Tag Archives: African Jews

Jew of the Week: Gershom Sizomu

First Jew in Uganda’s Parliament

Gershom Sizomu (b. 1972) was born in Uganda in a village of the Abayudaya, a group of Ugandans who had converted to Judaism a century ago under the leadership of (former Jew of the WeekSemei Kakungulu. Unfortunately, in recent decades many rabbis, including the Israeli Rabbinate, did not accept their conversion, especially because many Abayudaya were forcibly converted to Christianity, while others went into hiding during the violent regime of Idi Amin. Sizomu invited a group of American Conservative rabbis to do a formal conversion in 2003. Some 300 Abayudaya converted, though many more refused to participate in the ceremony since they considered themselves fully Jewish already. Sizomu affirmed that it was only a formality, stating “We’re already Jewish.” He said in the ceremony “I was born Jewish, and I’d like to stay Jewish.” Following this, Sizomu headed to the US to study at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. After five years, he was ordained a Conservative Rabbi. Upon his return to Africa, Sizomu converted another 250 people from Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. In 2016, Sizomu ran in the Ugandan parliamentary elections and won a seat, beating seven other candidates. This makes him the first rabbi (and the first Jew!) in Uganda’s parliament. He has been working diligently to reduce government waste, alleviate poverty, and improve the country’s water and electrical networks. Sizomu is still the spiritual leader of 2000 Abayudaya Jews, and oversees seven synagogues, two Jewish schools, and a mikveh. Last year, he organized the first Birthright trip for a group of 40 Abayudaya youths. While the Jewish Agency for Israel has officially recognized the Abayudaya, the Israeli Interior Ministry still hasn’t. Sizomu is currently working towards changing that, and is very hopeful. He has said: “We are not Jewish for purposes of immigration. We are Jewish because that is who we are, and we will never change that…” and that “If the Arab world declared war on Israel, we would fight and die to protect it.”

Words of the Week

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
– Friedrich Nietzsche

Jew of the Week: Gudit of Ethiopia

Yehudit (c. 960 CE) was born in the Jewish-Ethiopian Kingdom of Beta Israel (also known as the Kingdom of Semien), the daughter of King Gideon IV, who traced his lineage back to King Solomon. According to tradition, the Ethiopian Beta Israel Jews are descendants of the Biblical Israelite tribe of Dan – a claim supported by historical texts from the 9th and 10th century that refer to an independent Jewish Danite kingdom in Africa. In the 900s CE, the Christian Ethiopian Kingdom of Axum began an aggressive expansion, and sought to forcibly convert all Jews and pagans. King Gideon was killed in battle, leaving the monarchy to his daughter Yehudit, or Gudit. Gudit formed an alliance with a neighbouring kingdom, and soon raised a massive confederation to defeat Axum. Axum’s capital was destroyed, and its churches and monuments burned down. Gudit saved the Jewish population from forced conversion. The community would survive until modern times, and most have now settled in Israel. Gudit went on to sit on the throne for 40 years, establishing a new dynasty that would last three centuries. Historical records suggest she laid down vast trade networks, and ruled over a wealthy kingdom. In one tradition, she is said to have married a Syrian-Jewish nobleman. The golden age she ushered in lasted until 1270, when a new Christian dynasty got the upper hand. The Jewish Beta Israel Kingdom would survive until 1627, when it was annexed and dissolved.

Words of the Week

Better a bad reputation than a good epitaph.
– Golda Meir

“Judith’s Fields”: an archaeological site in Ethiopia said to contain the remains of Gudit’s pillaging of Axum

Jew of the Week: Semei Kakungulu

The Jewish Warrior-King of Africa

Semei Kakungulu

Semei Kakungulu, founder of the Jewish Abayudaya tribe of Uganda

Semei Kakungulu (1869-1928) was born into the African tribe of Baganda. As a young man he was converted to Christianity by a missionary. Meanwhile, he grew to become a skilled warrior, as well as an influential politician. The British supported him, essentially turning him into the unofficial king of the Busoga region, which he conquered for the Empire along with other territories. However, the British did not want to confer any titles on him, fearing he would become too powerful. This strained the relationship, and soon Kakungulu also abandoned Protestant Christianity, further driving a wedge between him and the British. Having begun to study the Bible on his own, Kakungulu recognized that Christians had misinterpreted and manipulated it, for example changing the day of the Sabbath to Sunday despite the fact that the text explicitly says it must be Saturday. According to lore, Kakungulu isolated himself in a room with the Bible, and emerged some time later with the book torn in half, concluding that only the first half (the Old Testament) must be true. In 1919, he circumcised himself and his son, urging his followers to do the same. He started a new community focused on following the laws of the Torah. Starting in 1925, the growing community encountered a number of Orthodox Jews from Europe who were working and traveling in the area. One of them, a man named Joseph, taught the community (now known as the Abayudaya) proper Jewish rituals and prayers, the Hebrew language, and even showed them how to slaughter and prepare kosher meat. Soon after, the community dropped any remaining aspects of their former Christian faith, and properly converted to Judaism. Kakangulu wrote a Jewish manual for Africans, and was able to inspire as many as 8000 followers in his time, building a network of some 36 synagogues in the region. His descendants continue to thrive in today’s Uganda. Click here to read more about them.

Words of the Week

In those days it shall come to pass, that ten people, of all the nations of the world, shall grab onto the clothing of a Jew, and say: “We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
Zechariah 8:23, as quoted by Kakungulu in response to a Christian missionary.