Igaal Sizomu was clearly ecstatic, laughing with a group of friends from Shomrei Torah Synagogue (STS) whom he hadn’t seen in nearly a year. They were pushing each other around at the West Hills synagogue the way teens often do.
Igaal, who is from Uganda, had spent five years adjusting to life in Southern California while his father, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, was interning at Shomrei Torah Synagogue and attending American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Last year, after Sizomu was ordained as a Conservative rabbi, the family returned to the Jewish community in Uganda known as the Abayudaya or Sons of Judah.
But on May 12, Igaal returned to Los Angeles with his father and two other Abayudaya teens to learn leadership skills. The ultimate goal, as imagined by David Weingarten, president of Shomrei Torah Synagogue’s United Synagogue Youth (USY), is that the Ugandan teens will take what they learned in Los Angeles and establish a Jewish youth group in their hometown of Mbale.
After Igaal, 15; Sarah Nabagala, 17; and Kokasi Keki, 17, arrived in the Southland, they attended leadership training sessions, planned sports events and coordinated a USY meeting. On the following Friday, the teens sang Abayudaya tunes and played African drums for Shabbat services with local USY members and more than 200 Shomrei Torah congregants. An additional 250 people attended a USY-Abayudaya Partnership event on May 19, where the teens and Sizomu gave an update of what life was like in the Abayudaya community.
Igaal, the tall and lanky rabbi’s son, told the crowd he hoped to raise money through CD sales of Ugandan Jewish music to send local USY members to Uganda for a cross-cultural concert.
The crowd erupted in laughter when he said that the biggest change since returning to Uganda was the lack of sweets. “In Uganda we don’t have desserts…. I love desserts,” he said.
Sarah, another of the Abayudaya teens, said an important leadership lesson she learned during her trip to Los Angeles was to take the initiative.
“On Shabbat ... all of us met [in the synagogue] with no elder, only the youth,” she said, referring to her experience with STS-USY. “So that taught me to always do things from my own thoughts. Not to wait for somebody like a rabbi or a community leader to say, ‘You can do this with the youth.’”
Weingarten, STS-USY president, said that he was impressed overall with the teens’ leadership skills and how proud they were of their Jewish identity.
The idea for the teen training began at Sizomu’s farewell ceremony in June 2008, when Weingarten asked the rabbi what the West Hills community could do to help the Abayudaya. Sizomu told Weingarten how much of an impression the Conservative youth group had made on him, so they decided together to bring teen delegates from Uganda to Los Angeles to experience the USY members’ ruach (spirit) and leadership skills for themselves.
The project, known as the USY-Abayudaya Partnership, started with a $2,500 donation from a local family to the Abayudaya community to make hand-stitched challah covers to sell at Shomrei Torah and regional USY events.
The challah covers sold well, but Weingarten found the proceeds fell short of the $12,500 needed to finance the trip.
“We realized we were going to need a lot more help than we initially thought,” he said. After Weingarten and his fellow USY members asked the Shomrei Torah community for donations a second time, more than 20 families, individuals and temple groups donated enough to cover the remaining costs.
During the events, volunteers sold kippahs, necklaces and challah covers that had been handmade by the girls and women of the Abayudaya community to help raise additional funds for the Ugandan congregation. The Abayudaya Marketplace also included bags of Delicious Peace Coffee made by a coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers from Uganda that was founded by J.J. Keki, Sizomu’s brother, the father of Kokasi, one of the visiting teens.
Ever since Sizomu returned to Uganda as an ordained rabbi, Sarah said, their Muslim and Christian neighbors understand how committed they are to Judaism.
“They can’t say we are pretending and all that,” she said. “We are a strong people. We love our religion. We are so serious about what we are doing.”