Jewish scholar. He also understood his position as a leader in the small Jewish community of Uganda.
But he didn't quite grasp that he would one day deal with jobs, clinics, mosquito nets and other mundane matters.
But he says it's all part of spirituality. "Religion is not just about keeping Shabbat and kashrut alive. Good relationships include God and man. You must fulfill your obligations among people."
Sizomu, 42, may not be a president, but he does lead the 1,500-member Abayudaya community in Uganda. This past week he introduced the community around South Florida, not only speaking but playing guitar and singing in his tenor voice. In fact, he did take part in a recording that earned a Grammy nomination in 2004.
His main message: The Abayudaya, whose name means "People of Judah," are part of the worldwide Jewish community, and much of their story has reprised Jewish themes of liberation and community building.
"Judaism is not homogenous; it has different languages and cultures," Sizomu says. "The Abayudaya journey is the Jewish journey. We celebrate that."
The message meshes with that of Be'chol Lashon, an organization that emphasizes Jewish diversity, for which he is the senior rabbinic associate. His current 25-day tour began in San Francisco, where Be'chol Lashon has its headquarters, then went to Maryland, New York and Boston. From South Florida, Sizomu goes to New Mexico before returning to California.
In contrast to the Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the Lemba of southern Africa, the Abayudaya accepted Judaism less than a century ago. A great warrior named Semei Kakungulu gave Christian missionaries a hearing, but preferred Judaism.
"He found the Old Testament structure, of a relationship of obligation between God and man, resonated," Sizomu says. "If man does something for God, God does something for man."
The Abayudaya began practicing Judaism in 1919, but some gragually drifted away. Then Idi Amin, the nation's brutal dictator from 1971 to 1979, began to ban any expression of Judaism, including kippot or Sabbath services, on pain of death.
"We went underground, so when we emerged, we were stronger," he says.
He said Amin was overthrown on the eve of Passover. "We compared that to the Israelites who left Egypt."
To connected with world Jewry, more than 350 Abayudaya underwent a mass mikvah baptism in 2002. The following year, Sizomu entered the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He was ordained in 2008, then returned to Uganda and opened a yeshiva, or rabbinic school.
Other big concerns are health and jobs for the Abayudaya.
With help from Be'chol Lashon, the Ugandan government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Abayudaya have designed a five-year health and development plan. It includes things as simple as mosquito nets and as complicated as a medical clinic.
The clinic is up, but it hasn't been equipped yet. Sizomu is trying to find donors for X-ray, ultrasound and other equipment. That, plus personnel, will cost $300,000, he says.
Once up and running, the clinic could supply jobs for secretaries, security, teachers and maintenance workers, Sizomu says. Other enterprises include a guesthouse, an Internet café, bracelets and crocheted kippot.
So many mundane matters to handle. How does Sizomu keep from feeling overwhelmed?
His ebullience brings a quick answer.
"I just have no boundaries," he says, spreading his hands. "I just think and think. No end."
JDDavis@Tribune.com or 954-356-4730.