November 16, 2018

Time’s Running Out on Uganda’s Poor ‘Rolex’ Vendors

One of the best ways to get insight into a culture is through its street food. And currently here in Kampala, Uganda, what you discover can leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Food here is eaten sitting down rather than on the go, and roughly 95 percent of the local fare is based on cheap, nutrient-deficient carbohydrates such as cassava or posho, a finely ground maize flour cooked into a thick, white paste and eaten with peas or beans. Even Uganda’s national food, matoke, a variety of banana cooked in its own leaves over charcoal and then mashed and served with a sauce made from ground peanuts (called “gnuts”), is rarely served with protein, although sometimes you can get it with a small amount of bony meat cooked in a watery stew. But there is one notable exception to this rule: the Rolex. While the Swiss watch of that name may be a status symbol for the rich and powerful in the West, a Rolex here is a decidedly different thing. 

Rolex, translated from the local language, means “rolled eggs.” It is essentially an omelet rolled up in a chapati, an Indian flatbread that, when made correctly, has flakey layers like a croissant. The Rolex was the brainchild of a resourceful entrepreneur who set up a stand to feed hungry students at Makerere University, also known as the “Harvard of East Africa.” Until recently — more on that later — you could easily pull up to one of the thousands of Rolex carts that lined every thoroughfare and watch as a nimble-fingered Rolex man (only men make Rolex for some reason) cracked two eggs into a plastic mug and cut in shredded cabbage, tomato and red onion with a rusty knife. He would then cook the omelet on a charcoal stove with an iron plate resting precariously on top. When the omelet had browned on both sides, he would roll it up in the chapati like a burrito before depositing it in a small plastic bag for the ravenous customer — all for a mere 1,500 Ugandan shillings (less than 40 cents).

It may not sound like much, but to the tens of thousands of students on a meager budget, or the expats­­ with nary a fast-food option for miles, the Rolex is the hot, fresh and filling snack that dreams are made of. Its simple concept in this city’s protein-deprived, carbohydrate-laden street food landscape caught on like wildfire.

“It may not sound like much, but to the tens of thousands of students on a meager budget, or the expats­­ with nary a fast-food option for miles, the Rolex is the hot, fresh and filling snack that dreams are made of.”

Kampala, like most other sub-Saharan African cities, has grown exponentially over the past few decades with little to no infrastructure improvements to bear the load. As the middle class has swelled, so has the number of cars and traffic. During the rainy season, the potholed and weathered roads are reduced to rivers of terra-cotta-colored mud and rushing waters. Navigating your car in those conditions — between the reckless boda boda mopeds and the old matatus van “buses” that are rolling deathtraps — is akin to driving in a video game. Add to that mix the fact that most people buy their drivers licenses rather than sit for an examination or pay hefty fees for a legitimate driving school, and you end up with traffic jams that make Los Angeles rush hours seem like moments to put the top down and let the wind blow through your hair. 

Enter government bureaucracy in the form of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), which recently decided to take the estimated 10,000 Rolex and other street vendors and arrest them for operating without licenses. As a result, thousands of these vendors shut down almost overnight rather than risk being arrested for operating an illegal stand and possibly going to jail. Unlucky vendors could lose not only their stock and carts, but they could also be on the hook to pay a minimum fine of 100,000 Ugandan shillings (about $27), which may as well be $10,000 to a cart owner barely eking out a marginal living from 12-hour workdays. To make matters worse, if the corrupt Ugandan police want to put the squeeze on a particular vendor who is unable to pay their fine (or bribe) on the spot, that vendor can be thrown in jail. A Ugandan jail shares greater similarities with a Third World dog kennel than it does with a place fit for humans.

Consequently, weary vendors can either take their chances at operating an illegal stand or pursue the nearly impossible option of obtaining an extremely expensive KCCA license — which still doesn’t guarantee they won’t be harassed by police. While the logic behind regulating food carts, and the fees charged to vendors to license them may have some merits, the uprooting of thousands of food cart owners in Kampala has contributed to yet another sad downward spiral of poverty and joblessness.

By the way, I still frequent my favorite Rolex vendor as often as I can — when I can find him. These days he’s always moving around to avoid the police.

I fear the writing is on the wall: As Kampala’s skyline continues to expand, its food cart entrepreneurs will soon disappear — perhaps to be replaced by fancy, solar-powered stands run by companies making “legalized” carts. The costs of those units will be well out of reach of any of the original stand owners who support their families on their meager, hard-earned profits. The new model will also create another potential revenue stream for Uganda’s already bloated government officials. 

While some could argue that the government’s action is progress — after all, the legal carts won’t require charcoal, so they won’t pollute the environment; and customers of the carts will benefit from the “health and hygiene” mandate of the city council — I’m reminded that in much of Africa, the story of progress usually spells disaster for those who can least afford it.

Most of the current vendors are as likely to come up with the money to buy a compliant cart as they are to purchase an actual Rolex watch. 

Yes, you can tell a lot about a culture by its street food. For the vendors, their families and their customers in Kampala, the probable demise of the Rolex carts will be hard to swallow.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co. 

Salmon Cakes with Nothing Fake

I’m perpetually trying to cook with minimal ingredients on the weekends because I’m a chef who usually has an empty fridge by Sunday. Trying to figure out how to put together a delicious meal from the meager ingredients left in my pantry, fridge and garden without venturing out to the store has become a “ ‘Chopped’ challenge” every weekend. (“Chopped” is the Food Network reality show in which cooks must create dishes using often unlikely ingredients provided by the show.)

Recently, there were especially slim pickings, but I knew I could rely on an old standby.

I had canned salmon, leftover steamed broccoli, Parmesan cheese, some pickled jalapeno peppers and a jar of tahini. I always keep Israeli tahini in the fridge because, if push comes to shove, I know I can make a sauce, dip or salad dressing out of it with little more than some lemon and garlic.

Cooking in a professional kitchen is physically demanding, a labor of love and much akin to running a marathon every day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy rice and pasta, but when I eat these highly processed foods, it’s difficult to muster up the energy to do my job. I know that if I don’t eat nourishing food, I’m doomed and won’t have enough power to make it through Monday, much less the rest of the week. I was reminded of this recently when on a trip to the States, I was eating out a lot, not minding nutrition as well as I should have, and noticed a marked decrease in my energy levels and even a little bit of emotional distress.

I know it sounds hypocritical of me as a restaurateur to say, but restaurant food is always full of stuff you don’t necessarily want to consume on a regular basis. In my café in Uganda, I have no choice but to make real food. My options for faking it with processed food are practically nonexistent. There is no Costco or Sam’s Club in the middle of the African continent, no Amazon Prime delivery, for better and for worse.

I’m sure that my experience running restaurants in Africa has been a far cry from the experience of chefs in the West. Although I can’t rely on convenience foods or pre-made sauces, I can’t imagine that with my family background I would cook much differently in a Western kitchen because the most packaged thing we ever ate at my house while I was growing up was Rice-A-Roni.

There were always vegetables drenched in olive oil at our table, roasted peppers were a must, as was Bulgarian feta and plain yogurt. I remember after a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was a teenager, being shocked to see a breakfast table covered with doughnuts, pancakes, bacon, cereal and pitchers of milk and orange juice. I watched as my skinny friend picked up a glazed doughnut and spread butter on it. I remember being jealous that she was built like a thin boy and eating the unthinkable for breakfast.

Later in life, I realized that the Israeli-style eating at my house set me up for a lifetime of healthier habits and taste buds that didn’t crave sugar all the time. And what a blessing that is because I suspect it’s your habits overall that matter, not the once-in-a-while order of McDonald’s french fries or the occasional Chips Ahoy craving that undoes you.  Perhaps, it’s the day-to-day presence or lack of real, nutrient-dense food that you consume daily that creates a foundation for good — or not so good — health.

In my restaurant, although I do bake decadent desserts and sugary treats, they are not meant to be regularly consumed. My menus reflect my love of home-style cooking and tasty, fresh salads influenced by the Mediterranean style of eating and my love of the Israeli food of my childhood.

This salmon cake recipe is one I often make, changing it up according to what I have in the house with the priority being grocery store avoidance at all costs. Of course, you can make this with fresh salmon if you have it, but in Uganda, I’m hundreds of miles from the nearest coast and the best I can do is canned salmon. Note that I don’t use breadcrumbs, matzo meal or flour in this recipe. I prefer the salty kick of Parmesan cheese and the texture of leftover cooked vegetables to provide just enough “glue” to hold together these delicious cakes.

Start to finish, this recipe is a worthwhile investment of 30 minutes. If I know I have a hard week ahead, I’ll double it so I have extra to eat hot or cold throughout the week. Pair with a salad, roasted vegetables, a side of tahini or yogurt and cucumber dip, and you have a quick and nutritious meal that will leave you feeling satisfied and virtuous. Make them on the small side if you have last-minute guests and want to serve as canapes or portion them into larger cakes and serve as salmon burgers. My only caveat: Try to find wild-caught salmon because it tastes so much better than farmed and is probably better for you.

1 15-ounce can of wild-caught pink
or red salmon, drained well
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan
3 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 cup leftover steamed or roasted
broccoli, cauliflower or zucchini,
finely chopped
1/4 cup green onion, finely chopped
1/8 cup chopped pickled jalapeno
peppers or capers (optional)
1/4 cup mixed fresh herbs of your
choice (I use parsley, cilantro and
basil), minced
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon each of salt, pepper, hot
or sweet paprika, or to taste
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges for serving

Drain the salmon well and break up any large pieces with a fork. I leave in the bones because they are soft and are an excellent source of calcium.

Add remaining ingredients except for egg and oil, then taste the mixture. It should taste like a delicious salmon salad. Adjust your seasonings, then mix in beaten egg. Cover with cling film and let rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes while you preheat the oven to 350 F.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper or a silicone mat and brush on two tablespoons of olive oil. Remove salmon mixture from refrigerator and form patties of the desired size, compacting and flattening the patties with wet fingers. Place patties on a tray with oil and turn them over in the oil a few times to coat.

Bake for about 20 minutes, flipping once halfway through cooking or until they are golden brown on both sides.

Garnish with lemon wedges, if desired.

Makes 4 burger-size salmon patties or about 12 appetizer-size patties.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Perspective and the Avocado Seed

For a chef, kitchen disasters are simply par for the course.

You have a 600-person catering job for an important function? “Ha, ha, ha,” says the universe. You can be pretty darn sure your suppliers won’t show up on time, your sous chef, prep chefs or waiters won’t be in a cooperative frame of mind, and anything that goes right falls under the category of suspect.

Recently, after one of these particularly brutal weeks, I found myself irritable, hungry and tired. I felt uncharacteristically troubled, and all I wanted to do was go home and take a nap. Instead, though, I decided to have a little cooking session, because, in my experience, there is no problem so great that an afternoon of puttering around the kitchen at home can’t cure it.

My first step was to go shopping because I’m a chef who inevitably has an empty fridge by the weekend. The traffic where I live in Uganda was delirium-inducing, and by the time I got to my local “Italian grocer” — even though it’s not Italian, and in fact, would barely be considered a grocery store in the more developed world — I was beside myself.

The traffic where I live in Uganda was delirium-inducing.

