Tag Archives: Jewish Agency

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.”

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Words of the Week

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

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Zecharia Barashi

World’s Oldest Jew

Rabbi Barashi (Credit: Lazar Berman)

Zecharia Barashi (1900-2017) was born in Kurdistan, the last of ten children in an observant Jewish family. His father was a rabbi who traveled from village to village, serving the needs of small Jewish communities in Iraq. Unfortunately, this job did not come with a salary, and the poor family made a meager living by sowing clothes and selling nuts and dates. Several years of harsh poverty, disease, and the difficulties of the First World War left six of the ten children dead. Barashi himself nearly died when he was 11 years old. He would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a rabbi as well. Inspired by Zionism, Barashi struggled to move the family to Israel. In 1936, he finally got a chance by working as a Hebrew interpreter for the Jewish Agency. After a long and arduous journey, the family settled in Jerusalem. Throughout World War II and Israel’s ensuing War of Independence, Barashi supported the war effort by digging trenches, and paving roads and runways. In 1950, the Jews of Iraq and Kurdistan made a mass aliyah to Israel, and Barashi soon became their spiritual leader. He would go on to earn the esteemed title of Chacham, “Sage”. He also published four important books on Judaism. He was in the midst of writing his fifth book when, at the age of 111, his eyesight became too poor. Deeply respected as one of Israel’s greatest rabbis, Barashi was known for his incredible memory, humility, and great sense of humour. Sadly, he passed away earlier this week. Until that moment, he was the world’s oldest living Jew. He was also Israel’s oldest living resident, having spent over 80 years in Jerusalem. Although he outlived two of his own children and his beloved wife, he is survived by five more children, 29 grandchildren, 72 great-grandchildren, and 24 great-great-grandchildren. His advice for a long life: “Always be happy, never jealous. Stay active. And never overeat, always leave the table a little hungry.”

Words of the Week

“My brain is the key that sets my mind free.”
Harry Houdini

Rabbi Barashi with Shimon Peres (Credit: Mark Neyman/Flash90)