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Ugandan rabbi calls for Jewish recognition

  • JTAUgandanRabbi
A Ugandan rabbi has called on Israel to recognise his community after Israel ruled against allowing its members to move to the Jewish state.
by JOSEFIN DOLSTEN | Jun 07, 2018

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu confirmed a report in Haaretz last week that the Israeli Interior Ministry had denied a community member's immigration application. The Interior Ministry, according to Sizomu, said the decision represented its stance on the Ugandan Jewish community, not just the applicant, Kibita Yosef.

Sizomu, who leads the community of about 2 000, urged Israel to give Ugandan Jews the same rights afforded to Jews worldwide.

"We as a Jewish community need to be treated like any other Jewish community in the Diaspora,” he told JTA from Kampala, where he serves as a member of the Ugandan Parliament.

Israel's Law of Return gives anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent, is married to a Jew or has converted to Judaism, the right to move there. Yosef, who is staying at a kibbutz in southern Israel, is the first Ugandan Jew to try to immigrate to Israel, according to Sizomu.

Sizomu emphasised that his community was not looking to emigrate to Israel en masse, and that the decision would not change its practices.

“We are not Jewish for purposes of immigration,” he said. “We are Jewish because that is who we are, and we will never change that, whether they recognise us or not.”

The Ugandan community, also called the Abayudaya, traces its roots to the early 20th century, when a former leader read the Bible and embraced Judaism. Most members were converted under the auspices of US Conservative rabbis in the early 2000s, and thus are not recognised as Jewish by Israel’s mostly Haredi Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

In 2016, the Jewish Agency for Israel recognised the community for the purposes of the Law of Return, seemingly opening a path for its members to emigrate to Israel. However, the Abayudaya have struggled to obtain government recognition to do so. In December, Israel denied a visa application by another member of the community to study at a yeshiva in Israel, leading to accusations of racism.

Today the community, which is based in the rural town of Mbale, has seven synagogues, including a large centre that opened in 2016, a mikvah, and two Jewish schools.

“We feel like we have an established Jewish community that deserves to be recognised by Israel,” Sizomu said.

Last Friday, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who leads the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, called the Israeli decision “unlawful”.

“This is completely inconsistent with more than two decades of Israeli practice of Conservative converts - who are, by the way, halachically converted to Judaism under our auspices - who had been recognised as Jewish for the purposes of the Law of Return,” she told JTA, using a phrase meaning that something was done in accordance with Jewish law, or halachah.

Schonfeld said that the movement and its allies were planning “to use all means at our disposal to see that this is reversed”.

Sizomu said that despite the latest decision, he remained hopeful about his community gaining status in Israel. In August, 40 young Ugandan Jews will travel to the Jewish state on a trip organised by Birthright, an organisation that provides free trips to Israel to young Jews around the world. It is the first time that Ugandan Jews will participate in such a trip.

(JTA)

2 Comments

  1. 2 alice goldman 09 Jun
    AGAIN,  Jewish authority who can and who can't be 'Jewish'.   These are wonderful people, i was privileged to meet Rabbi Sizomu when he was in SA in April 2013.  To deny them 'status' in Israel is a real 'shame' to these totally dedicated and sincere people, who for reasons of demographics have not had all that is available for their learning.  They do way  better than most.  However this is also a dig at Conservative Judaism....  from the one sided bigoted mainstream. 
  2. 1 COLIN JANTJIES 12 Jun
    It is very difficult not to call the Israeli desicion unjust and indeed prejudiced. Thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union were given cart blanche right to Israeli citizenship during the late eighties and nineties. Few questions were asked. Many were educated and had special skills. But the majority could not prove their Jewish status and nor were they circumcised. Yet they were allowed through. Compare this to the initial treatment given to the Yemeni and Ethiopian Jews and one certainly has no doubt that colour and not Jewish status played an important role.

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