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Uganda’s First Ordained Rabbi

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.



2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure what an “unofficial Jew” is. You are either a Jew or a nonJew. If the Abayudayas had a non-Orthodox conversions, then according to the Israeli Chief rabbinate, which is Orthodox, they are not (yet) Jews. If they seek and obtain Orthodox conversions they become eligible for Alliyah.

    You probably know, however, that even Orthodox conversion isn’t a free pas into Israel. The Ethiopeans, Bene Menashe, and other Jews from poorer countries throughout the world are often looked at skeptically by the economic and academic elite in Israel, who exert pressure to keep them out of the country. The Bene Menashe are illustrative. Even those fully converted (back) in ceremonies recognized by the Orthodox chief rabbinate’s office are still having trouble getting into Israel b/c the minister in charge of alliyah does not want them in and has publicly stated that he does not want any more poor converts burdening Israel.

    It is truly troubling when people that all demominations agree are Jewish are still prevented from making alliyah b/c of economic condition or racial prejudice.

    Comment by marc — June 16, 2008 @ 10:49 am

  2. What about the She’erit Yisrael? Not many people are talking about them. They hold out for an actual Orthodox giur, not just recognition of a Conservative giur. I think that that is the solution. It will certainly be uncomfortable for many of the people who felt like “We made it!” when the Conservative rabbis came. My question is, why was there a conservative conversion in the first place, and who led them to believe that they might get recognized by the religious establishment? It was foolhardy. I felt like in a way, unintentional as it may have been, they were set up with the booby prize. While the liberal movements may be proud of what they did, on their turf they have a right to be. However, that said, the entire Jewish world doesn’t play by their rules. By going for a Conservative giur, the Ababyudaya were put in a position of having to go through the whole emotional process, likely without understanding that it will mean little to nothing to the Orthodox establishment, and would leave them without the proper tools to live in an educated society run by Orthodox Jews. An Orthodox giur is arguably a much more educationally oriented process that demands that the prospective convert know and understand many concepts that would allow them to move easily in many and even any circle(s).

    What about these people who know what the deal is, and who are still waiting for a rabbi to come and help them out? Where is the Rabbi? Why are people so afraid to right this desperately wrong situation. Where is the warm accepting leadership? Someone out there is missing the boat.

    Comment by Patience Rojas-Taylor — July 28, 2008 @ 6:25 am

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