Chief rabbi of Uganda visits Yale

November 19, 2018

11:36 pm, Sep 04, 2018

Staff Reporter

The Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale welcomed the chief rabbi of Uganda, Gershom Sizomu, into its chapel on Tuesday evening to share the story of his life and the Jewish community in Uganda.

Sizomu — the first native-born black rabbi in sub-Saharan Africa and first Jewish member of the Ugandan parliament — leads the Abayudaya Jewish community in Eastern Uganda. The approximately 2,000 community members are scattered throughout the region, living among Christian and Muslim neighbors. Sizomu is also a senior rabbinic associate at Be’chol Lashon, an American NGO that partners with the Abayudaya to improve health conditions and encourage economic development. During the lecture, Sizomu discussed the history of Judaism in Uganda, his own life and spiritual journey, his motivation to run for public office and the challenge of the Abayudaya community’s existence in an area isolated from other Jewish communities.

“My story’s about beginning, survival, and the future of our community,” Sizomu said in an interview with the News.

Sizomu’s lecture was the last in a series of Tuesday events with the rabbi. Earlier in the day, Sizomu led a “Lunch & Learn” session at Slifka, where he discussed excerpts from the Torah and his experience as the rabbi of the Abayudaya community. He then participated in a Q&A tea event at the Afro-American Cultural Center, where he spoke about his interfaith work, the Jewish community’s place in Uganda and the political landscape in his home country.

Sizomu’s visit to Yale marked his final event in the United States after two weeks of meeting congregations and friends around the country.

During the Slifka lecture, Sizomu detailed the origins of Judaism in Uganda. He began with an account of the 1919 removal of the New Testament from Bibles brought to Uganda by Christian missionaries by a Ugandan leader, whose community then began to follow the traditions of the Old Testament. He also recalled his experience during Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda, when Ugandan relations with Israel were unfriendly and practicing Judaism was illegal. When Amin’s regime was overthrown — an event Sizomu recalled occurring on the eve of Passover — Sizomu said he was reminded of God’s protection of his community.

“I decided then that … God had his eye on our community,” Sizomu said. “He wanted our community to survive.”

Sizomu also spoke about his campaigns for Ugandan Parliament — one of which he lost in 2011, and the other of which he won in 2016 — and his reasons for running for public office.

“The main motivation for me to go to politics is that Idi Amin used political power to intimidate, to harass, and to try to wipe out Judaism,” Sizomu said. “I and other people in my community decided we shall never again play victims in a country where politics determines most things.”

During a Q&A session following his presentation, Sizomu addressed the topic of his community’s relationship with Israel and the rest of Judaism. Because of its isolation from other Jewish peoples, the community is not always recognized as Jewish because “many people in Israel don’t know about” it, he explained.

But the Abayudaya community is gradually gaining more recognition, he added. Recently, several young members of the Abayudaya community were accepted for Birthright trips to Israel. Sizomu showed the audience at Slifka a video clip of those members celebrating with song and dance at the airport.

In an interview with the News before the event, Sizomu said he hoped his visit would give Yalies a look into Ugandan life and help put American life into perspective.

“I know that most people in Yale have not visited Africa and have not experienced Africa,” Sizomu told the News. “So after the end of my conversation they probably will compare and contrast and have an appreciation of what they have here in the United States.”

Audience members told the News that hearing Sizomu’s story was a good reminder of how Judaism can cross international lines.

Attendee Mariel Barocas ’21 said the story of the Abayudaya community’s perseverance under the Idi Amin regime made her “feel happy that Judaism gave their community a sense of empowerment.”

Canning Malkin ’21, another attendee at the event, said the event gave her “a renewed sense of gratitude” for her Jewish identity.

“Seeing those kids come off the plane into Israel and into Birthright and everyone joining them in song and dance — it’s just really incredible and it’s such really a truly international community that you can just really feel a part of pretty instantaneously,” Malkan said.

The Slifka Center first opened its doors in 1995.

Asha Prihar | asha.prihar@yale.edu

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