Famine in East Africa caught the attention of members of the Jewish Federation of Howard County last month when they learned of a small Jewish community in Uganda, known as the Abayudaya, who are suffering from starvation.
In partnership with the Howard County Board of Rabbis, the local Jewish federation started an emergency fundraising campaign to help feed the Abayudaya, raising more than $10,000 in less than a week.
As donations continue pouring in, the federation will keep the campaign open through the end of August, and are urging other communities to share their support. Funds are sent to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee humanitarian organization.
Will Recant, a JDC assistant executive vice president, said they administer the funds through the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which consists of dozens of Jewish organizations working to provide a united response to disasters or man-made crisis worldwide.
The Jewish Coalition for East Africa Relief was the latest organization created about three months ago. Recant said funding is sent to Be'chol Lashon, a Jewish advocacy organization, which purchases the food for the Abayudaya community and oversees distribution.
"Be'chol Lashon is delighted to partner with Abayudaya leader, Rabbi Sizomu and JDC to help alleviate the immediate need for food in the region, as well as improve agricultural practices and food management to anticipate future need, including collecting rain water, irrigation and storing surplus crops during the growing seasons," said Diane Tobin, CEO of Be'Chol Lashon.
The Abayudaya, which translates to "people of Judah," consists of 2,000 Ugandan Jews, who are down to one meal a day because of widespread famine in Uganda, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen and South Sudan, Recant said.
According to the Be'chol Lashon website, the Abayudaya was introduced to Judaism through leader Semei Kakungulu, who was a Christian missionary for the British, but followed the Hebrew Bible. The Abayudaya have practiced Judaism since the early 1900s and formally converted about 15 years ago.
Federations in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Howard County as well as individuals, foundations and other Jewish groups raised about $36,500 as of Aug. 15 to provide food and water to suffering families.
"We anticipate other funds to be coming in in the coming weeks," Recant said. "We are very grateful to Howard County and the others who are rising up, gaining awareness of the issue and taking the action to provide much-needed assistance. It's just heartwarming to see how responsive Howard County and the others have been."
In addition to emergency food distribution, the coalition is reviewing proposals for water purification and agricultural projects to benefit the Abayudaya and their Christian neighbors and better prepare them in the future.
Recant said the food shortage is in large part due to the ongoing drought. Since the community relies heavily on crops, maize flour will be distributed.
"We had the great famine of the early 1980s in Ethiopia, which was the largest famine of the last century," Recant said. "Every 20 to 30 years, there's drought and resulting famine in the regions. It's a result of the weather patterns and conditions in that part of Africa that have been exacerbated by climate change. They're seeing more severe droughts than we've had in the past that last longer."
At least two members of the Abayudaya community have died from malnutrition, with 20 million lives at risk of illness and death in East Africa, said Ralph Grunewald, the interim executive director at the Jewish Federation of Howard County.
When Grunewald first heard about the community's suffering, he said he felt "deep sorrow and sadness" and immediately coordinated with federation President Beth Millstein, the Howard County Board of Rabbis and local synagogues to start a campaign.
A $35 donation can feed one Abayudaya family for a week, he said.
"I felt that as a Jewish community we could do something to alleviate the suffering that's taking place there," Grunewald said. "I set a goal of about $10,000 [because] it's the amount needed to feed that entire community for one single day."
The Jewish Federation of Howard County kick-started the campaign with a $1,000 donation, followed by donations from Temple Isaiah; Lubavitch Center of Howard County; Bet Aviv; Beth Shalom; Shalom Aleichem; Columbia Jewish Congregation; Union for Reform Judaism; and Bet Chaverim.
"The money is still coming in," Millstein said. "I think it's very gratifying that people are willing to step up and help, even for a group that they've never met who is halfway around the world."
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, the chairwoman of the Howard County Board of Rabbis, said the Howard County Jewish community has a personal connection to the Abayudaya through its religious leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, a native of Uganda. Sizomu studied with Rabbi Craig Axler, of Temple Isaiah, in Fulton, during their years at Hebrew Union College in New York City.
An ordained rabbi since 2008, Sizomu also studied in the U.S. for five years at the American Jewish University's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, Calif. In 2011, Sizomu ran to represent Uganda's Bungokho North District in Parliament but lost.
Sizomu ran again in the 2016 election and became the first Jewish candidate to win a seat in the country's Parliament.
"[Sizomu] is an extraordinarily intelligent, sensitive and dynamic rabbi who works tirelessly to take care of his community," Scheinerman said. "He recently sent reports to us that people in his community are suffering greatly from food shortages. I'm sure the Abayudaya also has neighbors who we can be helping as well."
Sizomu said the donations from Howard County's Jewish organizations and groups are addressing short- and long-term concerns. While funds help avert the food shortage, they also develop food security for the community in the future.
"We are in the process of securing a food store where we will keep food during times of plenty to be used during times of scarcity," Sizomu said. "We are also looking at starting mini irrigation projects so we can slowly break the over-dependance on rain."
The people are subsistence farmers and depend on nature and rain for their crops, he said. This season yielded poor crops due to lack of rain and army worm infestation. However, Sizomu said the community planted its second season of crops, which appear well.
"The crops are doing much better and we expect a good yield this October," he said. "We have received food aid from friends and the situation is under control. I have called upon friends and well-wishers to help and the response is, so far, very good."
Food is being shared with the Abayudaya's non-Jewish neighbors, Sizomu said.
Axler said he has stayed in touch with Sizomu over the years, watching him bring the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities together through mutual farming and coffee production. The emergency campaign is a wonderful effort, he said.
"It's a Jewish tradition dating back literally thousands of years: We take responsibility for Jews wherever they are in the world," Plotkin said. "As the small community in Uganda is threatened, Jews with the financial resources at their disposal have an obligation to help and make sure our fellow Jews, wherever they are, are being taken care of."