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February 24, 2010

Teens build bridges, from So Cal to Uganda

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/teens_build_bridges_from_so_cal_to_uganda_20100224

AYA convention participants engage in a discussion about what it means to be a leader.  Photo by David Weingarten.

AYA convention participants engage in a discussion about what it means to be a leader. Photo by David Weingarten.

Tefillah, sports, study sessions and even a dance — the four-day youth convention on Nabugoye Hill in late January was almost like a typical United Synagogue Youth (USY) convention, according to the three Southland USYers who traveled to Uganda to help run the event.

But there were a few major differences. Instead of staying in a cushy hotel, the nearly 200 African Jewish teens who attended slept on mats in the local school building. Rather than in a synagogue social hall, study groups took place in outdoor tents. Most importantly, while members of USY (the Conservative movement’s North American teenage youth group) enjoy an established and far-flung social network, many of the Ugandan kids who ventured to this inaugural gathering were meeting one another for the first time.

And oh, yeah, the USYers pointed out — there was goat.

Overall, the first-ever Abayudaya Youth Association (AYA) convention was a success, USYers David Weingarten, Elyse Weissberger and Jason Schreiber told congregants of Shomrei Torah Synagogue at a presentation on Feb. 9. The West Hills synagogue, with aid from congregations across Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, helped foot the bill for the Ugandan gathering, held at the center of the country’s flourishing Abayudaya Jewish community.

“[The Ugandan youths] were very passionate and happy to be able to get together in a big group like that,” said Weingarten, 18, a senior at New Community Jewish High School and vice president on the board of USY’s Far West Region. “They felt that if they could unite, they could create a stronger movement. They don’t have all the same material things we do, but they practice Judaism with so much love and devotion — it was really cool to see.”

The bond between Far West USY (FWUSY) and the Abayudaya youth started last May, when Weingarten, then president of Shomrei Torah’s USY chapter, worked with Ugandan Rabbi Gershom Sizomu to bring three Abayudaya teens to Los Angeles to attend a regional USY convention. Sizomu’s son, Igaal, and two other teens were so impressed with the spirit of USY that they took their newfound leadership skills back to their rural village and began to envision a youth network of their own.

Sizomu, who made headlines in 2008 when he was ordained by American Jewish University (AJU) as the first black rabbi from sub-Saharan Africa, praised the three SoCal USYers for their help supporting the fledgling Abayudaya youth movement.

“The youth are the future of this community, and the future is so bright,” said Sizomu, who interned at Shomrei Torah while completing his studies at AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. The USYers’ involvement has helped “reactivate” the Abayudaya youth, he said, calling their visit “a gift.”

Their presence may have been a gift for local teens, but for the USYers themselves, it was more like an adventure. Over four days, they made friends with Jewish young adults from Uganda and Kenya, took part in study sessions, went on hikes and held a soccer tournament (in which the USYers, Schreiber admitted, were sorely out-performed by their Ugandan peers).

On Saturday morning, the USYers and the AYAers read Torah together, and at night AYA members led Havdalah services before hosting a typical, USY-style dance, complete with a local DJ. On Sunday, the teens met for candid discussions of practical issues such as community leadership, drug use, HIV/AIDS awareness and intermarriage, as well as the role of religion in motivating young people.

In ordre to hold group sessions out of the heat, participants brought tents up to Nabugoye Hill from the town below. The USYers ate with the Abayudaya kids, sharing the native fare of rice, beans, vegetables and plantains. Part of the budget the USYers donated covered the cost of a luxury for the local population, Weingarten said — meat from two goats and two cows.

Far West USYer Elyse Weissberger hands out Los Angeles Dodgers baseball gloves to the Abayudaya youth. Photo by David Weingarten.

On the last day of the convention, the USYers gave out honorary memberships to all the AYA youth. Igaal Sizomu, 16, told Shomrei Torah members he was thankful for their visit. “It meant so much to the youth there … so much,” he said.

To FWUSY board member Weissberger, 17, it was just the natural next step in a partnership meant to show the Abayudaya community that they are not alone, but rather are connected to the larger Jewish people.

“They have so much passion for Judaism, but they don’t get the same opportunities we do,” she said. “It’s important to give them the same tools so they can become stronger as a people.”

One tool the Far West Jewish community has been able to share with the Abayudaya is its strong fundraising infrastructure. To finance bringing the three Ugandan teen delegates to Los Angeles last spring, Shomrei Torah sold challah covers hand-stitched by Abayudaya women and donated enough money to cover the rest. 

When AYA members wrote to Weingarten asking for USY’s help organizing their first convention, Weingarten knew Shomrei Torah and other regional synagogues once again had to step up to the plate. FWUSY came up with $3,000 to help underwrite the convention, thanks in large part to a letter regional director Merrill Alpert sent out to member synagogues asking for support.

But the donations didn’t stop there. As the weeks went by, a total of 22 rabbis and another dozen lay leaders across the southwest United States sent contributions, which ranged from $18 to $360. When Alpert totaled the donations, she found they had raised an additional $4,500 — enough to send three USY representatives to Uganda to help run the event.

She credits Weingarten with having the drive to pull it all together.

“In the 30 years that I’ve been working with USY, I’ve never met a young man like David,” Alpert said. “His tenacity, perseverance and determination to make this happen — he’s truly amazing.”

At the Shomrei Torah presentation last month, the challah covers made by Abayudaya women were still for sale, along with kippot, T-shirts, jewelry featuring handmade beads and coffee grown at a local interreligious co-op. Proceeds are sent back to Uganda to help support the Abayudaya community, where the average yearly salary hovers around $4,000.

This financial partnership grew from a vision Shomrei Torah Rabbi Richard Camras and Rabbi Sizomu shared while Sizomu was interning at the synagogue, Camras said. But even he admitted he’s floored by the warm relationship the two communities now enjoy. “To think that our youth would come together and create such strong bonds — that was beyond our wildest dreams,” Camras said.

In the end, the three USYers came home from Nabugoye Hill with 12 hours of video, more than ` 2,500 photos and an unquantifiable new sense of connection to their Ugandan Jewish peers.

Weissberger said she felt it most strongly during a nearly two-hour ruach (singing) session with AYA teens that Shabbat: They may not speak the same language, but, to her surprise, they knew all the same songs.

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