Slightly Problematic

From the Forward:

Nabugoye Hill, Uganda – Atop Nabugoye Hill, I joined 1,500 sojourners in the flower-filled green of Eastern Uganda, among banana plantations, maize fields, mango trees and drooping jackfruit.

The crowd was there, overlooking the Mount Elgon foothills, to witness the installation ceremony of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who, serenaded by drum and dance ensembles, took his place as the first sub-Saharan African rabbi of the Abayudaya (Lugandan for “Children of Judah”) and chief rabbi of Uganda.

Joined by his wife Tzipporah, and their three children, Igaal, Daphna and Navah, Sizomu spent the past five years in the United States as a student at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, where he trained to become a Conservative rabbi. Following his ordination this past May in the United States, Sizomu returned home to Nabugoye Hill to serve the 89-year-old Abayudaya community, founded in 1919 by Semei Kakungulu, a local military leader and renowned elephant hunter.

Many Abayudaya members said they are confident that having an “official” rabbi will help them gain greater acceptance by the global Jewish community. Among them is Moses Sebagabo, born and raised on Nabugoye Hill. Sebagabo described Sizomu’s installation as a “unifying moment” offering “new potential to grow and learn.” Sebagabo is married with two children and holds a law degree, but he dreams of someday becoming a rabbi.

I could be wrong here, but I think that in this case, “official” means “Western” in addition to being trained and ordained. The Abayudaya has been a Jewish community since before the 1920s, and its members were officially converted in 2002. It’s telling that “acceptance by the global Jewish community” is still an issue. I’m sure part of it is just the usual moving goalposts of what qualifies as “Jewish enough” (an annoyance with which I’m all too familiar), but I think there’s some racism there, too.

Still, though, mazel tov.

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3 Responses

  1. I don’t doubt that this is racial, but I think it also has to do with them adhering to exclusively what the Orthodox define as officially Jewish, which may very well include racial elements but isn’t necessarily limited to just that.

  2. I would disagree with a few points here: Rabbi Sizomu went to UJ which is conservative, so this isn’t about what the orthodox define as officially Jewish at all. In fact, orthodox judaism will recognize neither their conversions not their rabbi because they are all under the auspices of the conservative movement. yay jewish political fighting.

    also, with regards to official=western, as a community founded by jews by choice, they had no homegrown rabbis, and as rabbinic ordination is passed from one rabbi to another, they would have needed to send a leader to study in some longer-established jewish community. that he studied in the US was likely related to the fact that several conservative rabbis have built up a relationship with the abayudaya community so that who they knew.
    sure, that western ashkenazi jews had the resources to send rabbis on international trips to build that connection is due to financial privelege, but if people are using it in a good way, why taint this moment? i frankly don’t see the racism. it’s not like we said their rabbis weren’t good enough without western approval, they simply are a young community that never had any.

  3. Fair enough – I ought to restrain myself from making hasty judgments. It’s been the hardest thing to learn, but thanks for setting me straight on that.

    I also should’ve figured that the Orthodox wouldn’t recognize – I was about to say I hope this doesn’t cause problems for them, their first rabbi being ordained at UJ, but I should’ve known that for some people, monopolizing interpretation of halakhah is primary.

    Your input is appreciated and I should’ve read more closely!

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