Abayudaya Leader to Israelis: “We Are Your Brothers and Sisters”

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu reflects on his recent visit to Israel.

This week, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community and a member of Uganda’s parliament, visited Israel at the invitation of the Masorti (Conservative) movement. While there, he participated in festivities marking the movement’s 40th anniversary. He also met with Israeli government officials to discuss the difficulties that the Abayudaya have faced in recent years securing visas to participate in programs in Israel. Team Be’chol Lashon caught up with Rabbi Sizomu upon his return to Uganda and asked him about his visit.

You spent time in Israel while studying to become a Conservative rabbi. What was it like to be back?

I was very, very thrilled to be back in Israel. Last Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, I witnessed the closing of shops and restaurants, the empty streets, people going home to prepare for Shabbat. I felt like I was at home.

Why was it important for you to go to Israel to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Masorti movement?

The Masorti movement is growing in Israel, and I think Israel needs that voice of moderation because the Orthodox have monopolized the stage. Many Israelis need to be enlightened about the existence of alternative forms of Judaism, and Conservative Judaism is one alternative that they could turn to. I also had the opportunity to network with colleagues from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South America, among other places.

The Jewish Agency recognized the Abayudaya as Jews in 2016, but the Ministry of Interior has yet to do so. What is your understanding of why the Ministry has not followed the Jewish Agency’s lead?

The fact is the Ministry of Interior is influenced by ultra-Orthodox rabbis who don’t consider a conversion that’s non-Orthodox to be valid. Those rabbis are in charge, so their opinions shape the decisions of the Ministry. The issue is not about race; it’s about conversion. [Author’s Note: Most members of the Abayudaya underwent conversions overseen by Conservative rabbis.]

What are the next steps in the process of gaining Israeli government recognition of your community?

I met with Natan Sharansky, the president of the Jewish Agency, and he revealed that there is a memorandum of understanding between the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Interior that makes it clear that the mandate to recognize Jewish communities outside of Israel is under the purview of the Jewish Agency. Therefore, if the Ministry takes it upon itself to reject or recognize communities like the Abayudaya, then Sharansky promised to push back.

Are the Abayudaya actually interested in making aliyah?

We are not seeking for the whole community to make aliyah. We are happy in Uganda, where we are building infrastructure and where I serve in parliament. What we are seeking is those from our community who want to go to Israel, whether to visit or for school, they should be accorded that courtesy without trouble. There are programs that are available for Jewish people, like the Masa programs, where kids go and study in Israel. We want Abayudaya from Uganda to also have that privilege.

What are your thoughts, as an African and a Jew, about the plight of non-Jewish African refugees in Israel?

From my perspective, the way Israel is handling the matter is bad for its image overseas. I’ve been asked by other parliamentarians in Uganda, “Why is your country sending back African refugees?” They call Israel my country. I tell them it is a complicated issue. Africa benefits from a strong relationship with Israel, especially in the field of agriculture.

Most Israelis probably have never heard of the Abayudaya. What do you want them to know about your community?

I would like Israelis to know that the Abayudaya are part of you, that we are your brothers and sisters who happen to be in Uganda. We love Israel, we love the Jewish people, we love Judaism. And the last place we should be turned away from is Israel because that is where our heart is. It’s our spiritual home.

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