As always, I found the parking lot full of small children. I call them the banana kids because they perpetually surround my car trying to sell the same product — bananas. Not nice bananas, mind you, but overripe, ugly, fruit fly-infested, past-their-prime bananas that even a banana bread factory would shun. We always perform the same dance, these kids and I: I joke around with them a bit, they try to sell me their fruit, their little carvings, their bracelets. They range in age from around 7 and 14, and they are beyond cute — just sweet, innocent little souls who need to earn money for school fees. Watching them from inside my car in all their glorious, unaffected, youthful disarray let’s me forget my troubles for a moment.

On this occasion, I realized that I was in a huge 4X4 with enough money in my wallet to buy more food than these kids probably have ever seen at one time. Usually, rather than buying their rotten bananas, I like to buy them treats. I figure these kids rarely have sweetness in their lives or parents who can provide them anything more than the tattered clothes and shoes that have been handed down from older siblings. I’m pretty sure most of them don’t have parents to look after them at all. Perspective.

I’d recently been away, so they questioned me in typical Ugandan fashion: “Why are you lost, Auntie Yam?” a phrase reserved for people you haven’t seen in a while. I told them I was busy with work and with life. What I didn’t tell them was that I’ve just gotten done traveling, for the second time this month. It would be inconceivable to them that one could travel, or ever afford a plane ticket. I struggled to smile, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I broke the circle surrounding me and saw in their faces that they were disappointed I wasn’t spending much time with them. The sea of children parted, and I left them already anticipating my return. Perspective.

In the store, my usual fruit and vegetable vendors greeted me with hugs and kisses, shrieking with excitement. “Where have you been Yam? You are lost,” they said. I sank into the hugs and started to tell my favorite salesgirl that I was in a bad mood. “You’ll be all right. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” this wizened 20-year-old said, hugging me tighter and tighter with the confidence of the young mother of three that she is. Perspective.

I bought the kids some lollipops, the kind that come in a “fancy” wrapper with gum you can enjoy in the middle when you are done with the candy. I was thinking about how their eyes would light up at these sweets, a mere 600 Ugandan shillings apiece (about 15 cents) — but completely out of reach to these poverty-stricken kids. Perspective.

I went outside, already feeling better from the hugs and the thought of giving out the candy and was surrounded once again by the circle of too-ripe bananas and toothy smiles. I handed out all the lollies and watched as, one by one, a mixture of wonder and joy crossed the brow of each and every one of them.

Suddenly, the smallest of the bunch, a quiet, shy 7-year-old stepped forward and said, “Here, Auntie, we made this for you.” In his tiny hand was a small carving in the shape of a heart with my name inscribed on it.

“How did you know my full name, kids?” I asked in amazement. “What is this material you used and how did you carve it so fast?”

“It’s soft wood, Auntie, and your name is here,” another boy said, pointing at the insurance sticker on my car window. “You look sad, Auntie, and we appreciate the sweets you always give us.” I stared at the little carving in disbelief and gratitude, trying hard to swallow down tears. Perspective.

“It’s an avocado seed,” explained the oldest, “It is wet now, but it will dry and become like wood.” Sure enough, I inspected the moist little chunk and recognized that it was indeed a small part of an avocado seed roughly carved with a rusty razor blade clutched in the hand of the boy.

“Wait, Auntie, let me carve a hole in it so you can wear it near your heart.”

He removed the lollipop that I had just given him from his mouth and easily punched a hole with the stick through the soft seed, presenting me with a little pendant, now sticky from the heat and the already melting candy. Perspective.

Driving home, I felt awash in shame and guilt over how little these children have and the sweet gift they gave me. How could I feel sorry for myself when they have next to nothing yet are smiling and trying to make me happy? And then it hit me. Jewish scholars answered the question, “Who is the happy person?” long ago in the Talmud. The answer: The person who is grateful for their lot.

How can I feel sorry for myself when they have next to nothing yet are smiling and trying to make me happy?

I realized these kids aren’t unhappy. They are young and free and have their friends and siblings to play with, even though it’s in the parking lot of a ramshackle strip mall. And now they were happier still because they got an unexpected treat from the nice lady in the big green car. They’ve seen how bad things can get, how one day you have parents and the next day, they fall ill and die. They have been hungry, sick and cold, yet they are happy for what they have now. They have perspective.

But the other thing they have in abundance is gratitude. Their delight in receiving a bit of attention is greater than the joy some far more privileged people might feel. They don’t feel entitled to anything, nor do they take anything for granted.

Gratitude and perspective — that’s all anyone really needs to feel better, even after a terrible week at work. And you might even get a pendant with your name on it out of the deal, which, quite frankly, is worth more than all the diamonds and gold in the whole world.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Inside Uganda: Home of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world

A South Sudanese refugee, displaced by fighting, holds her child upon arriving in April at the Imvepi settlement in the Arua District in northern Uganda. Photo by James Akena/Reuters

They live in huts and mud houses, partaking of bare essentials only when they are available. There are few markets and fewer police. Daily life is a constant struggle to survive.

This is the Bidi Bidi refugee camp, deep in the bush of northern Uganda in central east Africa. More than 272,000 people are living in conditions that would make reaching poverty seem like an aspirational goal.

The people in Bidi Bidi are among more than 1 million South Sudanese living as refugees from civil war and ethnic cleansing. Bidi Bidi has become the largest resettlement camp in the world, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The sprawling 89-square-mile camp covers an area larger than the city of Seattle.

Foremost among those helping in Bidi Bidi are several leading Jewish and Israeli organizations, doing what they can to support desperate needs and raise awareness about the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.

“Refugees are not just fleeing because of the violence but to escape an economic collapse and crazy inflation,” Mike Brand, advocacy and programs director at the Encino-based Jewish World Watch (JWW), said in an interview as he surveyed the crisis in Uganda’s Adjumani border district, adjacent to the Bidi Bidi camp. “People can’t afford to work and buy food in South Sudan, and severe food insecurity has been plaguing the country.”

[Bidi Bidi: Struggling to cope with life at the world’s largest refugee settlement]

South Sudan is the world’s newest nation, gaining independence from Sudan to the north in 2011. Even so, tribal clashes in South Sudan that predated independence have continued, lighting a fuse that led to the current crisis.

After a failed attempt at a peace agreement, violence erupted again in July 2016 with massive clashes in the South Sudan capital, Juba, near President Salva Kiir’s palace and a United Nations compound, resulting in more displacement of civilians.

Although the U.N. Security Council called for up to 4,000 peacekeepers to quell the fighting in August 2016, it took until last month for just 150 Rwandan soldiers to take up the mission.

“The government thinks they can win the war militarily and isn’t interested in sharing power,” Brand said of the conflict. “The various rebel movements aren’t strong enough to force a negotiated settlement, so they must keep fighting. A lot of the conflict boils down to money, land and power. All sides have committed gross human rights violations, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and maybe even genocide.”


Bidi Bidi is the single largest refugee settlement in the world. Photo by Trocaire


Jewish aid groups are part of a worldwide response to deal with a humanitarian crisis that rivals others that have gained more attention through political conflict and media coverage. The groups include the Los Angeles-based Real Medicine Foundation and the American Refugee Committee of Minneapolis, as well as the Uganda-based World Action Fund and global operators like Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children.

Uganda currently has 140 nongovernment organizations operating in the country, according to the nation’s official directory.

Jewish World Watch has been working in Sudan and the surrounding region since JWW’s founding 13 years ago in response to the Darfur genocide. Brand, 31, worked for the conflict-prevention group Saferworld in South Sudan before joining JWW in 2015.

A June “global solidarity summit” held in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, ended with the international community pledging less than 20 percent of the funds required to meet the extraordinary needs generated by a crisis that also includes growing famine.

“The World Food Programme cut rations over the last two years,” said Brand, pointing out that monthly nutritional supplements — like flour, sorghum and cooking oil — were cut in half to 6 kilograms, about 13 pounds, for a family. “And it seems to have been reduced again, down to 3 kilograms a month.

“One of the things I am trying to do is understand what is working here,” he added. “The refugee settlements created here are happening because Ugandan families donated their land. It’s the people that live here, not the government, who are allowing refugees to build homes and farm.

“Uganda has been quite welcoming, especially when you compare their refugee response to the United States and Europe.”


Image courtesy of Refugees International


Brand cited the Trump administration’s decision to reduce and cut various foreign support programs as contributing to the crisis.

“President [Donald] Trump’s stance on cutting foreign aid, funding to the U.N. and limiting the State Department’s effectiveness will have disastrous results for crises like South Sudan,” he said, explaining why JWW is launching initiatives for refugee self-sufficiency and advocating for U.S. funding of their basic needs.

The administration, however, said cutbacks in foreign aid have not affected U.S. support for South Sudan.

“We are the single largest donor in the affected areas of Uganda, and as conditions have worsened, we have increased our contributions significantly,” said Deborah Malac, the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda. “Since October 2016, we have provided nearly $154 million for humanitarian assistance, including $57.4 million announced by President Trump on May 24.”

But despite the U.N. and 57 other aid organizations working in northern Uganda, the need to provide food and shelter this year was $1.4 billion, and only 18 percent of it has been received.

To help, Israel recently provided 6 tons of food aid to areas of drought-stricken South Sudan, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said.

Meanwhile, the Israeli nonprofit IsraAID is running psychological support programs and safe drinking water projects in the Ugandan districts where refugees are concentrated.

Despite the U.N. and 57 other aid organizations working in northern Uganda, the need to provide food and shelter this year was $1.4 billion, and only 18 percent of it has been received.

“Last year, it was Greece in the spotlight with the Syrian refugee crisis. But somehow this catastrophe is seen as an African problem instead of a global concern,” said Dahlia Olinsky, Uganda country director for IsraAID. “It is pretty easy for TV networks to get on a plane to Greece and get shots of refugees crossing in boats from Turkey. But the border crossings with South Sudan are a 13-hour drive through the bush from the Kampala airport.”

She said during some months, as many as 3,000 refugees a day cross into Uganda.

Proliferation of informal border crossings are a window into the massive scale of the refugee crisis. The three official passages are on the three roads linking South Sudan with Uganda, but in recent months, authorities opened 10 additional frontier posts on migrant footpaths running through the bush.

“The image that keeps me up at night is of these pregnant teenage girls who have walked for days in the bush with another child or two in tow,” said Olinsky, 35, who coordinates a team of about 12 South Sudanese trained to support the group’s psychological wellness and technical assistance programs.

Eighty-six percent of the South Sudanese refugees are women and children. The men are largely either trying to hold on to ancestral lands or engaged in the fighting.

IsraAID specialists rotate into Uganda and South Sudan, where humanitarian groups estimate that as many as 1.5 million internally displaced people are in flight from fighting in their home villages.

“We work in areas like water, sanitation and hygiene,” Olinsky said. “But our core mission is to build the refugees’ knowledge and skills to handle the psychological impact of their displacement and rebuild their lives.”

More than 20,000 people now have access to clean water because of a training program IsraAID set up at Gulu University, 65 miles south of the Uganda-South Sudan border.

IsraAID employs locals as well as refugees as a way to limit conflict over resources between the two groups, especially in districts where South Sudanese are starting to outnumber native-born Ugandans.

