Tag Archives: Uganda

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

Jews of the Week: Nathan, Benzion and Yoni Netanyahu

Nathan Mileikowsky (1879-1935) was born in what is now Belarus to an Orthodox Jewish family descended from the great Vilna Gaon. When he was ten, he joined the famous Volozhin yeshiva and after eight years of diligent study was ordained as a rabbi. During this time he became drawn to Zionism and soon dedicated his time to the Zionist cause. He traveled across Europe, Russia, and later the United States to raise support for Zionism – becoming one of the world’s most popular Zionist speakers – as well as to raise money for the Jewish National Fund. In 1920, Mileikowsky made aliyah to Israel. He headed a school in Rosh Pina, promoted settlement of the Galilee, and wrote articles for the Hebrew press – often under the pen name “Netanyahu”. He continued to tour globally, at one point giving over 700 lectures in under 9 months, and publishing some of these talks in a popular book. Towards the end of his life, Mileikowsky settled in Herzliya and established a farm.

Benzion Netanyahu

Benzion Netanyahu

His son, Benzion Mileikowsky (1910-2012), was born in Warsaw while Nathan was head of its Hebrew Gymnasium. Growing up in Israel, he adopted his father’s pen name “Netanyahu”. Benzion studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, taking on a more hard-line approach to Zionism. He became editor of a number of Zionist newspapers, and later the chief editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica. In 1940, Benzion moved to New York to build American support for the Jewish state, serving as executive director of an American Zionist group. Later on, he became a professor of Judaic studies and medieval history at Cornell University. Benzion published five books on Jewish history, and edited a number of others. His three sons are: Iddo, a doctor and author; Benjamin, Israel’s current prime minister; and Yoni, the eldest son.

Last known photograph of Yoni Netanyahu

Last known photograph of Yoni Netanyahu

Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu (1946-1976) was born in New York, went to high school in Pennsylvania, and studied at Harvard. He first enlisted in the IDF in 1964, and fought in the Six-Day War, getting wounded while rescuing a soldier behind enemy lines. A few years later, he joined Israel’s special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal, and by 1972 became its deputy commander. For his heroic service during the 1973 Yom Kippur War he was awarded a distinguished medal. In 1976, now commander of Sayeret Matkal, Yoni led Operation Entebbe, successfully rescuing over 100 Israeli hostages held in Uganda. Sadly, Yoni was the mission’s sole casualty, and passed away during the flight back home. In 1980, his personal letters were published, and were described as a “remarkable work of literature”. Both a film and play have recently been made about his life.

Words of the Week

God treats a person the same way they treat their children.
– Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin

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.