By Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, Head Rabbi of Uganda
When I decided that I would follow my grandfather’s footsteps and become the rabbi of my community, I knew I would be taking on an enormous challenge. My community, the Abayudaya, had suffered persecution since its early establishment. In 1919, there were 8,000 members, but when the Israeli Embassy opened in 1962, there were less than 2,000 Jews left. Many had converted to Christianity in pursuit of education and health care. The despotic rule of Idi Amin began, and Jewish practice was outlawed. We were not allowed to wear kippot, have a Bar Mitzvah or even step into the synagogue. When Idi Amin was defeated during Passover 1979, we were overjoyed and celebrated with banana wine during seder that year.
At times, it is hard to imagine how far we have come since that seder. I recently returned from a trip to the United States where I was raising funds for the Abayudaya Synagogue & Community Center, a project that embodies the progress we have made as a community. The Center will help to realize the return on many of the investments we have made in my community over time, with a focus on increasing gender equality and alleviating chronic food shortages.
The death of Idi Amin meant that we were free, but the lifting of religious restrictions was only the first step toward the reinvigoration of my community. We faced a host of problems endemic to many African communities. Then, in 2002, I received an email that changed my life, but more importantly, it dramatically improved the collective prospects of the Abayudaya. I was awarded a Be’chol Lashon fellowship to attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
My time in America, the friendships I made and the comprehensive health and development plan we formed with Be’chol Lashon has positioned my community not simply to survive, but to thrive. We began by addressing the health risks draining the resources of the community and tragically ending lives much too early. We drilled wells, distributed mosquito nets and built the Tobin Health Center in Mbale. I am proud to say that there have been no deaths from malaria since 2010. It has been nothing short of a miracle born on the wings of modern medicine and community organization.
Most importantly, all of our services are provided to anyone, regardless of religion. In the name of tikkun olam, we are leading by example, working to create peace with our Christian and Muslim neighbors. In doing so, we are making great strides to combat anti-Semitism locally through cooperation and goodwill.
Economically, we have established a variety of small businesses in my community, from the community guesthouse to a taxi service. We are working to send our young people to university to return with the training needed to continue to grow our local economy. This includes women. After working with my female study partner at rabbinical school, who is now a rabbi in San Francisco, one of my first actions when I went back home was to make clear that we are going to have a fundamental change. I told them, “Women shall go to school, and shall lead services. Women will not kneel down for men.” Women are taking an ever-increasing role in our community.
These successes have led us to our most recent and, for me, most meaningful project. The Synagogue & Community Center will be at the very center of spiritual and communal health. It will provide space for a Childcare Center, freeing up time for women to engage in our economy, marking a significant step in the growth of my community. Our successes benefit not only the Abayudaya, but provide hope for many other emerging Jewish communities across the globe. As we continue raising funds for the Synagogue & Community center, I look forward to returning next spring and growing the network of friends and colleagues working together toward an optimistic Jewish future.
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