“I gained practical experience in digging wells and installing and maintaining the electric pumps that tap into the underground aquifers which help us get drinking water to the refugees settling here,” said Anena Kevin, 25, a Ugandan and graduate of IsraAID’s training program.

IsraAID, which has raised funds in North America for its efforts in Greece and in Germany for Syrian refugees, has struggled to find donors for the projects in South Sudan and Uganda. Less than 10 percent of its $2 million program expenses has been covered by U.S. donors.

“The lack of attention to this crisis has affected the amounts available for this, but we are doing what we can,” Olinsky said.


A temporary school structure at Bidi Bidi that was destroyed by rain. Photo by Mike Brand/Jewish World Watch


HIAS, the American-Jewish group founded in 1881 to bring Eastern Europeans fleeing pogroms to the U.S., now is engaged in refugee assistance and resettlement with active programs in Venezuela for Colombians fleeing civil war and in Greece, for those escaping the crisis in Syria.

HIAS also is active in Africa. It has sustained a Uganda program for 15 years with a field office in Kampala to support refugees from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo — another sparsely reported African conflict known for the widespread use of rape as a weapon as common as gunfire.

In recent weeks, international resettlement agencies like HIAS have reported an increase of refugees arriving from Congo, with up to 600 crossing the border each day.

“We are thinking strategically about how to step in with the South Sudanese refugees in the north and are eager to work with partners and donors to respond to this massive crisis,” said Rachel Levitan, associate vice president for program planning and management at HIAS.

“I don’t know when the Jewish community is going to respond the way they need to the fact that there are a million South Sudanese in Uganda,” she said. “But I hope we can raise our own awareness and then bring the world’s attention to it, especially for the survivors of gender-based violence.”

Back in Encino, Susan Freudenheim, executive director of JWW, said the promise of no more genocides, of “never again” has to mean something.

“We sent Mike to Uganda to visit Bidi Bidi and other refugee settlement camps to bear witness, because we know from experience the best way to find out what kind of support people really need is to get our own firsthand account.”

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., JWW is organizing a lobbying effort to persuade Congress to increase aid. 

“We are not the United Nations,” Freudenheim said. “We can’t spend millions to feed people, but we can be effective in helping meet specific needs in ways that can be replicated and, hopefully, are helpful.”

Deporting illegal immigrants: Israel’s unresolved challenge

Migrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea queue in line during a food distribution near the former "jungle" in Calais, France, August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The challenge of having to deal with illegal immigration is an international challenge. It is also an Israeli challenge that Israel’s Supreme Court addressed yesterday in a ruling that was as misunderstood by the angry Israelis responding to it, as it was controversial. Generally speaking, Israel under Prime Minister Netanyahu did a superb job in stopping the main route of illegal infiltration from Africa via Egypt. A fence was erected, tougher means were adopted, and the fence essentially halted all illegal entrance through the Sinai Peninsula.

But one challenge lingers: dealing with those who already entered the country. A large community of illegal immigrants resides in southern Tel Aviv, and this community turned several neighborhoods into slums. The government attempts to erode their numbers by various means, but there are hurdles making this goal more difficult than expected.

One problem is that many of these immigrants come from countries to which they cannot return (Eritrea, Sudan), countries that are likely to persecute them. To overcome this challenge the Israel government signed an agreement with other countries (Rwanda, Uganda) that are willing to take in the immigrants, but there is a caveat: these countries will only take them in if they come out of their own free will. The government needs to convince the infiltrators to leave and cannot force them out.

A remedy for this problem was found using a variety of means: financial compensation for those willing to leave was one of them; arrest of those unwilling to leave was another one. The court, in its controversial ruling, limited the second tool to an extent that makes it completely inefficient. The country, the court ruled, can only detain these stubborn residents for two months. After two months, they must to be released.

The government responded to the ruling with expected, and somewhat justified, fury. Telling the immigrants that after two months they will be released takes the bite out of this means of persuasion. It is like telling the government that it has the right to limit the speed of cars but is forbidden from fining the drivers who exceed that limit.

Naturally, the court sees things differently. If the terms signed with other countries are that the immigrants will be leaving willingly, arrest violates these terms. In other words, arresting a person until he is willing to leave violates the meaning of free will. The court did not tell the state that it cannot deport illegal immigrants forcibly. It can. But to do this it will have to find a country willing to take in these deportees.

So, there are two institutions tricking one another here: The government is gaming the condition of free will by putting pressure on the immigrants to leave willingly. The court is gaming the policy of the government by limiting it in a way that makes it null.

What can the government do when the court ties its hands? The immediate response was to argue for new legislation.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and PM Netanyahu all said on Aug. 28 new legislation is the option they will pursue. Israel has a three-pronged approach to halting the flow of infiltrators, Netanyahu said. They include the fence at the border, the deportation agreements and implementation of the policy of deportation.

“In light of today’s developments, we will have to legislate new laws so we can enforce our policy of removing these illegal infiltrators from our country’s borders,” the PM said. Whether the court accepts such a move or declares it unconstitutional is another matter. Whether the countries’ willing to accept deported infiltrators accept this move or accept the court’s interpretation is also another matter.

The larger issue is the delicate balance that needs to be maintained between the interest of the country –- not to have illegal immigrants stay -– and the rights of the infiltrators –- not to suffer from inhuman treatment even though their act of entering the country was illegal.

It is natural that the government is more interested in the policies and less in the rights of illegal immigrants. It is the role of the court to moderate this tendency. Thus, the controversy and frustration of Israelis following the court’s ruling is a sign of a functioning system.

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.”

Rabbi elected as first Jewish member of Ugandan Parliament

The leader of a tribe of Jews in Uganda, a rabbi whose family and community were persecuted under Idi Amin, has been elected to the Ugandan Parliament — the first Jew to achieve that honor in the African nation.

Rabbi Gershom Sizomu has a Los Angeles connection: He was ordained in the Conservative movement at Sinai Temple in 2008 by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.

“I was very proud of him,” Artson said about Sizomu’s election.

Sizomu, 47, and his wife, Tziporah, also recently became parents for the fifth time on March 12. Nadav Sizomu had his naming ceremony on March 21, joining siblings Igaal, 21; Dafnah, 19; Naavah, 10; and Zivah, 4. Today, there are about 2,000 members of Sizomu’s Abayudaya tribe. The Jewish origins of the tribe date to the early 20th century, even before Uganda gained independence from Great Britain. Sizomu and the Abayudaya live in the eastern Ugandan town of Mbale, near the Kenyan border.

“It’s the second-largest town in Uganda, but by American standards, it’s very, very small,” said Artson, who flew to Uganda to formally install Sizomu in Mbale. “His community is on the outskirts.”

Sizomu was elected in an eight-way race in February to represent the Bungokho North district of eastern Uganda in Parliament as a member of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Party, the opposition party. His election was challenged in court by runner-up Peter Magomu Mashate of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the ruling party.

Last week, Sizomu told the Jewish Journal the court had dismissed the challenge and that he is now listed in the Uganda Gazette as a member of Parliament for the district. But according to Diane Tobin of Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization of global Jews with which Sizomu is affiliated, Sizomu is facing a second round of court challenges.

“Obviously, it’s a historical moment,” Artson said of Sizomu’s election. “It’s the first time a Jew was elected to [the Ugandan] parliament. It’s the first time a member of the Abayudaya can participate.”

The story of the Jewish origins of the Abayudaya began in 1919, when Uganda was a British protectorate. Tribal general Semei Kakungulu renounced Christianity after a dispute with the British and converted to Judaism. Sizomu’s grandfather succeeded Kakungulu as spiritual leader of the Abayudaya. Both Sizomu’s grandfather and father were rabbis, although neither was ordained.

“[They had] no formal rabbinic training as there was no rabbinic school in Uganda,” Sizomu said.

Under Idi Amin, the tribe’s existence was imperiled. “We were not allowed to practice or identify with Judaism,” Sizomu said. “We were forced to work on school gardens on Saturday, and they called us Christ-killers.”

Sizomu’s father was arrested for building a sukkah during the dictator’s rule.

“I was inspired by my father and grandfather, who were both spiritual leaders of my community, but the overthrow of Idi Amin on Erev Pesach brought me much closer to the delivering God of Israel,” Sizomu said. 

After Amin’s ouster, which Sizomu called “the perfect timing for redemption,” the Abayudaya sought closer relations with worldwide Judaism. Through the organization Kulanu, they connected with the Conservative movement in the United States, resulting in a formal mass conversion of the tribe in 2002.

Sizomu left his country to study Conservative Judaism at the Ziegler School for five years, including one year in Jerusalem.

“He liked that we were focused on God,” Artson said, “and followed traditional texts and the love of mitzvot.” Sizomu also served a rabbinic internship at Shomrei Torah in West Hills while studying at the Ziegler School.

In 2008, Artson flew to Uganda to formally install Sizomu. “It was on the Uganda national newspaper’s front page,” Artson recalled. “We had one week of Torah learning and shared it with the community.”

Artson described the Abayudaya services as “very spirited” and “traditional … like a Conservative congregation. A lot of singing, many psalms and proverbs [set] to their own melodies, an African rhythm and musicality, too. Wonderful, great energy, great spirit.”

In fact, a CD of Abayudaya prayer music was nominated for a Grammy.

Artson called the Abayudaya “generous and dignified” and Sizomu “genuine and real. He loves his community.”

Sizomu called Artson “my teacher and mentor and a big inspiration.”

“[He] is a great teacher with a voice of reason heard in every statement coming out of him, and I admire his clarity in teaching Torah and in explaining the realities of life. When he came to Uganda, everyone loved his lessons and sense of humor.”

Sizomu continues to visit the United States several times each year, including visits to synagogues in Southern California. 

In 2011, three years after his historic ordination, he made an equally historic run for Parliament, but lost that election. Between the 2011 and 2015 elections, “I maintained my support” and “[learned] from previous experience,” Sizomu said. 

“I would like to use my position to appeal to government and non-government organizations here and abroad to help the people of my constituency have access to basic social needs like running water, health and education,” Sizomu said. “The Abayudaya will benefit alongside others.”

The longtime leader of the Abayudaya is looking forward to joining Parliament, but said he also remembers the past. He will seek to ensure that previous persecutions will not be repeated.

“[The] Abayudaya will benefit by gaining some political recognition, which can translate into some political protection,” he said. “In the past, we have suffered at the hands of people who have used political power to promote their hatred against us.”

Journey to Uganda: Hunger, thirst and happiness

It was  a scene that repeated itself every time we arrived at a new village in rural Uganda. First, the villagers, who were expecting us, came running toward us as we unloaded our tired bodies from our large, rickety van after hours of slogging on dirt roads — roads that made you crave the smooth asphalt of Los Angeles freeways.

Bar Riese, an Israeli woman in her late 20s, was usually first out of the van. She would walk briskly toward the villagers, hugging a large green notebook in her left arm. As the villagers got closer, Bar picked up her pace. Within seconds, the villagers surrounded her, jumping in unison, their arms swinging wildly. Bar, unable to restrain herself, would jump and dance along with them, swinging only her right arm because her left was still holding the green notebook.

