Volunteer Spotlight: Sandy Leeder (Printed in the Kulanu Magazine Summer 2021 .)
Kulanu’s vice president Bonita Nathan Sussman interviewed Sandy Leeder, who has been an esteemed member of the Kulanu board of directors and treasurer for several years, in honor of his 78th birthday. In spring 1983, as an activist for the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ), Sandy took part in the underground rescue of Jews from Ethiopia (the Beta Israel) to Israel via Sudan. This was before Operation Moses, which took place the following fall. His first experience in Africa was as a member of the Peace Corps in Niger. During his tenure on the Kulanu board, Sandy has directed his focus and support to the Lemba of Zimbabwe, a major population group in the country, with Jewish congregations in Harare and rural districts. Genetic research has bolstered their oral history of descent from ancient Israelites. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have played a part in Jewish history and are an inspiration to many. You are known for your work with Ethiopian rescue. Briefly tell us about it.
We weren’t going to be traveling with Ethiopians, as it was too dangerous. Rather, we were going to take them to a bus or truck that would take them to Juba (Sudan), their destination. I wound up with a group of Beta Israel from the refugee camp at Gedaref (Sudan) on the Ethiopian border, two Ethiopian guides, a Toyota van and 1,000 kilometers of no-road to Juba. How was I supposed to put these 18 people — including babies and old people — on a bus or truck when they didn’t even know where they were going? So I decided that I cannot leave them as planned, but rather that I have to keep going with them. Whether I will run out of gas, or whether I can make it across the Sudan swamp, and how we’ll get there doesn’t matter. So that was a very important little decision. We made it to Juba at the southern tip of Sudan and then the next AAEJ team brought them to Nairobi and then to Israel. (Editor’s note: For more on this see our online speaker series program “The Backstory of Ethiopian Operation Moses: Witness Accounts.”)
Please tell me about your work in Niger.
I joined the Peace Corps in 1967 for two years of service in Guecheme, Niger. I worked as an agricultural extension agent for peanut cooperatives. We oversaw the weighing of the peanuts at the year-end harvest and we sold agricultural supplies. I lived in a grass hut. I had a horse. I had no communication with anybody except for an occasional Peace Corps volunteer who might come by. I lived with the Fulani tribe, herders who are relatives of the Ethiopians on some level. They were not Jews. Food was cooked on an open fire, the women got water from the well. Reminiscent of Rebecca in the Bible, one day I almost fell off my horse when a young woman, a girl about 16, comes up to me at the well and says, “Do you want some water? And can I water your horse?” I developed a real understanding, on a very visceral level, that although these people were poor with no money, they were rich in culture. For me, just living there was the fundamental experience.
What are your goals for the Lemba?
In 2002, I traveled with Rabbi Leo Abrami on a Kulanu-sponsored trip to South Africa to meet the Lemba. I have been working with them since. They initially were a group of traders, merchants, and metal miners who traveled between their home in Yemen and southern Africa. Some event, probably the Islamic invasion of Yemen in about 1,000 CE, caused them to be stranded in Africa. They relied on secrecy to keep their advantage in metal work, stonework, and warfare methods. They’ve kept an enormous amount of halacha (Jewish law) orally and they have ancient traditions that we modern Jews have lost. My goal is that they understand themselves and join the wider Jewish community. It would be a shame for them to just drift off because they don’t have a way of reconnecting. So we, Kulanu, can provide that way of reconnecting.
What do you think is your biggest accomplishment with the Lemba so far?
Well, one thing is finding Modreck Maeresera (now a Kulanu board member) who has been able to put together an operating synagogue in Harare. They’re working on translating the siddur (prayer book) into Shona. Hamlet Zhou, a Lemba musician, is writing music, putting the Hebrew service in the rhythm of Zimbabwean music and making it unique for them. But the community is especially fragile now because of the coronavirus and because communication is so difficult in Zimbabwe. It costs money to get to synagogue and they don’t have the technology — the bandwidth or equipment — to make up for the lack of gatherings. And it’s on top of agricultural disasters, like droughts and locusts. I think Modreck thinks we’re getting closer. But it is just going to be a long process.The danger is that communal structures break down as people move to cities and a lot of communal life is at risk. Everything they do is now going to be subject to change very quickly.
