Despite recent setbacks, Uganda’s only rabbi said Monday he is “encouraged” that the 2,000-strong Jewish community in his country will soon obtain full recognition in Israel.
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Rabbi Gershom Sizomu is spiritual leader of the Abayudaya – an east Ugandan community that embraced Judaism about a century ago. In recent days, he met with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and MK Avraham Nagosa (Likud), chair of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs.
Sizomu told Haaretz they reassured him that they will challenge the Interior Ministry for refusing to recognize the Abayudaya as Jews. Most of the community members were officially converted to Judaism some 15 years, the majority of them by rabbis affiliated with the Conservative movement.
“I’m also encouraged by the fact that Sharansky is on our side and is willing to push matters for us,” Sizomu said. “Nagosa is also determined to help us. There could be a good outcome, so I remain optimistic.”
Earlier this month, Nagosa’s committee devoted an emergency hearing to allegations that the Interior Ministry systematically discriminates against converts of color affiliated with the Conservative movement.
The hearing was called following the deportation of Yehudah Kimani – a member of the Abayudaya community – soon after he landed in Israel on a flight from Kenya last month. Kimani, who had been accepted to study at the yeshiva run by the Conservative movement in Jerusalem, was barred from Israel even though he had a valid tourist visa.
Several years ago, the Jewish Agency officially recognized the Abayudaya as a Jewish community for the purpose of the Law of Return, which determines eligibility for immigration to Israel. The Interior Ministry, however, has the final say at state level and it has yet to recognize the Ugandan community as Jewish.
At the Knesset hearing, a senior representative of the ministry referred to Kimani as a “goy from Kenya.”
It was not the first time the Jewish credentials of the Abayudaya have been questioned in Israel. In recent years, members of the community have encountered difficulties obtaining visas to participate in programs run by the government that are designated as exclusively for young Jews. Thus far, only one member of the community has applied to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. The Jewish Agency considers his a test case and plans to fight the Interior Ministry if it rejects the application.
Commenting on Kimani’s case, Sizomu said: “I felt very, very bad that the people at the point of entry into Israel did not want to listen to him or give him a second chance. He was so excited about coming here.”
Sizomu, who likes to describe himself as “the only rabbi in sub-Saharan Africa,” was ordained a Conservative rabbi in 2008 at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Los Angeles. The 48-year-old father of five has served as the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya for more than 20 years.
Two years ago, he took on an additional job, becoming the first Jew ever elected to parliament in Uganda, where he represents one of the opposition parties.
A group of 40 Abayudaya Jews had been scheduled to travel to Israel this May to participate in the first ever Birthright trip from Uganda. Amid concerns that the Interior Ministry might bar the group from entering Israel, Birthright – the organization that provides free, 10-day trips to Israel for young Diaspora Jews – threatened to cancel the visit.
To prevent its cancellation, Sizomu said he was asked to write letters on behalf of each participant, confirming that he or she is a member of the Abayudaya community and has been converted according to Jewish law.
Sizomu will be attending festivities on Wednesday to mark the 40th anniversary of the Conservative movement in Israel. He will be presenting a special session on Abayudaya prayer and music.
On Tuesday, he met with students at Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya (the oldest Hebrew high school in the country), to hear about a project they’ve launched to combat hunger in Africa.