Sibling rivalry splits apart Uganda's Jewish community

UGA181117TO012MBALE, Uganda – 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. Existing for almost a century, a conflict is now splitting the community, pitting Sizomu’s supporters against his half-brother, Joab Jonadab Keki, who is Orthodox, in a fight that centers on Israel.

Members of the congregation say they 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.”

Keki, 59, has accused Rabbi 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 says.

“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.”

Located in Mbale, around 150 miles northeast of Kampala, the Abayudaya community of 2,000 people date from 1919, when the British tasked Semei Kakungulu with spreading Christianity in east 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.

The Jewish Agency for Israel recognized the Abayudaya in 2016. But the Israeli government does not recognize them on the grounds that they didn’t convert under Orthodox rabbis. In June, Israeli'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.

The conversion issue is at the heart of the conflict between Sizomu and Keki.

The Abayudaya practiced what they considered to be modern Orthodox Judaism 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 Hebrew Union College in New York City, he began stepping up the pace of conversions from Orthodoxy to Conservatism.

But Sizomu’s cousin, Enosh Maniah, disputed the conversions, saying Israel did not recognize them. Maniah and others, including Keki, left the Conservative faction and opted instead to remain in 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.”

Today, Conservative Jews mostly live in Nabugoye.

The Orthodox community of around 350 people live in the nearby village of Putti, where they have hung Israeli flags from from their grass-thatched houses.

Most Putti residents are farmers who grow watermelons, onions, peppers and tomatoes. Nabugoye is a wealthier town, with a hospital, schools and other services that Putti lacks.

In recent years, as Israel recognition has become more important among some in the community, Keki has successfully converted a handful of Ugandan Jews back to Orthodoxy, angering Sizomu. “He wanted to convert everybody here to Orthodoxy,” said Sizomu. When I refused to allow him to do so, we became enemies. He has been going around telling lies to everyone he meets about me and the community.”

In Uganda, religious leaders celebrate when they gain more followers while those who are rejected lose face, said observers.

“If a person from other religion converts to become either Orthodox or Conservative then there’s always celebration,” said Rev. Rueben Mukasa, a Pentecostal pastor of the Assemblies of God who knows many Abayudaya. “Money and gifts are given to the person who has converted from being Conservative to Orthodox and vice versa. It’s all about who converts more people than the other.”

Recently, the conflict has escalated beyond matters of faith and identity, however.

Keki, who is the chair of the Council of Elders of the Jewish Community in Uganda, said Sizomu has pocketed funds sent to Uganda from Jews abroad, including the New York-based nonprofit Kulanu, which supports Jewish communities around the globe.

“We want to tell him to put religion aside and account for funds he has received from donors,” said Danielm Adeke, 58, a Keki follower. “We want him to resign as rabbi.”

Sizomu rejected those claims, saying Keki and his followers want a piece of the approximately $50,000 they receive annually through the Abayudaya Congregation, a non-governmental organization the two brothers founded before they split up. They foundation receives donations but now only services the Conservative community.

“We account for money we receive from donors to help our children go to school and also do some developments in the community,” said Rabin Were, who chairs the Abayudaya Congregation’s executive committee. “I don’t know why (Keki) is complaining – we have all the information available for him to see. He wanted to be among the signatories [executive committee members] but he was not elected. That’s where the problem started.”

Furthermore, said Sizomu, Keki mistakes his relatively good salary as a parliamentarian for money accrued by taking his community’s wealth. In fact, he added, he gives money to the community. “I use all my money to support the community and educate poor people,” Sizomu said. “I have even used my money to educate Joab’s children.”

Even so, critics point to the health clinic, as an example of malfeasance: It was built on Sizomu’s land with community funds. Sizomu had promised to transfer the land to the community, but has yet to do so, according to Ministry of Land records.

Sizomu’s retention of the land proves he’s absconding with community funds, said Keki.

But Sizomu said he planned to give the health clinic property to the community, but not under pressure, he said. “The land belongs to me and I’m willing to give it,” he said.

Sizomu also noted that the community purchased another nearby plot of land with the intention of giving him that land in return for the health clinic property. But that transfer has yet to happen.

Instead, Sizomu accuse his brother of greed, saying Keki and his followers are simply seeking money because they’re poorer than their Conservative peers.

“My brother and his followers are misguided by the appetite for money,” he said.

Meanwhile, Keki has filed an application in court to have the community’s election nullified and remove Sizomu as rabbi, saying Sizomu has operated the health clinic, school and other amenities so they cater to Conservatives rather than Orthodox Jews, who maintain stricter habits in following Jewish traditions.

“They [Keki and others] feel they are not part of the Abayudaya community and the rabbi [Sizomu] is controlling everything at the top,” said Kadambi Adudu, an official who represents the Ministry of Local Government in the region, explaining the conflict. “Keki wants to take the properties of the community. When his brother refuses, he accuses him of wanting to grab the properties. We have never received any complaints from anybody apart from Keki.”

Conservative community members that congregate every Saturday in Nabugoye to pray accused Keki of trying to divide the Abayudaya. They support Sizomu as their rabbi, they said. Anyone fighting him, they felt, was evil.

“He [Keki] is a mad person,” said Yekolamu Kasakya, 78, an elder of the community. “Joab does not respect anybody – He is very disrespectful. He does not have money. That is why he is fighting for the community’s properties."

Besides, he added, "We can’t have two leaders at the same time.”

Photo: A Jewish Ugandan woman carries Torah scrolls during a service the the Stern Synagogue in Nabagoye, Uganda, on Nov. 17, 2018.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ARA Network Inc. (11/17/18)

Photo/story publish date: 01/31/19

Two versions of this story were published in Forward and the Religion News Service.
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