Rabbi Gershom Sizomu Visits the Lemba in South Africa

In the fall of 2008 and 2009, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, spiritual leader of Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community, was an invited guest at the Lemba Cultural Association Conference in Lempopo, South Africa. In an interview conducted during the author’s visit to the Abayudaya community in January, Rabbi Sizomu described his enthusiastic and heartfelt welcome by the South African Lemba leadership and conference attendees and the community’s ties to Judaism.

There was singing, ululations and shofar blowing. I had not expected such a response. A large Jewish community felt forced to live underground.

Rabbi Sizomu, How would you describe the Lemba’s relationship to Judaism today?

While the majority of the South African Lemba practice Christianity, the community has always celebrated its Jewish roots. Today, many of them are curious and appear interested in exploring their heritage. In 2008, the American-based organization Bechol Lashon donated siddurim (prayer books) and kippot (skull caps) with the intention of showing conference attendees how to wear the tallit (prayer shawl) and to demonstrate the appropriate prayers. Once there, however, conference organizers decided that my colleague Rabbi Joshua Salter and I should present them as gifts to the leadership. Each one was called to the podium by name and recognized. As each leader walked across the stage, we blessed him and presented him with the symbols of Judaism. The response was deafening. There was singing, ululations and shofar (ram’s horn) blowing. I had not expected such a response. They were so excited.

In 2009, it was the same story, only this time the number of attendees had jumped from 1000 to 1500. In addition, Rabbi Salter and I were asked to conduct a Sabbath service, which took one and a half hours, in contrast to the half hour presentation of the previous year. The conference was only one day and lunch was served from 2-4, so the time allotted to the service was significant.

Do you think the increase in numbers was because of your prominent role in the program?

I don’t know. But it was clear that there was more activity this fall. In addition, conference organizers had invited the Premier (governor) of the Lemba province and two ministers from the South African government, who read a message from President Zuma. The governor addressed the rabbis present first. It was obvious the officials hold rabbis in high esteem. Then, in another surprise, the provincial governor revealed his own Lemba background, which took great courage. During the service, we wrapped the governor in a prayer shawl. The response to the whole service was joyous. Again, people danced, ululated and blew the shofar. We conducted the service in Hebrew. My experiences there made me feel honored and optimistic about the Lemba’s Jewish future.

What do you think the next step might be for reaching out to the Lemba?

The community needs Jewish programming on a regular basis. They need visiting teachers and rabbis. They need a community center. And they certainly would benefit if a member of the Lemba community could visit and see how the Jewish community functions. But it must be the result of a spiritual calling, not simply a fact-finding mission.

Do you want to attend the fall 2010 conference?

Yes, I would very much like to do that. The leaders are now my friends and I feel very affectionate toward them. I also see an important spiritual journey here. God’s goal for us is to help others be what they want to be. Perhaps my relationship with the Lemba should be seen in that light.