Ugandan rabbi speaks in Foster City

Less than two hours after stepping off the last plane on a series of flights from Uganda, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu stood ready to acquaint the West with the budding Jewish community in his home country — or at least the 40 or so people who came to the Peninsula Jewish Community Center to hear him speak.

For the third-generation rabbi, the center in Foster City was the first stop on a monthlong U.S. tour organized by San Francisco-based nonprofit Be’chol Lashon. Hebrew for “In Every Tongue,” the organization aims to foster growth and overcome barriers in Jewish communities around the world.

“(I’m) introducing myself,” Sizomu said before his Thursday night lecture. “We need the support of our brothers and sisters elsewhere.”

The Abayudaya Jewish community in eastern Uganda holds about 1,000 Jewish members, representing the minority religion in a country predominantly made up of Christians and Muslims. Judaism was first established in the county in 1919 after Semei Kakungulu, Abayudaya’s founder, studied from the Old Testament and decided Judaism was the correct faith.

During the Idi Amin regime in the 1970s, however, it became illegal for Ugandans to practice Judaism, and Sizomu’s father was arrested and his life threatened. Luckily for his family, Sizomu explained Thursday, the arresting officer was willing to take five goats in exchange for his father’s freedom.

“We gave a bribe and he survived,” Sizomu said.

Today, in addition to bolstering the religious practice and attracting new followers, Sizomu and Be’chol Lashon are working on building up the community as a whole — with public health being a major concern.

They’ve drilled wells for clean water, distributed mosquito nets and constructed a hospital. Danielle Meshorer, international director for Be’chol Lashon, said malaria and other diseases are common in Uganda, but noted they’ve seen progress with the steps they’ve made.

“With (clean) water and mosquito nets, a lot can happen,” Meshorer said. However, the hospital they’ve built still lacks basic diagnostic devices such as X-ray machines and ultrasounds, Sizomu noted in his lecture, and part of Sizomu’s tour will involve raising money for the hospital, which serves Christians and Muslims in the community in addition to Jews.

If a Jew from the United States were to travel to the Abayudaya community in Uganda, he or she might be surprised to find a synagogue with a grass-thatched roof, but Sizomu said the belief system of Judaism is universal, the same holidays are observed and the same songs are sung. At the end of his lecture, the rabbi pulled out a guitar and recited songs in Hebrew that audience members recognized. “My son sings the same songs at camp,” said San Mateo resident Stacey Horowitz.

“It’s really powerful to know that there are people on the other side of the (world) that are of the same faith,” said Foster City resident Lee Correy.