Beth El welcomes trailblazing Ugandan rabbinic student to virtual program
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MLK CommemorationA tale of firsts

Beth El welcomes trailblazing Ugandan rabbinic student to virtual program

“Some people wanted an Orthodox conversion but I’m glad it worked out the way it did because I am here now studying to become a rabbi."

Shoshana Nambi spoke at a special "First Mondays with Rabbi Alex" on Monday, Jan. 18. Screenshot by David Rullo
Shoshana Nambi spoke at a special "First Mondays with Rabbi Alex" on Monday, Jan. 18. Screenshot by David Rullo

Shoshana Nambi has found a second, virtual home in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.

Nambi, the first Ugandan female rabbinic student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is a member of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. She spoke virtually at Temple Emanuel of South Hills in November and appeared at a special “First Mondays with Rabbi Alex” program commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18 at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.

During the hour-long talk, the future rabbi told the story of the Abayudaya and its struggles, both for survival and legitimacy as a Jewish community. It was a tale familiar to many of the close to 100 Zoom attendees who heard Rabbi Gershom Sizomu recount the details of the Abayudaya and their conversion to Judaism when he visited Beth El in 2016.

The community was founded by Semei Kakungulu, a Ugandan statesman, in 1917, after studying a copy of the Old Testament, Nambi said. When Kakungulu died in 1928, the community almost fell apart as members fell away or converted to Christianity. It stabilized when Sizomu’s grandfather became one of its leaders.

After seizing power in a coup in 1971, Ugandan President Idi Amin outlawed most religions, including Judaism. Today, when the Abayudaya celebrate Passover, they mark their liberation not only from the Egyptian pharaoh but the brutal reign of Amin as well, Nambi said.

When a Brown University student studying in Kenya in the mid-’90s learned about the Abayudaya and contacted the Kulanu organization — whose mission is to support isolated, emerging and returning Jewish communities around the globe — their story began to be told in newspapers around the world.

In 2005, five rabbis from the Conservative and Reform movements organized a beit din and formally converted the community en masse.

“Some people wanted an Orthodox conversion but I’m glad it worked out the way it did because I am here now studying to become a rabbi and I don’t think that would be the case if it went the other way,” Nambi said.

She credited Sizomu with opening the community to the possibility of female leadership. Before he returned from his own ordination in America, women were not permitted to read from the Torah in the Abayudaya community. After Sizomu became a rabbi, he explained that he had been taught by female rabbis and encouraged women to read Hebrew and celebrate bat mitzvahs.

There are currently about 2,000 members of the Abayudaya community, Nambi said. Its religious leaders include Sizomu, a Conservative rabbi; an Orthodox rabbi; and a Jewish Renewal rabbinic student. Nambi is currently in her third year of study at the Reform movement’s New York campus and expects to graduate in 2023. She intends to go back to Uganda with her daughter after she is ordained.

Although the Abayudaya community has gained international recognition, it continues to maintain an uneasy relationship with Israel. In 2018, young people from the community embarked on an organized Birthright trip to the Jewish state. However, in the same year, Israel’s Interior Ministry refused to recognize a member of the Abayudaya community as Jewish for purpose of citizenship. The case is still in being considered by Israel’s High Court.

Nambi said that despite their struggles, the Abayudaya have found stability. She pointed to an annual conference hosted by the community each January and a music festival where Jewish people from different communities come together.

“It’s such a beautiful celebration of different cultures within the Jewish community itself,” she said.

Bernice Natelson, who organized the Beth El talk along with Sharon Moskowitz, thought Nambi would be a good fit for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day program.

“Especially as the mother of daughters, I was so inspired by Shoshana’s life story, and I realized I would be hard-pressed to find a more meaningful event to hold on MLK Day,” Natelson said.

Beth El’s support for the Abayudaya community goes back to 2004, according to past president Cliff Spungen. After learning about the community, the synagogue began raising money to assist with their needs, mostly through Kulanu.

In 2015, Spungen learned that the community needed a Torah and arranged for Beth El to donate one of theirs. They were able to deliver it in person in 2016 when Sizomu came to Pittsburgh as part of Torah Weekend, a joint program between Beth El and Temple Emanuel.

In 2017 Spungen spoke with Sizomu and learned of hardships in the community.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu holds a Torah donated by Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. Photo provided by Cliff Spungen.

“He told me that things were not good, that there was a famine and people were dying,” Spungen said. “I brought this up at our annual meeting. We began a fundraising campaign that reached across the country with Temple Emanuel helping us. We contacted people from all over the country and raised over $10,000.”

Spungen thinks it’s important that older, more established Jewish communities help emerging and returning Jewish communities.
“We have a very mature Jewish community,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve grown in a country that has been open to Judaism. We received help when we were getting started and it’s important for us to give help to other folks. We take our religion for granted. These are folks that are seeing it as something new and exciting. And, you know, that offers something to us, too, doesn’t it?” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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