Nearly 40 people gathered at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Sunday evening, Nov. 22, to hear Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa to be ordained at an American rabbinic school. In 2008, after five years of study, he received ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles; in Uganda, he serves as a mohel, shochet and leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community.
Sizomu’s Pittsburgh address was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee (PAJC).
Josh Sayles, director of the Federation’s Community Relations Council, and Sue Linzer, associate director of planning/director of overseas operations for the Federation, partnered with Karen Hochberg, executive director of PAJC, to welcome the rabbi.
Sayles intended the event to have an educational effect.
“The purpose of the event was to inform the community of important work that Rabbi Gershom is doing in his community, and to connect the Jewish community in Pittsburgh to the Jewish community in Africa that many people have never heard of,” said Sayles. “It is also a way to show people where their money is going and how it’s helping.”
Sizomu and his community recently received a $10,000 grant from the Federation’s self-directed overseas funding process.
Linzer explained that the Federation’s competitive request for funding process provides one-time grants. Currently, such funds are supporting global projects not only in Uganda, but in Israel and the former Soviet Union.
With monies received from Federation, the Abayudaya have built an oven. Women in the community will be able to bake bread and sell it in the market, said Sizomu.
Steve Latterman, whose family traveled to Uganda, helped the Abayudaya receive the Federation grant.
“It shows how a relatively small amount of money can have a huge impact,” said Latterman.
Sizomu called the new oven “an income-making opportunity for our women.”
“We want to empower our women,” the rabbi said.
Over the course of the evening, Sizomu shared the history of Ugandan Jewry as well as his own professional aspirations.
According to Sizomu, in 1919, Semei Kakungulu, a Bagandan warrior, converted to Judaism. Kakungulu adopted the practices described in the Torah, circumcised his sons and started a sect of followers. In 1926, a man by the name of Yosef visited the community. Yosef introduced community members to the Hebrew language and other religious matters. It was the first time that the community had encountered Jews from the outside, said Sizomu.
In 1928, Kakungulu died.
“Without Semei Kakungulu our community was bound to fail, because it was a time that Christian missionaries vigorously tried to convert us to Christianity,” said Sizomu. “Many members of the community converted to Christianity in order to get an education.”
Those that did not convert largely turned to subsistence farming, he said.
In 1962, Israeli Arye Oded visited the Jewish community. Oded observed community members offering the paschal lamb on the eve of Passover. When Oded inquired why they were practicing a defunct ritual, he was told that they were merely following what was stated in the Torah. Oded explained that without the Holy Temple, the paschal lamb could not be offered. He then introduced the community to the practice of the Passover seder.
Upon Idi Amin’s presidency of Uganda, between 1971 and 1979, the Abayudaya were not permitted to practice Judaism.
“The synagogues closed,” explained Sizomu. “There were no Jewish funerals, marriages, bar or bat mitzvahs. Growing up at that time was very difficult because we were called Christ killers. That made me feel very bad as a child.”
Nevertheless, during Amin’s tenure, Sizomu experienced religious highs. In 1976, following Operation Entebbe, in which Israeli commandos successfully rescued nearly all of the Air France hostages taken by hijackers allied with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Sizomu said that his prayers were heard.
“Even though the commander Yoni Netanyahu was killed, we felt proud,” said Sizomu. “We felt our prayers were being listened to.”
Following Amin’s rule, the community gathered for a Passover seder. Sizomu’s grandfather led the seder.
“That was when I decided I would be the next leader of the community,” said Sizomu. “In 1979, I saw with my own eyes that Eliyahu had come and that the redemption had begun.”
Although his family referred to him as “rabbi” for decades, it was not until 2008 that Sizomu officially completed the requirements for ordination.
As leader of the Abayudaya, Sizomu is largely responsible for their welfare. The community consists of 1,500 Jews surrounded by 10,000 Christians and Muslims. When asked about interfaith dealings, Sizomu spoke highly of his interactions with nearby Christians and Muslims.
Sizomu said that when Latterman delivered goats in 2014 as part of a bar mitzvah project, children of all faiths were included.
“Everyone who came by went home with a goat,” said Sizomu. “We have improved our image by reaching out and sharing. We share mosquito nets. Mosquitos don’t discriminate, they will bite anyone. The wells are shared also.”
Since Sizomu became leader, the community has drilled five wells, dispersed 10,000 mosquito nets, built a health center and prevented any malaria related deaths since 2010. The community is in the process of building a larger synagogue and day care center so that women can earn money throughout the day, said Sizomu, who asked the audience for help in funding his community.
Serving as the community’s spokesperson has enabled the rabbi to try his hand at politics, as well. In 2011, he unsuccessfully ran for parliament. He said he will try again next year.
“I’m making another attempt, because the Muslims and Christians have selected me,” he said. “They want me to bring clean water and mosquito nets so I can bring a better life to everyone.”
He predicted he would be president of Uganda by 2026.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.