Let’s have a few words about your projects of development in Zimbabwe.
Jack Zeller (a founder and former president of Kulanu) is very interested in food and food security. He and Harriet Bograd (Kulanu president) have organized some major agricultural development projects. They’re not tremendous in scale, but for the people we’re dealing with, they are major improvements to their lives. By damming up a river and creating a reservoir, they now have the water for their cattle and don’t have to go for 20 miles looking for water. Now they can capture the fertilizer near the reservoir and also save a lot of time for the kids who water the cattle but who need to be in school. The dam, as well as drip irrigation projects, are increasing food security, as they are now able to grow two crops, corn and potatoes. So there’s a lot of good things happening on that level. We’re not talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, but rather something that can be managed by a few people who are willing to put their time in. Big projects in Africa, and probably most places, do not lead to viable development. My observation of development in general is that it doesn’t work. The development is going to happen, but it’s not going to be with NGOs doing it. It’s going to be the people doing it.
What would you like to see happen to sustain Judaism among the Lemba?
I would like the Lemba to modernize a couple of their practices in the area of circumcision, in the area of kashrut, and schochet (ritual slaughter) training. It would be great if they can actually know who they are so as not to get confused with Islam or with the African churches. But, as we know, it takes a lot of resources and money to educate people Jewishly. And so we’ve got a problem. Most Lemba in Zimbabwe are very poor. And most of them out there in the Zimbabwe bush don’t know what constitutes a Jewish education. Not too many people are going and looking to help them, and know what to do. So it’s up to us at Kulanu.
I know you’re attracted to the idea of lost tribes. Why the attraction?
I was (initially) intrigued by a Hadassah Magazine article about lost tribes being found in Africa. I believe that the Jewish people are a tribe or an affiliation of tribes. When people decide that they want to become Jews, they are not only agreeing to follow rituals, but are actually agreeing to joining the Jewish tribe. I believe we are historically tribal, that we get confused as to whether we’re tribal or spiritual. So that if we find those tribes or groups of people who have maintained their Jewish practices, we owe it to them to help them come back. God has given me the opportunity to work on bringing the Nidchai Yisrael (Lost Tribes) back into the wider Jewish community, and I think it’s a great thing that I can work on this and actually have an effect.
Tell us about your family.
My ex-wife and I were together for 30 years. We have four children. The oldest, Asher, works at Trader Joe’s. My next in line is Shira who is going to graduate school in public administration. She’s got cerebral palsy and gets around in a wheelchair. Akiva graduated from law school and works in the law department of Coinbase, which just went public. He has three young boys and lives in Portland, Oregon. Shoshana, the youngest, just earned a PhD in psychology.
Did you always plan to make Aliyah?
The idea comes from Tesfaye Aderajew, a young Ethiopian man who was supposed to be my translator on the (Operation Moses) Sudan trip. He gets thrown into the bus up front with me. (He didn’t really speak good English — he didn’t speak very much at all.) Later on in San Francisco, we’re raising money together. And he says, “Okay, you did all these things to get the Ethiopians to Israel, what about yourself?” I worked for and was a partner in a real estate development company, specializing in partnership taxation. I decided that I could live outside the United States with an internet connection and that Israel would be the place. Tzfat was intriguing in 1985 when I first visited. In 2006 I met a friend from Berkeley, California who now lives there. She pointed to a house and said to me, “This is the house you’re gonna buy.” Tzfat is a beautiful place, and, frankly, underrated. It’s got a great community and we love it here.
Thank you, Sandy, for this wonderful interview. Happy Birthday!