Dedicated Ugandan rabbi gives us hope, inspiration
Parshat Vayetzei, Genesis 25:19-28:9
Can you imagine, if, in order to make a meal, you had to walk four miles round trip to get the water, another couple of miles to collect the firewood, harvest your crops for the meal, make a fire and then cook your food over an open fire? There are Jews in Uganda who do this every day. They begin preparing six hours before they begin eating.
We in the South Hills were privileged to meet and hear Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the leader of the Abayudaya (literally the people of Judah) of Uganda. Sitting in my comfortable house the day after he left, enjoying my cup of tea after luxuriating in my warm shower and indoor plumbing, I was acutely aware of two things; how very fortunate we are and the changes one person can make in the lives of many.
In our Torah portion, Vayetzei, we read that Jacob meets his beloved Rachel at the well. He uses his great strength to lift off the rock that covers that well, allowing her and all those around it to drink and to water their animals. Studying, I was struck by the connection with Rabbi Sizomu, a man who was able to bring about the funding to have five wells dug in Uganda, one in his village and four in surrounding villages.
The Jewish community in Uganda began in 1919 when its founder, Semei Kakungulu, read the Bible that the Christian missionaries gave him and ripped it in half. The first part, our Tanakh spoke to him. The rest, he gave back to the missionaries. So began the Abayudaya — our brothers and sisters in Uganda.
Gershom Sizomu was born into this people, not only in a third world nation, but also in a time of great persecution. The infamous dictator Idi Amin ruled his country until Gershom was 9, forcing his family to practice Judaism, their outlawed chosen faith, in their bedroom.
When the Israelites came and rescued the hostages in Entebbe, Gershom’s belief in God magnified. If the God of the Jews could free the hostages, then this same God could free his people from the cruel dictatorship and oppression under which they lived. He told his parents that he wanted to become a rabbi, to teach and to lead, to aid his people. From that moment on, everyone called him Rabbi Sizomu.
Through the assistance of an agency called Be’chol Lashon, an organization which advocates for the growth and diversity of the Jewish people, Rabbi Sizomu was blessed to attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinics in Los Angeles (coincidentally, the same Conservative rabbinical school at which I began my rabbinical studies less than 10 years earlier).
Rabbi Sizomu, his wife and two children spent five years in Los Angeles. During that time, three of their family members died of malaria in Uganda.
After ordination, it was time to return to Uganda. Jokingly, his wife told him the only way she would return was with a dishwasher. Of course, it wouldn’t have accomplished much, because there was no well in their town.
Rabbi Sizomu and his family returned, and he began teaching eight students to serve his community with him in the five synagogues of his people. The Jewish community outside of Uganda began to hear about this man and wanted to hear more of his journey and of his community. He was invited to speak throughout the United States.
Rabbi Sizomu inspired so many that his community was able to build five wells. They built a hospital for the people. Tens of thousands of mosquito nets were purchased. In the true sense of tikkun olam (improving the world), the Abayudaya community shared these nets with their Christian and Muslim neighbors. They too draw water from the well. They and their children too are treated in the hospital. Not one person in their community has died of malaria since the hospital has been operational.
Let us allow Rabbi Sizomu to inspire us. Throughout time, our ancestors, our people have shown us we can make a difference. Joining a long line of individuals who have seen the need for change, Rabbi Sizomu is one who has forged ahead. He was able to bring water, a hospital and two schools to his people. In addition, he secured a Parliament seat as a member of the opposition, all with almost nonexistent resources and a corrupt government.
When we look around our country and see the changes we need to make, it is easy to become discouraged, to think we are each only one person and our people only one community. Referencing this week’s parasha, let us look to our ancestors, Jacob, Leah and Rachel and our fellow brother from Uganda, Rabbi Sizomu, to see how we can make a difference. Who among us sees injustices that need to be righted, changes within our communities that need to be made, water that needs to be brought to the people? Who among us will lift that rock? Who will be next?
Rabbi Amy Greenbaum is the associate rabbi of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.