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Jews' faith journey leads from Uganda to L.A. and back
Leader of small sect and his family prepare to give up life on Bel-Air campus to return to their village of mud huts. It's a lesson about blessings, spiritual fortitude and an obligation to the Torah.
by Sandy Banks
Los Angeles Times
The music was distinctly African, driven by pulsing drums and lively melodies.
But the lyrics were in Hebrew, sung by a diminutive rabbi with coal-black skin and a yarmulke as colorful as its history.
The high-spirited conga-line sashaying through Shomrei Torah Synagogue included dozens of Jews who had been teary-eyed moments before, but were now smiling and singing at the rabbi's cue.
For the congregants of the West Hills temple, the Sunday morning service was a celebration with an unlikely genesis in an African village 10,000 miles away -- a send-off for Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, ordained last month as the leader of Uganda's tiny band of Jews.
For me, it was one of those crazy-quilt, only-in-Los-Angeles moments that transcends color, culture and religion, and speaks volumes about faith and family.
The history of the Ugandan Jews is as unconventional as that Sunday scene.
A century ago, Christian missionaries trying to convert a tribal leader left Bibles for Mbale villagers. But it was the ritual of the Old Testament books that stuck, spawning the Abayudaya -- or People of Judah -- a tribe that reordered its lives around Torah teachings.
Sizomu's grandfather, then father, became its spiritual leaders. Villagers built a mud-brick synagogue and adorned it with a menorah and Star of David.
They circumcised their sons, studied donated holy books and learned snatches of Hebrew from passing travelers.
In the 1970s, the tribe dwindled to a few hundred, as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin destroyed the synagogue and outlawed Jewish rituals.
When Amin was overthrown, Sizomu made it his mission to rebuild the Abayudaya and connect the village to the international Jewish community.
He brought his wife and children to Los Angeles in 2003, with a scholarship for a five-year course at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. On May 19, he became the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa.
For a family who had never lived outside of rural tribal lands, the Sizomus' new life here was startling.
In Mbale, most villagers live in mud-brick homes with no electricity or running water. Here, the Sizomus lived on the American Jewish University campus in Bel-Air, surrounded by unimaginable affluence.
They relied on San Fernando Valley families to help them navigate: They had never made a doctor's appointment, shopped in a supermarket or braved a school carpool line. That relationship spawned a connection that went beyond religious bounds.
Blessings flowed both ways said Richard Camras, rabbi at Shomrei Torah, where Sizomu interned and built his religious foundation.
"To watch them see these things as a miracle -- flipping a switch for light, turning a knob for water -- was to know how blessed we are," Camras told me. "The way they live in Africa, their challenge was to face each day with joy.
"Their spiritual presence was a gift, that helped us feel a greater connection to our Jewish roots."
It's easy as an outsider like me to fall back on a grab bag of stereotypes about Jewish identity -- it's bagels and New York accents and outsized bar mitzvah celebrations that rival fancy Hollywood parties.
But what I felt at Shomrei Torah was awe at the spiritual fortitude of those Africans who -- living in isolation, enduring near-annihilation, with no ready connection to the Jewish diaspora -- cast their lot with the Jews and held on.
"It will be very difficult to live our lives again in Uganda. . . . We will miss warm showers, washing machines and supermarkets," Sizomu said Sunday.
"But the obligation to take back Torah is overwhelming. . . . You taught us that God's divinity works through the hands of human beings."
And the Sizomu family taught their hosts about faith, gratitude and commitment.
Kadima Hebrew Academy head Barbara Gereboff recalled young Dafnah Sizomu's first day at school, when the 7-year-old girl looked wondrously at the packs of school supplies laid out for students and asked, disbelieving: "Is there one for each of us?"
"She taught us about sharing and caring," Gereboff said. I looked over at Dafnah, now 12, beaming among a clutch of middle-school girls as they giggled and passed her baby sister Naavah among them
For her older brother, Igaal, the transition was harder as he struggled toward manhood in a place so totally foreign. "There were skirmishes on the playground," Gereboff acknowledged.
"But he taught us about pride, to smile away your fears. Igaal was always smiling," Gereboff said.
And I look at Igaal, now a strapping 14-year-old in baggy jeans and sneakers. He is not smiling.
I wonder how hard it must be to leave your friends, with their video games, backyard barbecues and swimming pools, and head back to mud huts and fetching water in buckets.
Not as hard as following the calling of Abayudaya, I learned.
At his bar mitzvah last year, Igaal declared his intention to become a rabbi, and follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather in Uganda.
I don't know if that's the draw of family or faith. But I leave a Christian, buoyed by the testimony of its power.
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