The Siddur Express

It took determination – and a modern-day miracle – to send 80 unused prayer books to a Jewish community across the world.

by Rabbi Sarah Newmark

Comments Off on The Siddur Express

This little miracle did not have an auspicious beginning – it was simply time for the unused prayer books to come out of our synagogue’s storage closet. As the daughter of a librarian and a bookkeeper, my “organizing genes” compelled me to reclaim what had become a jumbled mess of storage as useable closets for Congregation Beth Hatikvah, the Reform synagogue in Bremerton, Washington, where I serve as rabbi.
Among the things I found when excavating the storage closet were nearly 200 paperback copies of the draft of Siddur Mishkan T’filah, the Reform prayer book, and 80 hardbound copies of the Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom. While the books had had quite a few years of use, they were in good to very good condition. Even though these materials no longer have street value, as a rabbi, I feel strongly that liturgical materials, even somewhat older editions, should be in the hands of “pray-ers,” not crammed, forgotten, in a closet.

The first schlep of my mission to find new homes for 275+ siddurim was to get them – boxes and boxes of them – to my home for counting and weighing. At first, it seemed as if my self-appointed task would be easy: Reform congregation Temple Kol Tikvah of Davidson, North Carolina, wanted our copies of the draft siddur – all of them! Schlep Two was done by my husband, Zavie, who scrounged sturdy, doublewalled boxes, packed the books and took them to the post office. The final schlep for the siddurim to reach their new home was left in the hands of the postal employees.

So far, not too difficult, right?

Finding a home for the Sim Shaloms, however, proved much harder. I asked every rabbi I could think of for a lead and posted my query on my Reconstructionist rabbis’ Listserv. I got no takers. I called United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in New York to ask if anyone could think of a start-up congregation or prison ministry or Navy ship…. somewhere that could use them. No one knew of a potential taker.

At this point, I had stacks of books in my laundry room – definitely unacceptable. My first last-ditch effort was to contact my wonderful colleague Rabbi Gail Diamond, the associate director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where I had studied as a rabbinical student. I thought that Rabbi Diamond might know the right person who would know the right congregation or agency or…anyway, you have to have connections in this world, and I clearly needed help.

Abayudaya_BecholLashonRabbi Diamond’s response surprised me. She did know of a group which needed these siddurim – the Abuyadaya people of Uganda! Rabbi Diamond had contacted Judy Gray of Skilled Volunteers for Israel, and Judy reported that these communities were desperate for the siddurim. The Abayudaya, which means “People of Judah,” practice Judaism and live in several villages in eastern Uganda near the town of Mbale. They are devout
in their practice, keeping their version of kashrut and Shabbat. Most of the Abuyadaya communities are recognized by the Reform and Conservative movements. An unintended consequence of having taken on my “Mission: Send Forth Prayer Books” is that I got to learn about this community’s fascinating history.

However, I quickly learned that as relatively easy as it is to pack up books and send them across the country, it is a totally different thing to get them to Uganda.

By now veteran schlepper Zavie packed the siddurim into five boxes. It was 200 pounds of books! That sounds like a lot, but if you are UPS, FedEx or the US Post Office, it turns out it’s not; to ship via ocean carrier (relatively reasonable in price), you need a minimum of two thousand pounds – and you have to “palletize them” yourself and take them to the port.

Our “small” shipment would have to go by air, at a cost of $2,500+. That’s when I pretty much gave up on the idea of shipping the siddurim to Uganda. My last ditch effort had failed, and I still had a laundry room full of prayer books.

I asked another friend of mine, Conservative Rabbi Larry Kaplan, to send an email about the siddurim to the Conservative rabbis’ Listserv. When I explained the situation, he became the unexpected hero of this story. He offered to fund the shipping costs to Uganda up to $700. This was right before Chanukah, and suddenly, a modern-day Judah Maccabee had generously stepped forward, restoring my resolve to get the siddurim to the Abuyadaya. Zavie located a private shipping company in Florida that deals in odd lots, but it delivers to the port of Kampala, which looks very far from Mbale on a map. This company’s price would actually fit into the unexpected funding I’d received, but, vey iz mir, Kampala?

To my surprised delight, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who serves the Abuyadaya communities, told me that they would be able to send someone to Kampala to pick up the siddurim. (Rabbi Sizomu, the first native-born black rabbi in sub-Saharan Africa, studied at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi.)

Then came a misery of forms that all contained series of baffling initials, but I felt confident enough to tape up each of the boxes so thoroughly that they became almost solid tape. The next leg of the journey was for me to schlep them about 40 miles to Kent, Washington, which is where the shipping process begins.From Kent, they headed south by truck to the Port of Long Beach, onto the carrier Econocaribe and then on an ocean voyage to Uganda. Abayudaya2_BecholLashon

In early March, I heard from Rabbi Gershom. The siddurim had arrived in Kampala! Unfortunately, he needed an extra $350 in “clearance” fees and help covering the cost of his trip to the capital. Thanks to the money Rabbi Kaplan had given us, and an emergency grant from United Synagogue, we were able to cover both costs. Old editions of siddurim too often wind up in the genizah, a burial ground for sacred books. But in this case, siddurim that were used now be treasured by Jews in a part of the world almost unimaginable to most of us. Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Bremerton, Washington, and Rabbi Kaplan’s synagogue, Temple Israel in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, will now have a link to the Abuyadaya community in Uganda. As we learn in the Talmud (Shavuot 39a): Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (All Israel is responsible, one for the other). What started as my fervor to clean out closets turned into something else altogether. I had begun to think I had started on a Mission: Impossible. I almost gave up a number of times. But each time a new glimmer of hope would arise.

It seems to me that miracles do happen in our day. It’s just that sometimes, there’s a lot of schlepping involved.

Rabbi Sarah Newmark is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hatikvah of Bremerton, Washington.