Reaching Around the World
“Selfless, committed, intelligent, gifted.”
These are just some of the words Jill Edwards uses to describe Gershom Sizomu, the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa to be ordained at an American rabbinical school. Gershom, the spiritual leader of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, is a man with big vision and an even bigger heart, and he will be participating in a full weekend of services at Temple Bat Yahm today through Sunday.
“He has a remarkable story,” said Bill Shane, executive director of Temple Bat Yahm. “Connecting with him has given great opportunities to help make a difference in another part of the world, to reach beyond our own small boundaries and fulfill the commandment of making this world a better place.”
The Abayudaya, whose tribal name means “people of Judah,” trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century. They were persecuted during the Idi Amin regime, when it was illegal to openly practice the Jewish faith in Uganda. After Amin’s oppressive reign ended in 1979, Sizomu gathered what was left of the Abayudaya community while serving as a youth leader. Today the Abayudaya are a growing community of more than 1,500 Jews living among 10,000 Christian and Muslim neighbors in scattered villages in Eastern Uganda.
Jill and Steve Edwards and their sons, Asher and Ben, have volunteered with the Abayudaya community in Uganda and are hosting Gershom’s visit to Temple Bat Yahm. They are excited about the opportunity for people to meet such a gifted and charismatic man and to learn ways people here can profoundly affect, and even save, others’ lives so very far away.
“In 2003, my husband, Steve, read an article in the newspaper about a movie made about rabbis who had gone to the Abayudaya community to do a conversion,” Jill explained, “He thought that was really interesting and he invited the filmmaker to come show the film at our temple. It turned out to be the same year Gershom started at the Rabbinic School in L.A. Gershom came, too, and we had an instant connection to him and his family. It was a big surprise to learn that there were Jews in Uganda. Gershom introduced us to Be’chol Lashon.”
Be’chol Lashon, is a Jewish nonprofit organization based in San Francisco which educates, strengthens and connects diverse Jewish communities around the world. Be’chol Lashon, which means “In Every Tongue,” promotes acceptance of the diversity of the Jewish population. They awarded a fellowship for Gershom to attend the five-year Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies program at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) in Los Angeles.
Gershom was ordained in 2008 and returned to Uganda to lead his Jewish community. With the support of Be’chol Lashon, the Abayudaya founded a high school, drilled clean water wells, distributed mosquito nets, and built the Tobin Health Center, which benefits Ugandans without regard to religion.
Gershom’s U.S. speaking tour is part of a broad effort by Be’chol Lashon to support innovation in emerging Jewish communities in the United States and around the world.
“When our boys went to Uganda in 2004 there was no running water or electricity,” Jill said. “It was a great adventure for them, but it was also very humbling to see a community living and surviving with next to nothing, but who were so very welcoming.
“Steve and I have both been there twice, and we also find it humbling to see people who are so spiritual and so joyful; they get so much out of being Jewish and have so much respect for the religion. We were so impressed that they shared what they had with their Christian and Muslim neighbors.”
For example, Jill explained that her sons came home from their trip intent on raising money for desperately needed mosquito nets. They raised enough to buy nets for the entire Abayudaya community, with a 50 percent reserve to replace them when needed. Gershom ended up giving them all away, pointing out that their Christian and Muslim neighbors needed them.
“Gershom says, ‘If I have it, I share it,’” Jill added. “As a result there has been a huge reduction in deaths there due to malaria.”
“What we can contribute as a community here has an amazing impact on the human scale,” Jill continued. “Our biggest goal is to help the Abayudaya community develop businesses through microloans. If a group of people here raised $5,000, they could start a microloan business there and employ 3-10 people. A little really goes a long way there. Change happens slowly, but it can happen – we’ve seen it.”