I would mostly stand back and take in the scene. I was just glad nobody was pulling me in to dance, as they do at weddings and bar mitzvahs. But the sight of Bar jumping and dancing moved me. In the van, she hardly looked like the dancer type — she talked about things such as solar panels, digital monitoring devices, malaria pills, the distance between villages and trip logistics, always jotting little notes in her green notebook.

But when we got to the villages, she morphed into the dancer type.

The villagers made it easy to dance. They often brought drums and chanted their tribal melodies. On a few occasions, they performed a song especially for us in broken English.

Sharing love: Innovation: Africa (IA) founder Sivan Ya’ari and other IA team members dance with villagers at the Burundya orphanage. Photos by Jon Cassel

One of the songs we heard in an orphanage was about malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitos that kills about 100,000 Ugandans a year — mostly children.

“Malaria, malaria, go away!” the kids would sing in harmony, as they performed a choreographed dance.

Another song used a phrase we heard over and over again in every village: “We are very happy.”

We are very happy to welcome you, we are very happy to receive you, we are very happy for this arrangement, we are very happy for this or that — I think if someone ever came to these villagers and told them, “You can only use four English words the rest of your life,” they would pick, “We are very happy.”

But how could that be? How could living with severe shortages of basic things such as clean water, food, medicine and electricity lead to “We are very happy”?

That question lingered with me throughout the trip. I wondered how much of their happiness was just the sheer excitement of seeing people from the outside honoring them with a visit, and how much was gratitude for what we were bringing. Or was there something else?

We certainly brought some good things. I was traveling with Innovation: Africa (IA), an Israeli nonprofit that brings Israeli ingenuity to African villages. According to its website, since the group’s founding in 2008, it has provided lighting, clean water, food and proper medical care to more than 675,000 people in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bringing water: The dedication ceremony at the Buwakhanyinya village, at the magic moment when clean water starts to flow.

My trip, which took place over the July Fourth weekend, was no tourist excursion; it was a five-day working trip through hundreds of miles of rural expanse and rough terrain. At each stop, the IA staff — including Israelis, Americans and local Ugandans — went over a list of things it was bringing to the villages, and discussed past and future projects.

But the first thing they brought was love.

Before we got down to the business of solar panels, drip irrigation, light bulbs, food, seeds or whatever else was in that green notebook, we had other business to take care of — such as dancing, hugging, shmoozing, singing, hearing welcome speeches from the village elders and making speeches of our own.

My friend Sivan Ya’ari from Tel Aviv, who founded IA and who convinced me to tag along on the trip, is fearless and spontaneous. She’s so fearless and spontaneous, in fact, that she got it into her head that I was this “philosopher from Los Angeles” — so, of course, she would introduce me as such and ask me to speak everywhere we went.

Dancing was out of the question, but speaking I couldn’t decline. As I looked at the beautiful faces of the children for inspiration, and at the noble women dressed in regal, multicolored robes, I would channel my inner tikkun olam voice and let my heart do the speaking.

With a translator by my side, I’d say things like, “We come here not as Americans, Israelis or Jews, but as children of the same God. We are here as your brothers and sisters.” When the villagers erupted in joy at that message of divine equality, I felt as if Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Jewish World Watch was speaking through me. A little more of this, I thought, and I might become a liberal activist.

The truth is, I meant every word. Either Judaism teaches that we’re all created in the image of God or it doesn’t. Either we’re all God’s children or we’re not. Granted, it may be hard to think of a criminal in those benevolent terms, but even that criminal started off as an innocent child looking for happiness and clean water.

In my few days in Uganda, I saw lots and lots of innocent children looking for happiness and clean water. Or a mattress, or a light bulb, or a book, or a bowl of rice.

They were not expecting handmade Chanukah cards when we arrived at the village of Katira, one of the more festive villages we visited. We brought the cards on behalf of the IKAR community in Los Angeles, which since 2011 has adopted Katira and raised money to bring solar-powered electricity to the village.

IKAR moment: At the Katira village, David Suissa presents Chanukah greetings on behalf of the IKAR community in Los Angeles. IKAR has adopted Katira and raised money to bring solar-powered electricity to the village’s school.

As I read aloud a few of the greetings from the children of IKAR, I spoke about the confluence of “light” that came together at that very moment. We were bringing the physical light of electricity and the spiritual light of friendship, all connected through the light of Chanukah. We were also bringing blank cards for the children of Katira to send their own messages of friendship to the children of IKAR.

The theme of light came up again when we arrived at a tiny synagogue in the village of Putti on Friday night. The Jews of Putti are part of the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, who trace their origins to military leader Semei Kakungulu’s conversion to Judaism in 1919. The Putti synagogue, which from the outside looks like an ordinary brick hut, follows the Orthodox tradition, with a mechitzah separating men and women.

The big news that night was the two light bulbs that hung from the ceiling of the shul. As the rabbi welcomed us, he made sure to thank our group for helping bring this simple light to their synagogue to help them pray.

When Sivan invited me to speak, it was a no-brainer. I spoke about the light bulbs. “I think we have too much light and too much electricity in the synagogues of Los Angeles,” I said. “There, I see too much. Here, I see just enough. Just enough to read the words of the prayer book, just enough to pray. You are teaching us tonight the value of just enough.”

The community is poor and certainly can use help, but they make do. They have enough prayer books, including my favorite siddur (Koren, from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), and they’re fluent in several Shlomo Carlebach melodies, which they were singing when we entered their shul Friday night.

What the tribe is praying for these days is to make aliyah to Israel. A few years ago, they caught a break when they were adopted by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, who has brought tribal leaders to study Torah in Israel and is helping them undergo official Orthodox conversions that will be accepted by the Chief Rabbinate.

Davening at Friday night services at the Abayudaya Jews’ synagogue in the village of Putti. Innovation: Africa recently inaugurated electricity and light bulbs to replace candles at the synagogue.

The visit to the Jewish community was an odd interlude for me — I saw people of my own tribe who looked just like the village tribes I had just visited. If ever I needed evidence that we were all God’s children …

I experienced another odd interlude on Sunday morning, when Sivan invited me to speak at a church in Mbale, where we were staying. The church was a large, open, modest stone structure with wooden benches that were about a third full. What could a proud Jew say in an African church?

I remembered something an energy expert had told me a few days earlier, when we were both on the roof of a water tower discussing a solar panel just below us. I asked him what made the solar energy work — the heat or the light? It was the light, he said, before giving me a mini-class on the science of solar panels.

I used that nugget in speaking to the churchgoers. It wasn’t heat that would repair the world, I said, it was light. We were Jews who came to Uganda to bring God’s light from the sun so that the children of Uganda can read books at night, drink cleaner water, grow better food, have better-lit schools and lead better lives. Christians are all about love, I said. Bringing this light to Uganda was how Jews were expressing their own love for God’s children.

Despite the loving sentiments that I felt for the villagers throughout the trip, I can’t say I felt the same way about the leaders of the country. There are plenty of natural resources in Uganda, including enormous reservoirs of clean water buried in giant aquifers. There’s also plenty of oil.

Guess which one takes precedence with the strongmen running the country? It’s not even close. It is oil that brings the money to fund palaces; it is oil that empowers the leaders and helps them control the people. Pumping clean water with the same urgency would only empower the people — and then what?

This is the unspoken outrage in seeing courageous Israelis trek to Uganda to help provide basic services to remote villages. It makes one ask these innocent, American-type questions, such as: Why is their government not doing this?

I wondered sometimes what goes through the minds of the wealthy leaders of Uganda when they see Israeli Jews set up offices in their country to help bring water and electricity to their citizens. What are these Israelis doing here? Aren’t they making us look bad? Should we boot them out?

In reality, IA has developed good relations with government officials, so, regardless of whose responsibility it is to provide these services, the group’s efforts are welcomed.

I never got a sense that the villagers themselves expect much from their government. That might be another reason why the people are “very happy” — they have been conditioned by the plague of low expectations.

At one of the villages where we inaugurated a new water tower, I spoke to those expectations. “The water we are bringing you today,” I said, “is not a gift. It is your right. Just as you have the right to have clean air to breathe, you have the right to have clean water to drink. Every child of God has that right.”

Ultimately, if people power in Africa won’t come through democratic and accountable governments, it may come through a democracy that governments will find hard to stop … the democracy of the Internet.

So far, the only piece of technology in African hands is the old-fashioned cellphone. Many say that the revolution will begin when African masses start to hold the Internet in their hands.

Sivan Ya’ari and Sabrine Bilger sit with the rabbi’s son in the Putti synagogue.

In a 2011 report on the future potential of the online world to transform Africa, the Economist noted, “The mobile web is a more potent tool than anything else in African history, because it is interactive, participatory, and to some degree democratic and anonymous.

“On the Internet you can doubt, you can challenge, you can be openly gay, join the opposition or find fellow believers, and most of all you can be entertained and informed in those long hours in traffic jams or evenings in crowded rooms lit by a single bulb.”

Innovation: Africa has the Internet on its radar screen for future services, but for now, the group has its hands full expanding its water and solar energy efforts throughout Africa. As Sivan Ya’ari often notes, however, the ultimate goal of IA is to enable a better education by providing basics such as light and clean water. Connecting the children to the Internet would be just a natural extension.

I have to say, though, it’s hard for me to imagine the kids in the villages carrying their smartphones and nervously checking their digital screens every few seconds for the latest text or tweet or Instagram message. One thing that makes these children beautiful is their serenity, their impossibly long attention spans. They could sit for hours and pay attention to each other, to us, to the land and to all that was going on around them. Aside from the Shabbat table, I can’t get my kids to sit still for longer than 30 seconds.

But technology has a way of finding people. What will happen when the Ugandan kids of tomorrow go on Google, YouTube and Facebook and discover a world their parents never saw? When they learn to expect more from life and fight for their rights as equal children of God?

We won’t know for a while.

In the meantime, what we know is that there are young Israelis and Jews trekking to Africa, working with the locals, dancing with the villagers, driving for hours on terrible roads, filling green notebooks with to-do lists regarding solar panels, water pumps, eggplant seeds, mattresses and digital monitoring devices … and being very happy doing it.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Anti-gay persecution abroad demands U.S. action

Every parent imagines and treasures a child’s first words, first steps, first love. Our children will graduate high school and then college, find their passion, marry their sweetheart, have children of their own.

There are also things a parent privately dreads. In 2010, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a first-year student at Rutgers University, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after students taunted and bullied him for being gay.

I was shocked by his suicide. Tyler went to high school with my daughter. Yet Tyler’s pain had been invisible to us. How did we fail him?

Tremendous strides have been made in ensuring the dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in our nation in the last two decades. Yet prejudice and hatred still exist. In the United States, much legislation has been written to try to protect the rights of LGBT people, but our laws aren’t comprehensive, and much more needs to be done. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states and counting, but in many places children like Tyler still live in fear and shame.

Internationally, the reality is even bleaker. Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in 77 countries and, shockingly, punishable by death in five of those countries.

Six months after Tyler died, I traveled with American Jewish World Service to Uganda. We had breakfast in Kampala with a man whose name could not be spoken. We were warned not to mention his name in any public forum because he was an LGBT activist. He had been arrested the previous week, and he believed he was under surveillance.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had just signed into law a new Anti-Homosexuality Act that made our new friend’s work illegal. The legislation threatened to imprison those who engage in same-sex relations and the government vowed to shut down any nonprofit organizations working with the LGBT community.

