Rabbi Natan Gamedze traveled a long distance to come to Racine from his home in Jerusalem earlier this week. His purpose here was to speak about an even greater journey — one he began many years ago when he chose to leave his life as an African prince to study and embrace Judaism.
Gamedze spoke about that journey to a crowd of about 20 people at Beth Israel Sinai Congregation, 944 Main St., on Monday night. His visit was sponsored by the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, and members of Beth Israel Sinai were very grateful for the opportunity to meet with Rabbi Gamedze and hear his inspirational story.
Gamdeze's journey began in 1963 when he was born an African prince to the royal Gamedze clan of the Kingdom of Swaziland. Educated in private school in both Swaziland and London, where his father held the position of Swaziland's ambassador to the United Kingdom and EEC countries, Gamedze led the life of a prince throughout his childhood.
"I had all the things that go with that - growing up in a palace with lots of servants and honor and money."
His early years also gave him a mixture of African and Christian beliefs - ones which he described as very traditional and strong.
Yet somehow, Gamedze felt those traditions and beliefs were not what he was looking for.
"I didn't think money could buy what I was looking for," he told the audience here. "From a young age, I was always looking for the truth. I wasn't looking for religion of any form and I didn't really have a positive outlook as far as organized religion was concerned. At the time, I saw religion as a concept for people who couldn't handle life and were looking for answers."
Still unsure of where to find the truth he sought, Gamedze took what he describes as a natural gift for languages and went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in modern languages and translation at Oxford University in England and Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. At one point, he worked as a translator to the South African Supreme Court.
Words of wisdom
It was through his love of language that Gamedze discovered Judaism. Now fluent in 14 languages - half of them European and half of them African - Gamedze studied Hebrew as part of his education, and his studies of that ancient language are what eventually led him to his rabbinical quest.
At first, Hebrew appeared to be just another language to Gamedze, but the more he studied it, the deeper he felt connected to the thoughts it conveyed. And, when a professor offered him the opportunity to go to Jerusalem to study different types of Hebrew at a Hebrew university, he went.
"To this day, I can't really explain what I felt then," the rabbi said. "It was almost like the same type of things you feel when you hear the sound of the Shofar (a Jewish instrument made out of a ram's horn)."
Gemedze's decision to convert to Judaism, however, was not a quick or easy one. While he realized that the teachings of this religion were what he had been looking for many years, he also questioned how and why someone from his background would feel that way.
"I was confounded," he said. "I wondered why, if I wasn't born Jewish, I would be so drawn to and so enamored with Judaism."
In an effort to clear his mind, Gamedze left Israel and went to Rome, where he figured his surroundings would allow him to think about things other than Judaism. Instead, he found that even when he was in one of the most famous Christian churches in the world, all he could think about was the suffering of the Jews.
Back in his hotel room, he had the urge to recite a Jewish prayer and, as he did so, he felt a great surge of energy.
"I started thinking `Why is this happening to me? What is my connection to these people?' I had come to Rome because I was trying to run away from Judaism, but I found I had to face my beliefs. It was almost as if Judaism was something I just couldn't escape."
That's when the African prince decided to return to Jerusalem and convert to Judaism. Eventually, that spiritual journey led to his rabbinical studies, which included a four-year learning program at Ohr Somayach, followed by advanced Talmudic studies at the Brisk Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The rabbi said he felt more at home in Jerusalem than he did anywhere else.
"There is a whole different way of looking at life and what life is about there," he said. "My soul was hungry and thirsty to get back to its sound."
His decision to convert to Judaism, however, caused him to be estranged from his family back in Swaziland for 16 years, which was difficult for everyone involved.
"When you don't have the safety net of your family, it can be a very lonely time," Gamedze said.
He was finally reunited with his family two and half years ago, after having been invited to come at teach classes in Cape Town, South Africa. His return caused a stir in the media, and his parents contacted him to let him know they wanted to see him.
"There is nothing that can describe how it felt to meet everyone after 16 years," he said. "Emotions were running so high, we couldn't even say hello to one another."
While he realizes the effect that his decision to convert to Judaism and to live in Israel had on others, as well as himself, he still feels he made the right choices.
"I asked myself, if I could turn back the clock would I have done it differently?," he said. "I came to the conclusion that I would have done exactly what I did again."
"The land of Israel for me is something which is totally irreplaceable. Living there puts me at the center of Jewish living."
Today, Gamedze teaches in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and children. He also travels around the world, telling his tale of spiritual discovery. His is a story, after all, that you don't hear every day.
Jane Brosseau, a member of the Beth Israel congregation, said she felt the rabbi's life story had an almost biblical quality to it.
"It brought back many memories of Israel," she said.
Jane's husband, John, said he too was very moved by Gemedze's talk.
"He is a very quiet man, yet he has a very commanding presence."
He is also a man with a unique perspective on Judaism - one with a royal point of view.
The rabbi, however, often sees things in much simpler terms.
"I was simply a Jewish soul returning home," he said.