Conflict Between Brothers Splits Abayudaya Jewish Community in Uganda

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, right, reads the Torah during a Shabbat service among the Abayudaya Jewish community near Mbale, eastern Uganda, on Nov. 17, 2018. RNS photo by Tonny Onyulo

MBALE, Uganda (RNS) — During a recent Shabbat service here, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu led dozens of worshippers in a prayer for unity. Women sang psalms. Children clapped. Men wearing yarmulkes played drums and guitars.

Locally known as Abayudaya or “the people of Judah,” they practice Conservative Judaism with an African flair — and right now, need exactly that prayer. A conflict is splitting the community, which is almost a century old.

The conflict pits Sizomu’s supporters against his half brother, Joab Jonadab Keki.

Keki has even asked a Ugandan court to remove Sizomu as rabbi, accusing him of mismanagement. Sizomu and his supporters denied the allegations and filed a counterclaim.

Members of the congregation hope the community survives the growing divide.

“We have been praying for peace for everyone, and looking to the north where Israel is,” said Jacob Owani, 35, after the service. “We only have one spiritual leader. His name is Rabbi Sizomu. Anyone doing something (to him) is evil, only wanting to set up another system to be able to get away with corrupt deeds.”

Members of the Abayudaya Jewish community sit outside the Stern Synagogue near Mbale, eastern Uganda, on Nov. 17, 2018. RNS photo by Tonny Onyulo

Located in Mbale, around 150 miles northeast of Kampala, the Abayudaya community of 2,000 people dates from 1919, when the British tasked Semei Kakungulu with spreading Christianity in eastern Uganda. Instead, he favored the Hebrew Bible and founded a Jewish community. In the 1970s, the community dwindled to a few hundred members when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin outlawed it.

Keki, 59, has accused Sizomu, 49, of mismanagement of the Abayudaya community’s funds and properties, including its synagogue, health clinic, school, the rabbi’s house and another residence. Rather than managing those assets on behalf of the community or using them to support charitable causes, he’s enriched himself, Keki said.

“My brother is a thief and corrupt,” said Keki. “He has stolen the properties of the community and assigned them to himself and his children. He has taken the health center and some properties meant to benefit the community. We will not accept our properties to be stolen by an individual.”

A member of Parliament representing Bungokho North in the Mbale district, Sizomu dismissed the allegations. “He is not a good person,” Sizomu said. “He is a jealous brother.”

Be’chol Lashon, an American organization that raises awareness about and advocates for Jewish diversity, has worked with the Abayudaya since 2002. Be’chol Lashon strongly backs Sizomu and says that the community operates as an official Ugandan nongovernmental organization, which means it is regulated to prevent corruption.

Keki is struggling with personal problems, said Be’chol Lashon founder and director Diane Tobin, including envy of a new generation of leaders and family issues.

“This kind of lashon hara (the Hebrew term for “nasty gossip”) only hurts a community that is still struggling with issues of survival, including food shortages and infant mortality,” she wrote in an email.

The Abayudaya practiced what they considered to be Orthodox Judaism, but without consistent support from other Jewish communities, until the early 2000s, when Conservative rabbis from the United States arrived in the region and founded the Stern Synagogue, in the village of Nabugoye, where Sizomu is now presiding rabbi.

Having just completed his rabbinical studies at a Conservative seminary in Los Angeles, the Ziegler School, he began leading the community as a Conservative rabbi. He has spoken at Conservative synagogues in the United States, and this past summer, a young Abayudaya man worked at one of the movement’s summer camps, in New England.

The movement referred all questions about this story to its international arm, Masorti Olami, which declined to comment.

The Jewish Agency for Israel recognized the Abayudaya as Jews in 2016. But the Israeli government does not recognize them on the grounds that they didn’t convert under Orthodox rabbis. In June, Israel’s Interior Ministry denied the first and only request of a Ugandan Jew, Kibitz Yosef, to immigrate to Israel under the right of return, for example.

Uganda, in red, located in eastern Africa. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

A rivalry between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism has settled at the heart of the conflict between Sizomu and Keki. Women and men have the same ritual responsibilities and rights in the Conservative movement, which tries to blend modern life with adherence to Jewish law. In Orthodoxy, women have fewer religious obligations, and more people adhere more closely to traditional practice, such as the obligation to pray three times a day.

Sizomu’s cousin, Enosh Maniah, criticizes the shift toward the Conservative movement because Israel doesn’t recognize the movement’s rabbis, he said. Maniah and others, including Keki, left the Conservative faction and opted instead to affiliate with Orthodoxy. “I chose to be Orthodox because I want to be recognized by the state of Israel,” said Keki. “I believe that my country is Israel. Orthodoxy is recognized by Israel.”

(The state of Israel still might not recognize Keki’s factions as Jews for the purposes of immigration. The official rabbinate is increasingly strict about such matters and has opted not to recognize conversions from even some Orthodox rabbis, in addition to Conservative.)

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Source: Religion News Service