Uganda's first black rabbi plans visit to the Quad-Cities

Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2012, 9:10 am
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Leon Lagerstam,
ROCK ISLAND -- The first black rabbi in Uganda hopes not to be the last.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu is teaching eight others to become rabbis to ''further my agenda and spread God's message,'' he said by phone.

Rabbi Sizomu, leader of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, will discuss his community's successes and struggles during a ''scholar in residence'' visit Nov. 15-17, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Quad-Cities, Congregation Beth Israel at the Tri City Jewish Center, both of Rock Island, and Temple Emanuel in Davenport.

On Thursday, he will speak at7:30 p.m. at the Moline Library, 3210 41st St.

On Friday, he will speak at 6 p.m. at Temple Emanuel, 1115 Mississippi, Davenport; followed by questions and answers, and dinner. For reservations or information, call (563) 326-4419.

On Saturday, Rabbi Sizomu will speak at 9:30 a.m. to Congregation Beth Israel at the Tri-City Jewish Center, 2715 30th St., Rock Island. The service will be followed by questions and answers. For more information, call (309) 793-1300.

Rabbi Sizomualso will co-officiate Friday night services at Temple Emanuel and Saturday morning services at Congregation Beth Israel at the Tri-City Jewish Center. Services will include psalms and prayers sung Abayudaya-style in Laganda and Hebrew. The sermon will be about the history of the Abayudaya community and Tikkun Olam -- ''repairing the world'' -- projects.

Abayudaya, a tribal name which means "people of Judah," traces its Jewish originsto the turn of the 20th century and reign ofSemei Kakungulu, according to a news release from the Jewish Federation of the Quad Cities.

Instead of converting the people of Mbale to Christianity, Kakunguluembraced the Hebrew Bible and began practicing Judaism with his followers in 1919, according to the release.

Rabbi Sizomu is the grandson of a community elder who succeededKakungulu as spiritual leader of the community in 1928.

In 1971, Idi Amin Dada came topower in Uganda and banned Jewish practice. After Amin's oppressive reign ended in1979, Rabbi Sizomu gathered what was left of the Abayudaya community.

It now numbers more than 1,500 Jews living among 10,000Christian and Muslim neighbors in scattered villages in the rolling, green hills of EasternUganda.

In addition to reviewing Abayudaya Jewish history in Uganda, Rabbi Sizomu will discuss the Yeshiva program to train future African rabbis and leaders and an organization named ''Be'chol Lashon,'' -- ''In Every Tongue'' -- that advocates for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people.

"What I hope people will remember will be the unique Abayudaya history and how we struggled over time to maintain Judaism in a place where it was forbidden,'' he said.

Quad-Cities Jewish Federation spokeswoman Sheryl Hassell-Bennett believes it's important for people to ''know and learn about Jews in other parts of the world and to educate people about Jewish diversity.

''For the Jewish faith to strengthen, we must be open to people of all ethnic, cultural and racial backgrounds,'' she said.

Many people find it surprising to learn that such a growing Jewish population exists in Uganda, Rabbi Sizomu said.

''His community is thriving with the construction of a new synagogue,'' Ms. Hassell-Bennett said. Yet, his community continues to face the ''day-to-day challenges of malaria, food shortage, family planning and child-care, as well as maintaining good relations with their Christian and Muslim neighbors,'' she said.

It will be Rabbi Sizomu's first visit to the Quad-Cities, but hopefully not his last, he said.
"I'm looking forward to meeting people there,'' he said, ''and establishing a long-lasting relationship between our communities.''


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