At his bar mitzvah in 1983, his father and grandfather laid their hands on his head and proclaimed him the rabbi of their village in Uganda.
Today, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, 48, is the chief rabbi of Uganda’s entire Jewish community, known in the local tongue as the Abayudaya, or “People of Judah.” Ordained in 2008 by the Conservative movement’s seminary in Los Angeles, Sizomu is the first native-born black rabbi in sub-Saharan Africa and the first Jewish member of his country’s Parliament — and he also was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005.
Now he has his eye on another goal: the presidency of Uganda.
“I’m a shadow minister in Parliament already,” he told J. Aug. 27 in San Rafael, where he spoke to supporters in a private home. “The next and only step is president.”
Sounds simple enough. But nothing about Sizomu’s life, or the situation of the Abayudaya community, is simple.
Numbering about 2,000 individuals living in six villages near the city of Mbale in eastern Uganda, the Abayudaya embraced Judaism a century ago.
In the past decade, the majority were formally converted, under Conservative auspices. The Jewish Agency for Israel recognizes the community as Jewish for purposes of aliyah under the Law of Return, but Israel’s Interior Ministry does not. That has led to some ugly battles.
Last December, a member of the Abayudaya community who had been accepted to Jerusalem’s Conservative yeshiva was turned back at the airport, even though he had a valid tourist visa. And this summer, the Interior Ministry denied the immigration application of another community member already living in Israel. Israel’s Supreme Court blocked his deportation until they hear his case, and the Conservative movement, which is supporting the Abayudayan cause, charged the government with racism.
This week, the community’s first Birthright trip arrived in Israel for its 10-day visit. Sizomu’s daughter was a participant, reading Torah for the group as they prayed together at the Wall’s egalitarian section.
Sizomu, who acts as his community’s political as well as spiritual leader, is more politic than some. “It’s not as if every Abayudaya will move to Israel,” he said. “It would only be individuals. But we want Israel to come to terms with the fact that we are Jews and need equal treatment, so our young people can choose to make aliyah or not. Just like you.”
A soft-spoken man with a broad smile, Sizomu’s gentle demeanor belies a steely will. Judaism was outlawed during the presidency of Idi Amin in the 1970s, and although those restrictions loosened after Amin’s downfall in 1979, anti-Semitic discrimination and oppression continued. As a young man, Sizomu was known to the authorities as “the short, stubborn one,” and he narrowly escaped arrest or worse on several occasions — once by disguising himself as a woman.
Then there was the time he was teaching Hebrew songs to children in the synagogue, and government officials held a meeting nearby, “to intimidate us,” he said. “They told us to stop singing. So I told the kids to sing louder.” Sizomu was thrown in jail for that, along with his brothers, but still it did not deter him.
Asked why he decided to run for Parliament in 2011 (he lost that time but was elected in 2016), he said his primary motivation has been to help his community, most of whom live as subsistence farmers, subject to the same wrenching poverty as the rest of the population. Famine, drought, lack of access to medical care, rampant malaria, widespread hunger — he ticked off the challenges they face.
Virtually all the community’s support comes from American Jews, including the Conservative movement. S.F.-based Be’chol Lashon, a nonprofit that advocates for Jews of color, is the Abayudaya’s fiscal sponsor. Executive director Diane Tobin says Be’chol Lashon has dropped its foreign grantees to focus on Jews of color in this country — except for the Abayudaya.
“Gershom is such an extraordinary individual,” Tobin said. “His community is the only one we still work with outside the U.S.”
In the mid-2000s, Be’chol Lashon and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee did a feasibility study on behalf of the community and developed the Abayudaya Community Health and Development Plan to fight poverty and combat disease, primarily malaria, the major cause of death in Uganda.
But before building a new health center, the foreign philanthropists had wells drilled in the community’s villages, to provide clean drinking water, and provided mosquito nets to all villagers, Jewish or not. The wells were opened in 2007, and the Tobin Health Center opened in Mbale in 2010, serving the Abayudaya as well as their Muslim and Christian neighbors.
That outreach to the non-Jewish population has helped in unforeseen ways.
“The Torah says ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ and ‘you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt,’” Sizomu said. “Our neighbors in Uganda were also the ones who subjected us to discrimination and pain. But we are commanded to love the stranger, so we gave them mosquito nets. And our wells were open to our neighbors, without restriction.”
Added Tobin: “Not only is this an incredible interfaith model, malaria deaths are down by 90 percent in the entire region. Moreover, said Sizomu, no Jews have died of malaria in the past 10 years. “It’s a very big achievement,” he said.
Uganda is also plagued by chronic food shortages, as water for irrigation is not available during the long summer months. During last year’s famine, the Abayudaya shared their food with their neighbors, and this year, with help from Be’chol Lashon, they’ve launched an irrigation project, buying land and saving rainwater for distribution during droughts, so people will have food sources all year long.
Even the newly constructed Stern Synagogue in the village of Nabugoye has been helping. “We collect the rainwater that pours down the roof, and save it for the summer,” Sizomu said. “So even if you don’t come to the synagogue to pray, you still benefit from it.
“The idea of ‘love your neighbor’ has helped our image, and helped get me elected,” he continued, explaining that members of Parliament must belong to a majority religion — Christianity or Islam — and to a major tribe. The Abayudaya are neither. But because they reached out to their neighbors, Sizomu believes, he was able to circumvent those requirements.
“How did I become a member of Parliament? It’s because of love your neighbor and loving the stranger, sharing what we have,” he insisted.
Sizomu’s 2016 election has certainly raised the Jewish community’s profile. When Parliament is in session, debates make the daily news, and the cameras tend to focus on Sizomu, sitting on the front bench, wearing his kippah. “It makes me visible,” said the man who sang and played guitar on several cuts of the 2003 album “Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda,” which was nominated for a Grammy for best traditional world album two years later. “The TV cameras always zoom in to show the man with the kippah. When I’m not there, everybody notices.”
If he’s gotten this far, he believes the presidency is not an unreasonable goal. The current president has been in office 32 years, and shows no intention of stepping down. In the dictatorial manner of Amin, he arrests and tortures members of the opposition. It’s time for a change, Sizomu said.
“I want to be president of Uganda,” he stated. “Then Uganda can be another home for the Jewish people.”
With a twinkle in his eye, he noted that this is not a new idea — Uganda was floated as an alternative to Palestine in 1903 at the Sixth Zionist Congress in Switzerland. “A Jewish state with a Jewish president,” he quipped, with a broad smile.
You heard it here first.