This man was educating the public about LGBT issues and planning outreach meetings to provide legal, medical and psychological support for families afflicted with HIV/AIDS. He was an outspoken opponent of the Anti-Homosexuality Act and feared for his life.

Similar laws criminalize homosexuality around the world. In Russia, about one year ago, President Vladimir Putin signed what has become known as the “LGBT propaganda law” that prevents “distribution of information that is aimed at the formation among minors of nontraditional sexual attitude, attractiveness of non-traditional sexual attitudes.” In nations where Sharia law is honored — including Nigeria, Yemen and Iran — homosexual acts can carry the death penalty.

For the sake of children like Tyler, who are bullied for being gay; for the sake of activists in Uganda, and couples in love in Russia, Nigeria and Yemen, we must prevent global violence against LGBT people.

Today we have an opportunity to do our part to ensure that LGBT people globally can live freely and securely by calling upon the Obama administration and Congress to strengthen international policies on LGBT rights, and to assume a leadership role here and abroad to end hate crimes against LGBT people.

Just last month, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced in Congress the International Human Rights Defense Act. This act would direct the State Department to make international LGBT human rights a foreign policy priority. It would establish a position in the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor that would be responsible for coordinating that effort.

One year during the High Holidays, I asked congregants to raise their hands if a member of their family or a friend was LGBT. Three-quarters of those present did. LGBT people facing violence, prejudice and fear around the world are not strangers — they are our family, our friends. A sacred society is one in which no one is marginalized or enslaved; no one objectified, or invisible, or oppressed.

With the International Human Rights Defense Act, Congress has the opportunity to do the right thing for all of God’s children. Lives depend on it.

(Rabbi Elyse Frishman is spiritual leader of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. She edited “Mishkan T’filah, A Reform Siddur” and serves on the board of American Jewish World Service.)

Op-Ed: A miracle in Uganda

As we celebrate Passover, it is important to remember that as great as the miracle of the Exodus was, freedom was only the beginning. I know this from reading the Torah, but I also know from personal experience.

I was born in Uganda to Jewish parents at a time when it was illegal to be a Jew in my country. Uganda’s dictator, Idi Amin, was a modern-day Pharaoh, outlawing everything Jewish from prayer to practice. Many of our Jewish elders, including my father, the community rabbi, were beaten and imprisoned. Our synagogue was destroyed. Under these dangerous conditions, most of the 3,000 Jews in Uganda abandoned their faith.

Nearly a decade later, on April 11, 1979, corresponding to 14 Nisan, 5739, Amin was deposed. It was the first night of Passover when the government declared freedom of worship. For us, it was a true Passover miracle.

However, as exciting and meaningful as the Passover celebration was for us that year, it was, as in ancient times, only the beginning. In the days, months and years that followed, we have engaged in the task of rebuilding our community. Like the journey of the Israelites in the desert, that work has been filled with many joyous moments as well as challenges.

Over the last 35 years, the Abayudaya, as the Jews of Uganda are called, have experienced many successes. Like the Israelites, one of our first priorities was building a place of worship. Our small synagogue serves not only as a house of prayer but also as a meeting place for education and gathering for the entire community. And just as Jethro deputized leaders to help Moses, we have built a yeshiva that is training the next generation of African Jewish leaders.

But as we know from the Israelite experience, growing and moving a community forward is difficult, and complaints are inevitable. Throughout the wanderings in the desert, the Israelites grumbled and complained. Had this been the dominant narrative of the ancient biblical wanderings, it would have only fueled the discontent and hindered progress.

Among the Abayudaya there are similarly those who grumble as we grow. It is unfortunate that these complaints and some religious differences within our community have been the recent focus of mainstream Jewish media — disproportionate to their importance.

For all our successes, there are indeed challenges. We are a poor community, and our resources are limited.

But focusing on the complaints shows an incomplete picture of the real miracles of growth, connection and possibility that we have created in a short 35 years. There is more work to be done, and there are theological disagreements — we are Jews, so it could not be otherwise. But today there are African children learning Hebrew, and men and women are celebrating Shabbat, and we have not had a death from malaria in five years. It is extraordinary.

Unlike the ancient Israelites, our vision of a promised land is not solely focused on Israel. Rather, we dream of continuing to grow a vital and vibrant Judaism that thrives naturally in our native Uganda.

Because our numbers have swelled, with the help of Be’chol Lashon and Jews around the world we are about to build a new synagogue and community center. Not only will it serve as house of prayer but also, like the manna, feed those in need through a sustainable food program. Additionally, it will house a child-care center so mothers of all faiths can study and work, and children can be provided with a stimulating environment to learn.

These vital services benefit more than just the Abayudaya, allowing us to proactively combat anti-Semitism and live in peace with our Muslim and Christian neighbors.

No institution or community is perfect, and we understand that even as successes come, discontent is inevitable. But do not be fooled. These are minor complaints that should not take away from the miraculous reemergence of Jewish life in Uganda, no matter the denomination.

And at Passover, more than any time of year, we as Jews should be celebrating this miracle.

(Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, a graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, is the leader of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda and Be’chol Lashon’s Africa regional director.)

Israelis pay to send deported African kids to school in Uganda

Among the 1,000 students who attend two brightly painted boarding schools in Kampala, Uganda, is a group of 72 South Sudanese children who speak perfect Hebrew on the playground.

“It is unbelievable,” said Alex Gumisiriza, head of academic programs at the Trinity Schools Uganda primary and secondary schools. “For us in Uganda, we thought the Jews are the only people who can speak Hebrew, and we were told that Hebrew is the most difficult language in the world. So we were very much surprised to see African children speak Hebrew with ease.”

The phenomenon was born when hundreds of South Sudanese asylum seekers, who had previously settled in Egypt, began to flee to Israel through the Sinai Desert in 2005. (According to activists working with this community, they fled after Egyptian police killed dozens of South Sudanese nationals at a protest against the United Nations’ refugee agency in Cairo.)

As the first small group of African asylum seekers to reach Israel, the families received a warm welcome, and their children quickly integrated into the Israeli school system. Over seven years living in Israel, they adapted to the Israeli way of life.

“The kids are Israeli — in all of their being, they’re Israeli. In the way that they talk, in the way they express their opinions, in so many things,” said Israeli corporate attorney Lea Forshtat, 48, co-founder of Come True South Sudan, a program that sends the South Sudanese children to school in Uganda. She runs the program with Rami Gudovitch, 44, an adjunct philosophy professor at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center, who devotes hours each day both to checking up on the students in Uganda and assisting the African asylum-seeker community still in Israel.

Forshtat said she first became aware of this transplant population when her son, Uri, formed a close friendship with a South Sudanese boy named Wayi in his class at the Magen School in far-north Tel Aviv. “He joined my son’s class in third grade, and they almost instantly became friends,” she said. “Actually, my son didn’t even mention the fact that this child was different than him.”

From there, Forshtat said, Wayi “came over many times to our house. He’s a very intelligent, polite, nice child — very well-liked in his class.”

But when tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan proper began flooding into Israel due to hardships in their own countries, government officials decided they had to crack down on both the newly arrived and long-settled Africans. Wayi and about 500 other South Sudanese kids living in Israel, along with their parents, were forcibly deported in 2012 when Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai ruled that no danger awaited them in South Sudan.

South Sudanese students, joined by Come True South Sudan co-founder Rami Gudovitch, take a school bus back to their boarding school in Kampala, Uganda, after a short break in September.

That summer, a total of 900 asylum seekers left for the airport in a series of tearful goodbyes from Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Gudovitch posted photos online of South Sudanese children crying in their bus seats, holding up goodbye notes they had written in Hebrew for their Israeli classmates to read. 

Forshtat, too, described the farewell at the bus station as “terrible.”

“It’s always sad to part with someone you love, but usually people are going because they want to go,” she said. “I’ve never escorted anyone who left against their will. This was a first for me, my child and, of course, for them.”

Within the first few months back in South Sudan, seven of the children died from malaria. Many had left South Sudan at a very early age, and had no recollection of their homeland — nor immunity to local diseases, Gudovitch explained.

And in the long term, he said, there were limited options to continue their education. According to a 2012 report on post-independence life in South Sudan by the Overseas Development Institute, “The new Constitution guarantees the right to an education, but implementation of this is a major challenge, with currently less than 2 percent of the population having even completed a primary school education.”

Seeing how dark the future looked for their South Sudanese friends, Forshtat and Gudovitch felt they must intervene.

“So we decided to send the children back to school,” Gudovitch said.

In 2013, the two Israelis created Come True South Sudan. Through the program, funded almost entirely through donations from average Israeli families, 72 of the deportees are now attending the Trinity Schools in Uganda, where annual costs for each child are about $1,375 for education and boarding.

“Of course they are missing Israel, but we are trying to give them the best education we can,” said Gumisiriza, head of academic programs at Trinity. “With education, they can do anything.”

The attorney and the professor later moved their program under the Israeli umbrella organization Become, which had already been helping young students in Kenya.

Organizers hope to keep sending more students to Trinity, and also to eventually build a school in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, “that would serve not only the deportees, but other children from the community,” Gudovitch said.

Israeli activist Rami Gudovitch, right, visits 15-year-old South Sudanese student Achol Malut, left, at her new school in Uganda. The two met while Gudovitch was volunteering for an after-school program in South Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.

A recent fundraiser for Become’s initiatives in Africa was held at the indie Cinematheque Theater in Tel Aviv. The organization screened the film “A Small Act,” a true story about a Holocaust survivor who, as a schoolteacher in Sweden, donated about $15 a month to an anonymous Kenyan child who could not afford to go to high school. In her old age, the survivor found out that the child not only went on to work for the United Nations, but also started a new scholarship fund for more generations of Kenyan children in the survivor’s name.

The highlight of the event, though, was a short film clip from an upcoming documentary on the Come True South Sudan project — set to air on Israel’s Channel 2 on March 31. In one surreal scene, a group of South Sudanese children sing a round of “Eretz Israel Sheli” (“My Land of Israel”) while riding on their Ugandan school bus. 

Like many in the crowd, Gudovitch, dressed in a black blazer and his signature newsboy cap, had to choke back tears when talking about the kids he helped bring to Uganda. He arrived and exited the theater surrounded by children from the remaining African refugee community in Israel, who shouted his name and tugged at his clothes to get his attention.

Neither of the founders of Come True South Sudan run with the usual Israeli activist groups — and perhaps for their different mindset, are getting more done on their own, without salary, than many nonprofits do with full staffs.

Their resolve was put to the test in December 2013, when, after one year at the Trinity boarding schools, the kids returned home to South Sudan to spend summer break with their families. 

“Then the war broke — and we found ourselves engaged in a very different thing,” Gudovitch said.

In a home video Gudovitch made on one of his many trips to visit the kids at Trinity, a young South Sudanese girl (who he prefers remain nameless, due to ongoing conflict in the region) described escaping from the current civil war zone in her home country, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives so far.

“We ran to a really far place — to a forest,” the girl said in Hebrew. “And we slept on the ground with blankets. … There also wasn’t enough food [or water]. Kids would cry, and also the grown-ups would worry and cry. We cried every day. We thought that we won’t be in a good place again, and we will be in the forest forever.”

