World traveler fills void in Uganda

Retired instructor teaches Hebrew

RANCHO BERNARDO – She’s 85 and had such a painful back some years ago that walking for more than two minutes left her gasping.

But recently, she flew more than 9,000 miles to a remote village in Uganda to teach Hebrew to a small group of Jewish students.

Lynne Elson of Rancho Bernardo set out for about two weeks in early July to visit Nabugoye in eastern Uganda, home to about 700 Abayudaya Jews.

Toting a suitcase full of school supplies and 16 copies of “The Hebrew Primer,” she arrived to volunteer in the primary school and teach Hebrew to five adult male students.

“I really felt like I was one of the family and pulled in with love and warmth,” Elson said.

The Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda began in 1919 when a military leader formerly loyal to the British split from a nearby Christian group. Abayudaya means “people of Judah” in Luganda, a major language in Uganda.

Over the decades, the group developed in isolation and became strictly observant. Its isolation helped members survive the regime of Idi Amin, Uganda’s former president who banned Jewish rituals during the 1970s.

Elson learned of the Abayudaya in a lecture at a local synagogue in 2004.

She traveled to the town for two weeks in January 2006 through Kulanu, a group that organizes trips to isolated Jewish communities.

Nabugoye sits on a hill that Elson estimates rises more than 4,000 feet from the valley town where she stayed in a hotel. Most of the homes are made of mud and roofed with corrugated metal. Running water arrived only recently.

The community receives about 15 volunteers a year, though some stay for several months, said Israel Siriri, the community chairman. Volunteers teach Hebrew or lend their experience with medicine, sanitation or water supplies.

Elson spent mornings at Hadassa Primary School, where she unloaded a suitcase stuffed with colored pencils, crayons and paper that members of her synagogue in Poway helped contribute.

In the afternoons, Elson taught five adults the Hebrew alphabet so that they one day could read the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. With flash cards and the 16 lessons from the Hebrew primer, she taught them to read and write the language.

Elson has traveled to every continent. The walls of her two-bedroom house serve as an autobiographical map filled with treasures: Vietnamese mother-of-pearl artwork and a Chinese painting of an ancient synagogue, for instance.

She grew up in Chicago. She met her future husband, Bob, when she was 16.

After stints that took them from Ohio to Israel, the Elsons eventually settled in the Bay Area. Elson juggled raising three daughters and a son with studying for her teaching certificate. After years of teaching Hebrew and piano to her children, Elson ventured into public schools as a grade school teacher and reading specialist.

Upon their retirement in 1983, the Elsons sold their house and set off on a yearlong road trip through Europe. A six-month tour of Asia and Oceania soon followed. Bob died in 1988, shortly after the couple settled in Rancho Bernardo.

Traveling, Elson said, allows her to escape her everyday calendar obligations. It’s relaxing, she said, and is never scary.

“I can’t let that hobble me. Fear? Nuh-uh.”

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