A summer at camp exposes Ugandan Jews to America’s food and kids

Growing up in Uganda, Sarah Nabaggala would often have to walk to a well to retrieve drinking water. Shoshana Nambi, from the same village, Mbale, remembers a childhood where they had little and wasted nothing.

So Nabaggala was surprised when the kids at Camp Coleman, a Reform Jewish overnight camp in northeastern Georgia, complained about bunks with hot showers and ubiquitous taps with running water. Nambi had trouble watching her campers leave behind towels, socks and even shoes at the beach.

“The kids had so much stuff with them,” said Nambi, who ran programs at Camp Coleman this year. “So many clothes, so many piles of towels, and parents kept sending them care packages of bubble gum and nail polish paint and stuff like this. It was really funny to see that.”

Nambi and Nabaggala, both in their second year as staff at Coleman, were two of 13 Ugandan Jews who came to the United States this summer to work as counselors at Reform overnight camps. They are part of an initiative by the Union for Reform Judaism to strengthen connections between Ugandan and American Jews.

“This may have been the first time they realized there were Jews in a place like Uganda,” Dan Lange, URJ’s associate director of camping, said of the campers. “Our commitment is to exposing the kids to global Jewry — not only to know they exist, but to interact with them.”

Uganda’s Jews, known as the Abayudaya, are a 2,000-member community that lives in rural villages in the country’s eastern hills. Conservative rabbis began visiting the community two decades ago, and most of the Abayudaya practice Conservative Judaism. Despite support from the Diaspora, the community remains poor.

The counselors received free flights and visa sponsorships from URJ, as well as a salary. Before they arrived, the Ugandans received advance training on American culture from Jewish Agency for Israel staff, who also tutor Israeli camp counselors.

All of the Ugandan counselors came away from camp saying the same things that American counselors and campers say year after year: They loved their friends and want to go back.

But they still experienced culture shock, from the cabins to the cafeteria to the soccer field.

Used to playing soccer with a ball made of recycled bags, the Ugandans marveled at the variety of sports at camp. Accustomed to fresh meals prepared over the course of hours, they had to adjust to food from the fridge ready in minutes. In Uganda, they were never on a schedule. At camp, they had to abide by fixed periods and planned activities.

A few of the counselors remembered their campers routinely leaving food uneaten on the table — something unthinkable in Uganda that they warned the American kids against. But other times the meals seemed too small.

“One day at camp, in the first week, we had salad and sandwiches,” said Yonatan Loukato, a counselor at Eisner Camp in the Massachusetts Berkshires. “We didn’t eat much. We thought maybe real food is coming. Then we heard them sing the prayer for finishing food.”

Campers were curious about life in Uganda, the counselors said, asking about everything from the daily rhythm of the villages to African wildlife. Each of the six camps where the Ugandan counselors worked held at least one event — a panel or similar program — where they could tell the campers about their home country.

“They had fun questions about animals,” Nambi said. “They’re all very disappointed that I don’t have lions or something.”

The Ugandan counselors also were surprised at how the campers interacted with them. In Uganda, a few of the counselors said, adults tell children what to do and the children listen. At camp, giving the kids instructions involved a constant negotiation. Some counselors found the dynamic jarring. Others said it showed how confident and analytical the kids were.

“The kids in Uganda, when you tell them to do something, they do it immediately,” Nabaggala said. “People were very outspoken here and pretty assertive.”

Once they acclimated, the counselors said, they came to enjoy the American Jewish mainstay of a summer of lakes, tents and Shabbat services. A few learned how to swim at camp. Samuel Matiya Kigondere, who also worked at Eisner, looked forward each week to “Shabbuddies,” a Shabbat program where two people would spend the day getting to know each other. Loukato loved that the whole camp wore white on Shabbat — a practice he plans to continue back home.

The counselors said they plan to stay in touch with the campers and their families once they return to Uganda. In one case, the families of campers from the Greene Family Camp in Texas donated money to dig a well for a Ugandan Jewish community. Another camp’s families raised money to purchase water filters to send to Uganda.

“Everyone is welcoming,” Loukato said. “I happened to make a lot of friends, regardless of age or race. I felt at home.”

Freshly-ordained Ugandan rabbi gets ball rolling on returning home

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, the first black sub-Saharan rabbi ordained at an American rabbinical school, has had a very busy time since returning to Uganda in June, after not having lived there for five years. Among other activities, the American Jewish University graduate recently supervised about 250 formal conversions to Judaism: men, women and children, ages ranging from 4 to 80, who had been preparing while he was gone for their meeting with the beit din.