South Sudanese asylum seeker Achol Malut, 15, departs on a bus to the Tel Aviv airport in summer 2012 after her family was ordered to return to South Sudan. “When the deportation order was issued, Achol asked me to promise her that I shall not forget my promise: to make sure that she and her siblings and friends go back to school,” Gudovitch said. Photo courtesy of Rami Gudovitch.

Her older brother, sitting next to her, went on to describe the horrors of the newest clashes in South Sudan: “Each time you see someone dead on the street,” he said, “you think you will die, too.”

But then, his little sister said in the video, “Rami helped us to get here [to Uganda] with a plane. And now we are happy that we are in a better place.”

Said Gudovitch: “We made a grand operation to rescue them — first to trace them, then to transport them to Kampala, where I was waiting for them.”

He and Forshtat both said they are often accused of putting the needs of foreigners ahead of people in need in their own community.

“People don’t take it very well,” Forshtat said. “The most common reaction we get is: ‘The poor people of your country should come first.’ But I don’t think it’s contradictory.”

And anyway, according to the program leaders, these South Sudanese kids deported from Israel became as Israeli as most Israelis.

“They are just a bunch of very naughty Israelis, full of chutzpah,” Gudovitch said. “The first week in school was so funny, because right away, they had some problem, and they saw the big sign over the manager’s door, so they knocked on the door and complained. Their complaint was the first time ever a student dared to knock on the door of the headmaster.”

To sponsor a child or donate to the Come True South Sudan project, visit

Editor's note: Certain quotes describing the current civil war in South Sudan have been omitted from this article to protect the children who were quoted.

In rural Uganda, small Jewish community splits over conversion

On Fridays at sundown, the Jewish residents of this village set amid the lush hills of eastern Uganda gather in the synagogue to greet Shabbat.

The room is bare, the light is dim and the Conservative prayer books are worn. But the spare surroundings do little to diminish the enthusiasm of the men, women and children who sing psalms, clap and dance while a few in the front strum guitars and play drums.

Two days later and an hour away in the village of Putti, a handful of men wake at sunrise and trudge into a narrow room lit only by sunbeams streaming through the nearby banana trees. Those who have tefillin wrap them, while the rest sit on hard benches behind oblong wooden desks reading from traditional Orthodox prayer books with crumbling bindings. A sheet hung by a string demarcates an empty women’s section. At the front of the room hangs an Israeli flag.

Until the early 2000s, the two communities were one. Known as the Abayudaya, the 2,000-member group has practiced Judaism for about a century, owing to a former community leader who read the Bible and adopted the religion.

Now, despite being led by cousins and sharing other ties, the communities are split and barely speak to each other. Even in the mountains of rural East Africa, there’s the synagogue you go to and the one you don’t.

In the late 1990s, Conservative movement leaders began to visit the Abayudaya and, in 2002, many community members underwent conversion by a Conservative rabbinical court. Gershom Sizomu, the Nabugoye group’s American-trained rabbi, calls it a “confirmation.”

But Sizomu’s cousin, Enosh Keki Maniah, soon learned that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate does not recognize Conservative conversions, so he and a handful of followers declined the confirmation, opting instead to practice Orthodoxy. In 2003, they left Nabugoye for Putti.

“The goal of our grandparents were not [just] to be here as Jewish people but to be known as Jewish people,” Maniah said. “All along, our grandparents had a dream to go to Israel.”

The central synagogue of the Abayudaya Jewish community in rural Uganda. Most of the 2,000-member community is Conservative, but a small faction has chosen to practice Orthodoxy. (Ben Sales)

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Although the communities are a short distance apart, they have mostly lost touch. Sizomu and Maniah used to share a home, but aside from attending a recent wedding, Sizomu no longer visits Putti. Nor do the Putti Jews come to celebrate Jewish holidays in Nabugoye, where some of them once lived.

The group in Nabugoye models its practices on those of the liberal Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Over the past decade, it has received material support from Conservative Jews in the United States and Israel, as well was from the New York-based nonprofit Kulanu, which supports far-flung Jewish communities.

“Our children are growing with interest in Judaism, with love for their tradition,” Sizomu told JTA. “I only hope that my people get access to the outside world, where they’ll get more Jewish experience.”

Even with support from the Diaspora, the community remains poor. All the members are farmers, including Sizomu, who despite his rabbinical degree from the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, grows plantains to support himself.

The smaller community in Putti relies on private donations from abroad and lacks some of the amenities of Nabugoye, though it is building a new synagogue, health clinic and a school named for Yoni Netanyahu, the Israeli commando who died in a 1976 raid on Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.

Enosh Keki Maniah is hoping to move to Israel.

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Still, accessing world Jewry is the group’s top priority. Only a handful of members have converted under Orthodox auspices, but the community of about 100 practices Orthodoxy and, after conversion, hopes to move en masse to Israel.

“I would go around each community telling them if you want to be considered by the Israeli state, it’s better to follow the Orthodox route,” Maniah said. “We didn’t have any grudge with anyone. We knew it was our choice.”

Maniah’s dream of conversion and immigration to Israel is inching forward. Israeli Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has visited Putti twice and brought two of its residents to study at his yeshiva, where he converted them to Orthodoxy. Maniah’s family also converted under Riskin’s auspices.

“I was amazed with what I found, the old shul and the new shul,” Riskin told JTA, referring to the Putti community’s new synagogue. “The whole town came out. They sang Hebrew songs. They’re learning, teaching, keeping mitzvot.”

Under Israeli law, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize Riskin’s conversions because he doesn’t sit on any of its official rabbinical courts. But a law expected to pass the Knesset later this year would give Riskin that authority and set the community on the path to conversion.

In the meantime, Riskin has converted only the few community members he knows well. One is Moshe Yashirah Madoi, who studied at Riskin’s yeshiva and has returned to Uganda, where he lives with his family in a small house a short drive from Putti. It is his home, but Madoi says he longs to live a Jewish life in the Jewish state.

“It is my dream, my goal because Judaism is a very strict faith,” Madoi said. “The environment has to be favorable. In Israel it is the most favorable environment. Sometimes we are forced to eat in restaurants that are not kosher. Everywhere you walk [in Israel] there is kosher. Shabbat everyone is observing.”

Like his Conservative counterparts in the United States and Israel, Sizomu rejects the Chief Rabbinate’s injunction that Conservative conversion is somehow insufficient to establish Jewishness. But though he’s proud to be Conservative, he regrets that denominational battles have splintered the once united community.

“Inside us we still think we are a unique African-Jewish community,” Sizomu said. “We don’t want to amplify our association to any of the Jewish movements. We feel bad that these Jewish movements have the effect of dividing up the Jewish people. We don’t have to compete with others.”

Israel confirms sending migrants to third country

Following reports that Israel was sending African migrants to Uganda, Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Saar confirmed that Israel is sending migrants to a third-party country.

“The departure for third countries, on the basis of agreements we have reached, is of limited scope, in the order of dozens,” Saar said Tuesday at a press conference, according to Haaretz, which reported two weeks ago that migrants were going to Uganda. “It’s a relative minority of the infiltrators who are leaving, but in this I’m not counting infiltrators who leave of their own free will to other, additional countries.”

Saar did not say which country had agreed to absorb the migrants, nor would he provide details on the arrangement to voluntarily deport migrants from Israel.

Approximately 55,000 to 60,000 migrants live in Israel, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan. More than 1,700 left Israel in February.

The migrants are seeking refugee status in Israel and say they have come fleeing persecution and oppressive dictatorships in their home countries. Israeli government officials say the migrants have come seeking economic opportunity, and the government has granted refugee status to only a small handful.

Israeli NGOs bringing their expertise to meet Africa’s needs

When they first arrived in northern Kenya in 2011 at the height of a massive drought, the Israeli refugee aid organization IsraAid planned to offer food and other core necessities to the 100,000 residents of the Kakuma refugee camp.

When the drought subsided a year later, IsraAid’s directors saw that this sort of assistance was becoming less crucial. Much larger organizations were providing food, clothing and medicine.

But rather than leave, IsraAid shifted its focus from short-term aid to long-term support through something Israelis do best: post-trauma counseling. Decades of terror attacks have equipped Israeli experts to serve the camp’s residents, many of whom are survivors of hunger, torture or the violent death of relatives. IsraAid has trained 18 camp residents to be social workers; most of them are now helping other camp residents cope with their pain.

“Part of the health of a person is mental health,” said Naama Gorodischer, IsraAid’s Kenya country director. “We can do what we know, and what we do in all our projects is use Israeli knowledge and specialization to perform capacity building.”

IsraAid is one of several Israeli NGOs working to improve the lives of Kenyans by importing Israeli technology and expertise. Their work is enabled by a history of friendly ties between Israel and Kenya and the relative stability of Kenya’s government and economy.

Nairobi, a booming city where new malls and roads intersect with destitute slums and gated communities, has emerged as a center of humanitarian work in East Africa. International organizations from the United Nations to Oxfam have located their regional headquarters there. Even after the terrorist attack on the city’s upscale Westgate mall in September, international aid workers continue to operate in Kenya with little fear.

“Nairobi is an international hub in East Africa for development,” said Gilad Milo, the founder of Israel for Africa, a Kenya-based nonprofit that teaches young people to farm using Israeli technology. “It’s like an entry point, spreading to Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi. It’s a good melting pot for ideas.”

Kenya has been a friendly destination for Israelis since it gained independence in 1963. Israeli businesses helped build the country’s infrastructure and boost its agriculture sector, and the two countries coordinate on security issues. Exchange between the two countries has been robust, with Israeli military personnel advising Kenya in the wake of the Westgate attack and Kenyans routinely traveling to Israel for professional training programs. Israeli experts come to Kenya to lead seminars on everything from agricultural technology to Krav Maga, the martial art developed in Israel.

“There’s a strong sense of affinity with Israel as a country struggling for liberation,” Israel’s ambassador to Kenya, Gil Haskel, told JTA. “Kenyans understood that they could benefit from relations with Israel.”

Such close relations have led to a booming industry in Israeli humanitarian assistance. Israel for Africa provides impoverished young Kenyans with farming kits that include the equipment necessary to raise a small plot of crops, from Israeli-made greenhouses to Israeli-designed drip irrigation systems.

Members of one of the youth associations with which Israel for Africa partners, a dance group called Ramsa Africa, begin work at 6 a.m. on rows of tomatoes, peppers, spinach and kale, watering the crops with drip-irrigation hoses and checking each plant for signs of disease. After lunch they have dance rehearsals.

“It doesn’t make any sense that we invented drip irrigation [only] for our little strip of land,” Milo said as he rode a 4-by-4 along the bumpy roads of a Nairobi slum. “There’s got to be a bigger picture.”

A similar mission drives Brit Olam, an Israeli nonprofit running an agriculture development program in the semi-arid northwest region of Turkana. Droughts have made reliance on grazing cattle impossible, so Brit Olam imported Israeli technology for desert farming to give local residents economic independence.

“This is a change in mentality for people who never had to wake up early and go every day to the field to do a routine,” Brit Olam project developer Millet Biberman said. “But until you have water and food, you can’t do anything else.”

