In response to Uganda’s current famine crisis, the Jewish Federation of Howard County and the Howard County Board of Rabbis have launched an emergency campaign to raise funds for the Abayudaya, the African nation’s community of approximately 2,000 Jews.
So far, the campaign has raised more than $14,100 from 111 donors. Funds will be distributed through the Jewish Coalition of East Africa Relief, a coalition of 24 Jewish groups convened by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Rabbi Craig H. Axler, spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in the Howard County community of Fulton, is a friend of Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, leader of the Abayudaya, who live in three villages in eastern Uganda and have practiced Judaism since 1919.
(Abayudaya means “People of Judah” in the Luganda language, and hundreds of community members have been converted to Judaism according to Halachah, or Jewish law, by the Conservative movement.)
“Gershom and I studied together at Hebrew Union College [the Reform movement’s rabbinical school],” said Rabbi Axler. “We became fast friends and exchanged stories and music. Rabbi Gershom had come to the States for formal ordination, even though that meant leaving his wife and young daughter behind for five years. He finished his studies at [the Conservative movement’s] American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where he was ordained.
“When I heard about the suffering of the Abayudaya community, the first image I had was of Rabbi Gershom doing everything he could not only to feed his community but also to ensure that surrounding Christian and Muslim neighbors are not suffering,” Rabbi Axler said.
The famine, endangering the lives of 20 million people across Africa and the Middle East, has been called “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the U.N.” by United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien.
In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rabbi Sizomu said that two members of his community have recently died from malnutrition.
“Many families are subsisting on one meal a day,” he said. “People look dehydrated and starving. People were already sick, so without food they become weaker and weaker. … People are depressed, and you can see it on their faces. Parents are depressed because they have many things to take care of. There’s a constant need for food.”
Ralph Grunewald, interim executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, called on community members to contribute to the emergency campaign. “The Abayudaya are part of our family, they need us,” he said. “We have the ability to help them and maybe some of their neighbors, too.”
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, chair of the Howard County Board of Rabbis, agreed. “The Jews of Uganda are our people, and they need us now,” she said. “We must raise money for the Abayudaya and also for their neighbors.”
Said Rabbi Axler: “I think the principle of Kol Ysrael Arevim Zeh BeZeh – all Jews are responsible for one another — makes it incumbent on us to help support our own family.”
For information or to make a donation, visit jewishhowardcounty.org/ugandacampaign.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.
Top Photo: Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, religious leader of the Abayudaya, is shown in 2003. (Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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