“We started the conversions on July 8,” said Sizomu, who spoke with The Journal by cellphone from his Ugandan village. “And we have continued the conversions throughout the week. People not just from Uganda, but also from Kenya, South Africa and from Ghana.

“We are very happy about how Judaism appeals to Africans,” he continued. “We are not going out there and asking people to convert. We are here, and people come to us and express their desire to make that commitment, their desire to immerse themselves in Jewish education.”

The African converts also immersed themselves in nature’s mikvah.

“The mikvah was the river,” Sizomu said. “So the women went to one part of the river, and the men went to a different part. It was so beautiful.”

The mass conversions were not the only major event for Sizomu since returning to Uganda. During the same week, he hosted the first-ever meeting of PAJA, the Pan-African Jewish Alliance.

“Jewish community leaders [came] from black African communities in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia,” Sizomu said.

The idea for this gathering arose during a think tank session at Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a donation-driven, nonprofit organization headquartered in San Francisco. According to its Web site, Be’chol Lashon’s mission is to increase the number of Jews throughout the world by advocating for “a more expansive Judaism.”

“Instead of hand-wringing about our losses from intermarriage or low birth rate,” said Diane Tobin, Be’chol Lashon’s director, “we advocate for a different attitude and approach, which is to promote growth and inclusiveness. We’re partners with Jewish communities in Africa and around the globe. We believe that the potential for the growth of Jewish communities is significant … in countries that many may not think about when it comes to the Jewish people.”

It was Be’chol Lashon that subsidized Sizomu’s years of study at rabbinical school.

“We first met Gershom Sizomu over six years ago,” Tobin said, “and we decided to provide him with a fellowship to complete his formal rabbinic training, in cooperation with the American Jewish University. His purpose was our purpose, also, for Rabbi Sizomu to go back to Uganda and live out his dream of growing Judaism in Uganda and other parts of Africa.”

Perhaps one of the reasons that Judaism is increasing in Uganda is that, according to Tobin, the 39-year-old Sizomu, under the auspices of Be’chol Lashon, has been instrumental in improving the quality of life in his village and in nearby villages, as well.

“While he was at rabbinical school,” Tobin said, “Gershom worked tirelessly to bring life-saving services and equipment to his country and his community. He believes that there can be no true spiritual life without those elements that preserve life and prevent disease. An enormous problem in his part of the world is malaria, and he’s been very active in bringing in mosquito nets, as well as medicine.”

Now that he’s returned home, Sizomu can see the fruits of his — and Be’chol Lashon’s — efforts. His village now has running water and electricity, services that will soon be available in neighboring villages, as well. Sizomu said that “there are very good changes that have taken place in these villages. We are making very good progress.”

If there was culture shock for Sizomu, his wife and their daughters when they left their Ugandan village five years ago and moved to an apartment in Bel Air, it was nearly as much of a shock to come back to their village filled with mud-hut dwellings.

“Living in Los Angeles,” Sizomu said, “my family became used to the conveniences of modern life: washing machine, cable television, high-speed Internet, so many conveniences. In the U.S., if you want something, you go straight to the counter and get what you want. Things here in Uganda are much slower. It’s harder to get things done here. And there is a lot that needs to be done. But we are making progress every day.”

Sizomu — now the busy spiritual leader of his community — said that since coming back home, he’s had little time to reflect on what he misses about the United States.

“I feel that I gained a lot while living in Los Angeles,” Sizomu said, “and now I can give that back to my people in terms of teaching Torah and community leadership. For me, the best part about returning here has been to see how eager the people are to learn about Judaism and to be Jewish.

“Five years ago, when I left this village, I knew I’d be back some day. And I knew that my return would be very special … and it has been.”

VIDEO: Jews of Uganda — the Abayudaya — dream of Israel

The Abayudaya, only Jewish community in Uganda, are hoping to emigrate to Israel. It’s a move that requires preparation, so some US Jews help them get ready.
The video is from France 24, the French CNN.

Briefs: 100th birthday for Workmen’s Circle; ‘Kosher’ is numero uno

A Century of the Workmen’s Circle

Under the banner of “For a more beautiful and better world,” the Workmen’s Circle in California will mark its centennial with Yiddish songs, historical anecdotes and tributes to noted community members.

Actor and social activist Ed Asner will keynote the event on Sunday, Jan. 6, starting at 1 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center.