The Israeli nonprofit Save A Child’s Heart, which was founded in 2008 and is active in 44 countries, brings underprivileged Kenyan children in need of heart surgery to Israel. Its Kenya branch went on hiatus from 2009 until this year, when founding director Rina Attias returned to the the helm. According to Attias, the waiting list has 250 children.

Attias, who survived the Westgate attack by hiding in a closet, said that experiencing terror in Kenya only made her more dedicated to saving lives there.

“Every place has terror,” she said. “This can happen anywhere. If I was supposed to die, I would have died, but my time apparently has not come yet. So I chose to do more for this community.”

Congresswoman ‘disturbed,’ ‘saddened’ by Ugandan anti-gay bill

Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-37th district) has denounced the decision of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to sign into law a bill that criminalizes specific forms of homosexual activity.

“I am deeply disturbed and saddened that President Museveni decided to sign this ill-conceived and morally wrong piece of legislation,” the California representative said. “Americans have learned first-hand how poorly history judges writing discrimination into law, and generations will judge President Museveni and the Ugandan Parliament the same.”

A ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations, Bass said that the new law in Uganda is not indicative of how the leadership of neighboring countries treats lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“It is important to remember that Africa is a continent of 1 billion people in fifty-four nations, and this legislation is not a reflection of the entire continent,” Bass said, joining a chorus of Jewish-American opposition to the Ugandan legislation.

Under the new law, Ugandans convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” could face life sentences behind bars.

The law concerns sexual activity with a person who is disabled, or under 18-years-old, or instances in which the offender is HIV positive

The Ugandan president approved the law on Feb. 24. 

Yesterday, American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has made LGBT rights its foremost issue, “condemned Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s decision to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law as a violation of the basic human rights of Uganda’s LGBT people.”

The Congresswoman, for her part, said she would not allow the Ugandan leader’s actions to deter her from her efforts of advocating on behalf of vulnerable communities worldwide.

“I will continue to use my position to advocate for equal and basic rights for people around the world. I stand with Secretary Kerry in stating that the United States will continue to stand against any efforts to marginalize, criminalize, and penalize vulnerable persons in any society,” Bass said.

Jewish group condemns new Ugandan anti-gay law

After Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday signed into law a bill assigning a life sentence to some forms of homosexual activity, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has made LGBT rights its foremost issue, swiftly responded.

“By signing this draconian bill into law, President Museveni has demonstrated his disregard for the fundamental human rights of Ugandan citizens and has sanctioned hate and discrimination toward LGBT Ugandans,” AJWS president Ruth Messinger said in a Feb. 24 press release.

Under the law, someone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” could face life imprisonment, and the law defines “aggravated homosexuality” as sexual activity with a person who is disabled, or under 18-years-old, or instances in which the offender is HIV positive, according to the New York Times report.

New York-based AJWS leader Messinger called Ugandan leader’s signing of the bill a “cynical maneuver…[designed] to consolidate his political power at the expense of the lives and dignity of LGBT Ugandans.”

AJWS, an international development and human rights organization, has been pushing back against the legislation for several years. On Feb. 10, believing that the Ugandan president would be susceptible to United States pressure and in attempt to cultivate support from American officials, representatives of AJWS and allied groups convened at Congresswoman Karen Bass’ (D-37th district) Los Angeles headquarters at Wilshire boulevard and Highland avenue, to voice their disapproval of the legislation.

The group represented the intersection of Jewish L.A.’s social justice and LGBT communities; participants carried signs that read, “We Believe Love is Not a Crime. Stand with LGBT Ugandans” as they marched into Bass’ L.A. office that afternoon.

On Feb. 10, an AJWS-led delegation expresses solidarity with the LGBT community of Uganda. Photo by Ryan Torok.

They met with Jacqueline Hamilton, the L.A.-based field representative of Congresswoman Bass, and they presented a letter that called on the Ugandan president to veto the law. AJWS had gathered the signatures of more than 300 rabbis for the letter.

Bass’ Web site illustrates her interest in the law, through a statement from December:  “I am deeply concerned regarding the harassment, discrimination and violence that Uganda’s LGBT community will certainly face should this legislation become law,” the congresswoman said in December.

Bass could not be immediately reached for comment on Feb. 24.

The bill is a revised version of a 2010 bill, which included a provision for the death penalty in connection to acts of “aggravated homosexuality.” The version that was signed into law this week does not include the death penalty provision.

Social justice organizations inside of Uganda plan to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in court, according to the AJWS press release.

Clergy reflect on Proposition 8

On a wall of the Autry National Center — among Los Angeles Jewish immigrant artifacts, biographies of Hollywood Jewry, above a case of kippot from Uganda — a white banner proclaims in crimson letters: “Beth Chayim Chadashim, Jewish, Gay & Lesbian & Proud.” The banner, used in gay pride marches in the 1980s and ’90s, is part of the museum’s exhibition “Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic,” which runs through Jan. 5. Lent to the museum by the world’s first gay synagogue, Beth Chayim Chadashim, (House of New Life), the banner is presented as a symbol of gay liberation in Jewish life.

Just across the museum’s courtyard, in its Wells Fargo Theater, the gay pride movement and, in particular, the road to marriage equality, came to life at an Oct. 20 symposium, “Faith Meets 8,” linked to the “Mosaic” show. Moderated by Los Angeles Times columnist David Lazarus, speakers included the Rev. Troy Perry, founder of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), the world’s first gay church, and Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), joined by Mormon scholar Joanna Brooks, and USC religion and sociology professor Paul Lichterman.

This November marks the fifth anniversary of the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. Much of the discussion at the Autry centered on the role that conservative religious groups played in the measure’s initial success — prior to it being overturned by the United States Supreme Court last spring — as well as what the speakers described as recent rapid shifts leading up to this year’s resumption of gay marriages.

“What we’re seeing now is this sea change that’s happening in same-sex marriage in state after state, such a sudden change and such a shift from what we saw in 2008,” said Edwards, whose Reform congregation is in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The rabbi attributed these changes to the hard work of activists, as well as the positive impact that recent same-sex marriages have had, especially on prior opponents. “There’s nothing like getting invited to a wedding … and seeing what a couple is creating together, a family together, to help people let that fear fall away, to break down those boundaries,” Edwards told the audience of about 60 people. 

It was Perry, whom Edwards referred to as “the founding reverend” of the BCC, whose encouragement led to the formation of the Jewish congregation in 1972, and his L.A. church served as the temple’s original home. In 2004, Perry, along with his husband, was among the first litigants to sue the state of California in seeking gay marriage. The Supreme Court overturned Proposition 8 in June, along with the landmark ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, and in October, New Jersey became the 14th state to legalize gay marriage. Other states, including Michigan, are expected to follow soon. Although Perry emphasized his belief in marriage equality as a civil right, he also found grounding in his faith: “I’m as serious as a heart attack over this issue. … I come from a religious background that told me it was moral to marry … so for me it was a religious issue.” 

The conversation at the Autry also focused on how many Mormons, Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews voted in support Proposition 8, because they believed same-sex marriages might lead to infringements on their own religious liberties. When moderator Lazarus asked whether religion has impeded social change, the symposium speakers said that faith and progress can go hand in hand, and that it was time to look forward.

In an interview, Edwards said she has been delighted to see her calendar fill up with weddings and noted an influx of younger gay and lesbian couples joining together under the chuppah. “Celebrating Jewishly, and within the law,” Edwards said, “feels so good.”

Between past and future: Israel, Africa and the Apartheid Canard

Israelis were not surprised by the terrorist attack by last month’s Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, killing 67 people. They had been on alert against such dangers since two attacks on Israeli targets in Mombasa in 2002. Indeed, there were reports that Israeli experts helped Kenyan forces deal with the Mall takeover.

There are signs of expanding Israel – Africa relations. During the past two years, more than 40 senior African dignitaries—including the presidents of Rwanda, Uganda, Togo, South Sudan, as well as the prime minister of Kenya—have visited Israel, with the Nigerian president expected soon.

The Israeli-African nexus is not a new story — its narrative not merely comprised of current shared struggles against terrorism.  Dating back to 1958, there is a famous picture of Israel’s then Foreign Minister Golda Meir—her sturdy pocketbook in hand — visiting Ghana, one year after that country became the first African nation to win independence and a mere ten years after the establishment of the fledgling Jewish state.

In some respects, the visit of the one-time Milwaukee housewife was prophecy fulfilled. In the 1890s, Edward Wilmot Blyden, pioneering founder of the African freedom movement, later led by led by W.E.B. Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, among others, lauded Theodor Herzl for launching “that marvelous movement called Zionism.” Herzl reciprocated in his novel, Altneuland (1902) envisaging “the return of Negroes” from their Diaspora to help liberate Africa.

By the early 1970s, 10 African states had embassies in Jerusalem, and Israel maintained relations with 32. After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, Israel vociferously criticized South Africa’s apartheid regime, resulting in a temporary rupture of relations that had been established in 1948. An Israeli embassy was not opened in Pretoria until 1974. But then in wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, 21 Black African broke diplomatic relations with Israel. Then in 1975, just a month before the UN General Assembly passed the “Zionism equals racism” resolution, Uganda’s President Idi Amin spoke before the General Assembly calling for “the extinction of Israel.”

In 1976, during Operation Entebbe Kenyan government official Bruce McKenzie—subsequently assassinated on Amin’s orders—persuaded Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta to permit Israeli Mossad agents to gather information prior to the hostage rescue operation in Uganda, and to allow Israeli Air Force aircraft to refuel at aNairobi airport after the rescue.

Throughout the 80s, Israel’s focus shifted to Ethiopia’s Black Jews, known as the Falashas or Beta Israel, and their epic struggle to reach the Holy Land. With Operation Moses in 1984-1985 and Operation Solomon in 1991, Israel airlifted, respectively, 6,500 and over 14,000 Beta Israel into the Jewish state. Today, all remaining Jews from Ethiopia have resettled in Israel, struggling, as each immigrant grouphas, to make the transition into the mainstream of Israeli society. Meanwhile, there was the stormy drama of the small sect of self-identified, Black Hebrew Israelites who settled in the Negev town of Dimona. They were initially made into a metaphor by critics of Israel who portrayed the Jewish state as a racist society. While it took over twenty years to fully resolve tensions, today the Black Hebrews—including the first born in Israel who was killed by Palestinian terrorists during his Bar Mitzvah in 2002—have come to symbolize how anybody with commitment and persistence can make a future for themselves in Israel.

A third act in the Israel/Africa drama is the recent influx of African refugees into Israel. Authorities have been struggling to balance human rights and security and societal concerns,with mixed results. The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that these individuals cannot be detained indefinitely and then expelled. A solution to their plight remains a significant challenge for Israeli society.

So against the backdrop of historic affinity of African with Jewish freedom struggles, with expanding economic opportunities and continuing humanitarian interchange, the future course of Israel-African ties seems promising.

There remains however, a significant threat to those hopes; a threat based on a powerful lie: The canard that Israel is the apartheid heir to the deposed South African Apartheid regime. The Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) Movement was officially launched in 2005 declaring it was “inspired by the struggles of South Africans against Apartheid.” No one less than Archbishop Desmond Tutu supports this ‘big lie’ that debuted at the UN’s 2001 Conference Against Racism in Durban South Africa where NGOs made toxic attacks on the Jewish state its centerpiece.  Unfortunately, officials of today's South African government, continue to embrace the slander rhetorically and diplomatically, aligning not just with the Palestinian cause in general but especially with Hamas.

