Ugandan rabbi runs for his country’s parliament
By Lee Chottiner
Even in the United States it’s not every day you see a rabbi running for national office.
So often do you see it in a country like, say Uganda?
Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, a Conservative rabbi and the first from the indigenous Abaydaya tribe in the central African nation, has thrown his, er, kipa, into nth ring, and is running for the Ugandan parliament.
If he wins, he will become the first Jew elected to national office in Uganda, as well the only rabbi seated in a nationally elected government outside of Israel.
“I would like to empower my people,” Sizomu said in a response to a series of questions from the Chronicle, which were forwarded to him by Be’chol Lashon, an organization that seeks to strengthens the Jewish communities around the world through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness.
“I would like to unite the people of Mbale (his home town in Uganda) through promotion of peaceful coexistence and creation of a united front against our common challenges,” Sizomu continued.
The Abayudaya are native Ugandans whose predecessors converted to Judaism over 90 years ago. There are approximately 1,500 Abayudaya living in the country.
The Abyudaya, and the Jews of North Africa are not the only Jewish communities on the continent. There are also
• The Lemba, self-proclaimed Jews who live in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa, number in the tens of thousands;
• The Rusape, community of self-proclaimed Jews centered in Rusape, about two hours from Harare, Zimbabwe. They claim to be spiritually, if not genetically, descended from a lost tribe of Jews who migrated from the North;
• The Sefwi Wiawso and Sefwi Sui in western Ghana is either a relatively new one, or an ancient one, depending on one’s particular evaluation of the community’s history. Members of the community believe that their ancestors, the Sefwi people, are descendants of Jews who migrated south through the Ivory Coast, bringing with them ancient Jewish observances.
• Cape Verde Jews, a community descended from Jews fleeing the Inquisition and finding refuge in these off the West African coast.
The first Abayudaya to be a seminary-educated rabbi, Sizomu studied five years at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles before being ordained in 2008.
Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a branch of the larger Institute for Jewish & Community Research, sponsored Sizomu’s studies, according to its director, Diane Tobin, a Pittsburgh native.
Tobin said Sizomu’s campaign has actually drawn support from Imams and church leaders. For his part, Sizomu said his Jewishness has not adversely affected his campaign.
“I have a lot of support from people of all who are proud to support ‘omuyudaya’ a Jew, as they usually refer to me,” Sizomu said. “While others prefer candidates of their particular faith.”
Uganda has been much in the news recently for the dangerous status of homosexuals there. Legislation pending in the parliament would make homosexuality punishable by death, though international pressure may force a change in the bill to include a lesser sentence.
Sizomu declined to comment on the homosexuality issue.
A member of the Forum for Democratic Change, a political party in Uganda, Sizomu said his fellow Abayudaya are “excited” about having one of their own running for parliament.
“Most people ask about how I will balance between the strict observances of Judaism and the onerous task of serving people,” he said. “I tell them that I will continue to observe mitzvot, but put the lives of people at the forefront (pikuach nefesh).”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)