PRESENTATION OF CHIEF RABBI GERSHOM SIZOMU OF ABAYUDAYA OF UGANDA, MAY 12th, 2015
Rabbi Sizomu gave an overview the history of the Abayudaya in Uganda and their current socio-economic needs. The following is a summary of his presentation:
In beginning his remarks, Rabbi Sizomu emphasized that the word Abayudaya is Luganda for Jews everywhere, and does not merely refer to the local community in Uganda.
The community began in 1919 when a British Protestant Missionary gave Semei Kakungulu a copy of the Bible. After reading the Bible, he told the Protestant Missionary that Judaism is the only true religion and began the Abayudaya community. In the 1920s, the community had grown to 8000 members, but British colonial policy totally delegated education and medical services to the Christian missionaries who always denied education and health services to anyone who refused to convert to Christianity. Following independence in 1962, the A. Milton Obote Administration continued the policy of allowing the Christian missionaries to control Uganda's educational system. Hence the community declined in membership.
From 1919 until 1962, when Israel established an Embassy in Kampala, the religious customs of the Abayudaya were based upon the customs described in the Tanakh. When Israeli diplomats visited the Abayudaya, they informed the Abayudaya of the customs and laws of Rabbinical Judaism which Abayudaya immediately adopted.
Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda fron 1971 to 1979, totally banned Judaism. Consequently, many abandoned the community to escape repression. However, at the same time, the Amin regime established secular schools. As a result of this changed educational policy, Abayudaya children could now attend school.
Rabbi Sizomu stated that he completely believes that G-d's hand was directly involved the July 1976 Israeli commando raid on the Entebbe Airport, which rescued the Jewish hostages, and President Nyerere's decision in 1979 to order the Tanzanian Army to invade Uganda and thereby remove Idi Amin from power on April 11, 1979, corresponding to 14 Nisan, 5739—the first night of Passover.
With freedom of worship restored, the Abayudaya were now free to publicly practice Judaism and Rabbi Sizomu declared to his family that his ambition was to become an ordained Rabbi. Approximately, twenty years later, through the assistance of Bechol Lashon, he received a fellowship to study at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University and was ordained as a Conservative Rabbi on May 19, 2008.
Since returning home, his concerns have been with both serving the community's religious needs as well as socio-economic and health needs. With financial assistance from USY, an egalitarian yeshivah, located in Mbale, was established to train Rabbis from communities throughout Africa. In terms of socio-economic and health needs, with Bechol Lashon's assistance, wells were dug in the community's villages so that the community's members were no longer compelled to draw water from rivers and streams that are polluted with disease causing bacteria, viruses and parasites. Mosquito nets were distributed to the local population to protect against bites from mosquitos that carry the Malaria parasite. There is a modern health center (Tobin Health Center) in Mbale. In the spirit of the principles of Tikkun Olam and V'ahavta L'rayakhah Kamocha, all these resources are shared with their Christian and Muslim neighbors. Rabbi Sizomu noted that until the Abayudaya modelled the concept of Tikkun Olam and V'ahavta L'rayakhah Kamocha, the Muslim villages that had wells restricted usage to only their co-religionists, but now everyone has access to wells in all the area's villages regardless of the individual's specific religious affiliation.
The latest project (for which Be'chol Lason is seeking donations) is a new synagogue building that will also contain a community center, and is being constructed in the village of Nabugoye. The community center component will have two functions. Firstly, it will include a child care center to take care of and educate toddlers and pre-school-aged children—that is, children under 7 years of age—while their mothers are employed in the professions, or producing handicraft items for international sales or working in the fields of their family farms. (Abayudaya families are predominantly small land holding farmers. Women's customary agricultural responsibilities include the sowing of seeds, weeding, and harvesting of crops, plus where the fields are located on the mountain slopes—which is the situation of the majority of the farms—the women use hand hoes to prepare fields for the sowing of seeds.) With this child care center, mothers will no longer be compelled to take their young children to their place of work or delegate child care duties to older girls. Secondly, there will be a granary to store surplus grain to provide food security during future periods of drought. The community center's services will be available to all residents of the neighboring villages, regardless of their religion.
The architect's drawing of the synagogue/community center
Rabbi Sizomu noted that there are growing African Jewish communities located in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Additionally, Rabbi Sizomu invited Dr. David Abramowitz of Dental Explorations who spoke about the program in which US dentists, dental hygenists, dental students, audiologists, pediatricians, nurses, educators, and social workers go to provide modern dental care to the Abayudaya and their neighbors.
Much earlier in the evening Rabbi Sizomu introduced our Hebrew School students to Abayudaya music.
Here are two videos of our Hebrew School students with Rabbi Sizomu:
Video One: Sh'ma Yisrael
Video Two: Oseh Shalom
This presentation was made possible through a grant from