Last month, the Jewish community saw a new first – Gershom Sizomu became the first ordained Rabbi in Uganda. A story in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles explained that after five years of study at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, he is now going to head back to his hometown of Nabagoye, where he will be the spiritual leader of about 800 Jews known as Abayudayas.
What’s particularly interesting about Rabbi Sizomu is that even though he has spent his life as the Abayudaya spiritual leader in Uganda, just like his father was before him, and his grandfather, none had ever become a rabbi. Many in the Abayudaya community, which prides itself on strict Torah observance, hope having an “official” rabbi will help them gain further acceptance in the global Jewish community.
The Abayudaya were converted over 90 years ago, but their conversions were not sanctioned at the time by any official body in the Jewish community. But, according to Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), the organization that sponsored Rabbi Sizomu’s schooling, in 2002 a group of “four Conservative rabbis from the United States and one from Israel joined Rabbi Sizomu in supervising the conversion or affirmation of most of Uganda’s remaining Jews in the community’s mikvah.” The Abayudaya are especially eager to be accepted by members of the Orthodox community because, according to the piece in the Jewish Journal, that recognition “would bring with it an official conversion and the ability to make aliyah.”
It’s unfortunate that the Abayudaya would be referred to as unofficial Jews. Their dedication to Torah study and spirited embrace of Judaism should make them count in the canon of world Jewry. This is not just about celebrating diversity, it’s about opening our doors to all those who seek meaning in the Jewish community. It is due to cases like the Abayudaya that JOI created Big Tent Judaism. Our community should be open to everyone who has chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people, regardless of prior knowledge or background. Hopefully Rabbi Sizomu’s ordination will shine a bright enough light on the Ugandan Jewish community, and they will be welcomed by all.