“For 100 years, our members have stood at the forefront of the movement for social justice,” said Eric A. Gordon, Southern California director of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring.

“We founded the City of Hope to provide health care to the indigent, fought alongside farm and grocery workers for fair contracts, and today advocate for immigration, housing, and other social and political reforms that reflect our Jewish heritage of struggle for a better world.”

Gordon, who is also an author and singer, will receive the group’s Yidishkayt Award.

Entertainers will include klezmer artists Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz, Uncle Ruthie Buell of KPFK-FM, troubadour Ross Altman, comedian Lou Charloff, storyteller Archie Barkan, M.C. Kolya Borodulin, and the Voices of Conscience and Mit Gezang Yiddish choruses.

Hosts Henry Slucki, Jolie Mason and Shawn Casey O’Brien of Access Unlimited, a KPFK-FM program that has advocated for the rights of people with disabilities for 20 years, will be honored with the Sands Memorial Award for Human Rights.

Other honorees include Ruth Judkowitz, chairmentsh of the regional Workmen’s Circle, who will receive the Ben Froman Member of the Year Award. Judkowitz is a professional music therapist, who founded Voices of Conscience, the organization’s social justice chorus.

For ticket information and reservations, phone (310) 552-2007, or e-mail awards@circlesocal.org.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

USY Builds Yeshiva for Ugandan Jews

The Conservative movement will build an adult yeshiva for the Abayudaya, a community of Jewish converts in Uganda. The $15,000 gift, announced Wednesday in Anaheim at the national convention of United Synagogue Youth, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, was presented to Gershom Sizomu, the first member of the Abayudaya community to enter rabbinical school.

A research fellow at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, Sizomu will receive his ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles in May.

The 800 members of the Abayudaya, who had been living as Jews for years, were formally converted to Judaism in 2002 by a visiting delegation of Conservative rabbis.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the gift of the yeshiva sustains the youth movement’s support of the Abayudaya Jews begun last year with a donation for a Jewish library. The library will be housed in the new yeshiva, which is expected to be completed by summer.

Four or five students will begin studying next fall, Epstein said. Other students are expected to follow, some from “lost” African Jewish communities elsewhere in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and southern Africa.

Billionaire Leviev Leaving Israel

Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev, the Uzbek-born diamond magnate and Orthodox philanthropist, is leaving Israel for London with his family, Ha’aretz and other media reported Thursday. According to the reports, Leviev, 51, expects to find better tax terms and new business opportunities in Britain. But he will maintain a home in the Jewish state, where one of his daughters will continue running his international consortium, Africa-Israel. Leviev’s personal fortune is said to be worth as much as $8 billion, making him Israel’s richest citizen.

Kosher Most Popular Claim

The kosher label beat out all claims found on food products in the United States in 2007, such as “All Natural,” the second-most frequent claim and “No Additives or Preservatives,” according to a report from Mintel’s Global New Products Database, a consumer products monitor. In 2007, companies launched 3,984 new kosher food products and 728 kosher beverages. Mintel polls have shown that Jewish and non-Jewish consumers believe a product marked kosher is healthier and safer than non-kosher products. Muslims on a Halal diet also eat kosher food, and people on lactose-free and meat-free diets tend to look for kosher certification to ensure products do not contain the things they can not eat.

Israeli Airport Profiling Reviewed

Israel is reviewing the security practice of profiling Arab passengers at its international airport. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said Tuesday he was working to abolish the Shin Bet security service’s practice of singling out Israeli Arabs for more intensive screening than Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport. The announcement came in response to a petition filed with Israel’s High Court of Justice by minority rights groups arguing that all air passengers should be subject to the same level of scrutiny. Mofaz proposed that new criteria be created for vetting potentially dangerous passengers, such as age, profession and military service records. The plan will be submitted to Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz and the Shin Bet for their assessment.

Nazi HQ to be Learning Center

The Brown House in Munich, which was home to the Nazi Party beginning in 1933, will serve as a documentation center and a place of learning, according to Germany’s Deutsche Welle news service. The center was first proposed in 1989, and in 2001 the city of Munich approved a plan for the center. The project will be funded by the state of Bavaria and with $50.4 million from the German federal government. Construction will begin at the end of 2008, which is also the 850th anniversary of the city of Munich, according to Deutsche Welle. Nothing is left of the original headquarters building, which was torn down and removed by the temporary U.S. military government at the end of World War II.