Which narrative will ultimately prevail? We should take heart from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stirring words:

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center

Violence in Eastern Congo is our problem

We’re staring down the barrel of another full-scale war in Congo. The M23 rebellion, launched in March 2012, last week stormed and seized Goma, a crucial town in eastern Congo. The M23 rebels already had been responsible for the displacement of more than half a million civilians — another 60,000 civilians have been newly displaced in the last week alone. While it might appear that the M23 rebels are retreating to the outskirts of Goma, they have made it clear that they will continue to administer and control Goma until their demands are met. 

The success of the siege is likely due in part to the support of the rebels by outside influences, namely elements within the Rwandan and Ugandan governments and militaries. The last time Congo saw this level of foreign incursion, the chain of events that followed led to the deaths of 5.4 million innocent civilians. This is what the beginning of horror looks like.

On the surface it may seem that our political leaders and the international community may be responding quickly to the crisis. But the reaction by both the Obama administration and the United Nations Security Council threatens to rehash old, failed “solutions” that set Congo on the path to repeat its cycle of violence. In particular, our political officials seem to be pursuing a policy of accommodation and protection of Rwanda, to the detriment of the development of sustainable solutions in Congo. 

Guilt over past horrors — the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in particular — might be clouding the judgment of the very people with the power to change international policies towards Congo.  U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, along with her former boss, President Bill Clinton, has carried the burden of inaction in Rwanda since those fateful 100 days that saw the murder of more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. And that guilt has translated into consistent support for and protection of Rwanda’s leader, President Paul Kagame, credited with ending the genocide and restoring security to Rwanda. 

But our protection of Rwanda and its leadership can go no further. While advocates have long suspected Rwanda’s complicity in the exploitation of Congolese minerals and its support of proxy militias in Congo, we now have proof: two separate U.N. Group of Experts reports on Congo published this year have pointed to significant support to the M23 rebels by Rwanda and Uganda. The latest report, leaked earlier this month, named Gen. James Kabarebe, the Rwandan Minister of Defense, as sitting at the top of the M23’s chain of command.  

Despite this clear evidence, the Obama administration’s own statement condemning the M23 rebels, while swift, failed to call out Rwanda or Uganda for their role in the crisis. And the U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week similarly failed to explicitly name Rwanda or Uganda as supporting the M23 or expand targeted sanctions against Rwandan and Ugandan officials despite evidence that they had violated the arms embargo in eastern Congo. Rwanda and Uganda were, by all accounts, protected in the Security Council by the U.S. mission.  

Rwanda receives nearly 45 percent of its budget from Western donor countries like the United States — roughly $1 billion in aid annually. That is a lot of leverage that we could be using to bring about constructive negotiations that lead to long-term, regional solutions to this conflict. Instead, we are frittering away our political capital. 

The U.S. government must change tack and immediately: 1) push the U.N. mission in Congo to protect civilians against rape and pillage; 2) through the U.N. Security Council, expand targeted sanctions against all officials and parties that are blocking peace — from M23, Rwanda, Congo and Uganda; and 3) immediately appoint a special envoy to work with an African Union-/U.N.-appointed mediator to begin a real peace process that addresses both the immediate crisis and the underlying longer-term economic and political interests of the parties.

We bystanders should feel guilty for our silence and inaction during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.  But the value of guilt is limited to its power to inform and shape future behaviors. When President Obama was Sen. Obama, he wrote and passed a single bill: the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006. Ending the crisis in Congo was important to him then; it must return to his list of priorities now. He, and all members of his administration, must not signal to Congo’s invaders that the United States will continue an acquiescent policy moving forward.

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch.

New violence in the Congo: Having a conscience means working overtime

With rockets raining down on Israel, it’s hard to focus on anything else. Our families, our friends, our compatriots are under attack, and our hearts ache for them. But Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, who co-founded Jewish World Watch, reminds us that the needs of our own families and communities do not preclude us from caring for others who are unknown and far away, as well. The base question – should I care for Israel or for civilians under attack in Congo (or Sudan, or wherever genocide and mass atrocities rear their ugly heads) – is a false choice. The question might present as “either/or,” but the Jewish response to an “either/or” question, is “both/and.”  There is no question that people with a conscience are required to work overtime.  We are concerned and work for Israel’s security and safety, and we do not stand idly by when atrocities are being committed against targeted populations in a place like eastern Congo.  This week, I was supposed to travel to Darfuri Refugee Camps to visit our newest Solar Cooker Project installation and to Eastern Congo to visit our newest project, a Women’s Rape and Crisis Center in a remote area in Eastern Congo where the systematic gang rapes of women abound.  While we will travel to the Darfuri camp (stay tuned for our blogs…), we cannot go to Congo this week, as fighting with rebel troops, the M23, escalates. The United Nations has accused the M23 of recruiting child soldiers, as well as arbitrary executions and rape, according to a report to be released on Nov. 23.

Violence is not a new phenomenon in Congo.  Congo is a country enormously rich in natural resources, but instead of enabling the country and its inhabitants to prosper, the resource grab of militias and rogue groups from surrounding countries and of rebel groups from within Congo itself, has caused millions of deaths and has made Congo the rape capital of the world.  Weak leadership, porous and uncontrolled borders, and pervasive lawlessness conspire to impoverish and enslave the Congolese people, with primary impacts on the women and the children.  But this week, even for a country prone to unrest, there has been a dramatic and alarming surge in the violence, particularly in Eastern Congo.

The M23 rebellion, which launched in March of this year with the likely backing of both Rwanda and Uganda, reached the outskirts of the main city of Goma in North Kivu province late Sunday night. The battle continued on Monday.  In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the rebels stormed and seized Goma, home to 1 million Congolese civilians. This is the largest take-over by rebels in eastern Congo since 2003. The M23 rebels, since March of this year, had already displaced more than half a million civilians in North Kivu province. Just in the last few days, another 60,000 have been newly displaced. The last time we saw this level of violence and foreign incursion in Congo we lost 5.4 million innocent lives. This is what the beginning of horror looks like.  

These disheartening events underscore the purpose of and need for an organization like Jewish World Watch.  As the violence in Eastern Congo surged, Jewish World Watch led the effort to shine a light on the region.  Shining a light on injustices and atrocities in the world is a critical step in the arduous process of bringing about peace and minimizing violence against targeted civilian populations.  Our Jewish community has a particularly strong and resonant voice in this work based upon our experiences in the Holocaust.   We know what it feels like to be isolated and abandoned, and therefore, Jewish World Watch is now at the forefront of the coalition seeking de-escalation of this brutal attack in Congo.

We ask you to join us in speaking out for the people of Congo. The United States government can help end the crisis. Now, more than ever, it’s time to for us to show leadership. We need to encourage the White House to take action against this rebellion and to protect the civilians of Congo.

Send this letter to Denis R. McDonough, the White House’s Deputy National Security Advisor, and ask him to take action against the M23 incursion and for the people of eastern Congo.

We are all working overtime this week…

In rural Uganda: Let there be light

We take light for granted. But in the Torah’s opening chapter of Bereshit, it was God’s first gift.

It seems fitting, then, that when a local synagogue committed itself to helping an impoverished village in rural Uganda, the first gift would be to turn on the lights — to give the gift of solar-powered electricity. With light, doctors can deliver babies with more than just candlelight late into the night; people can see one another and plan activities in the long evening and night hours. Indoor classrooms in schools can be lit, so students can learn more easily.

The project began a couple of years ago, when the spiritual community of IKAR first conceived of founding its first nursery school for its congregation. Rabbi Sharon Brous and IKAR executive director Melissa Balaban saw an opportunity to do more than just offer one more educational program in Los Angeles; they wanted to instill a sense of connection to a larger world in the “DNA of the preschool,” as Balaban put it. They knew it would take about $100,000 to establish their school, so they decided to allocate 10 percent of all donations to another school project somewhere else in the world, where it could benefit others. “To teach our kids, this is what it means to be a Jew; it’s our responsibility,” Balaban said. 

Brous and Balaban had both just read the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and they were inspired by its message that even a small amount of cash can have a ripple effect, effecting enormous change in communities by allowing people to rebuild their own lives.

“We spent a lot of time fretting about which school and where,” Brous told a group of supporters who gathered one evening last August at a Santa Monica home to learn about the project. After lots of research and one false start, Brous and Balaban, working with a group of IKAR volunteers, came across an organization called Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA — It employs Jewish people in African communities to bring Israeli solar systems to power African schools, medical clinics, orphanages and water pumping systems.  

It was a perfect match for IKAR, to partner with a Jewish group that could oversee their project on the ground and to bring “the best of Israel,” as Balaban said — Israel’s technology — to a remote place where a little could go a long way.

JHA connected IKAR with the village of Katira, some five hours from the Ugandan capital city of Kampala. And in early August, the lights went on.

IKAR donated about $12,000 for this initial project, and JHA installed solar panels on the roof of the Katira Primary School, a simple, blocky building with large, unadorned classrooms, that serves nearly 1,400 students from the surrounding area, according to JHA. People in Katira live in primitive thatched-roof huts, and their school had the lowest academic performance in its district.

As it turned out, the school’s pitched metal roof was perfect for capturing the strong African sunlight, and the JHA representatives have trained the locals on the simple techniques of maintaining the panels so they can keep it working themselves, without outside help. And now, although the solar-powered electricity lights only the one building, students — who once had nowhere to go to do their homework after spending long days in school and then helping with the housework at home — can now go to the school to study late into the evenings. They will have the opportunity to study harder, enhancing their chances of future success.

No IKAR members could make it to Katira for the ceremony, but witnessing the lights going on was still important. So, Brous’ mother, Marcia Brous, made a connection to a woman she had met through Rotary Club here — Marsha Hunt, who travels regularly to Uganda through the Uganda Development Initiative (, an aid group. Hunt was already planning a summer trip there, and she readily agreed to become IKAR’s emissary, adding to her trip a visit to Katira to watch the ceremony of the lights being turned on.

“I thought I’d be doing a simple report,” Hunt said. Instead, she arrived at the village to a scene of “tears and celebration, singing and dancing.” She became a witness to a modern Bereshit.

The Israeli solar panels had already been installed. And as she watched, lights for the first time lit the school’s classrooms. 

“They were so gracious and wonderful,” Hunt said of the villagers. And in thanks, the people of Katira gave her gifts intended for her to bring back home to Los Angeles — a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. For obvious reasons, those didn’t make it back to L.A.

But what did was the sense of accomplishment, extraordinary joy and connection between the people of Katira and the people of IKAR, as evidenced through photos that you can see by viewing this article at 

And the project continues, Balaban said. “We are now raising money to light the medical clinic, and hopefully to install a solar-powered water pump.”

The light that came from God is now being harnessed to power a different kind of light — an electric energy that will also sustain growth, vision and warmth into the future.

And it is being channeled from Los Angeles via Israel to a remote village in Africa.

As Balaban said, “This is what it means to be a Jew.”

Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. She can be reached at You can follow her on Twitter at 


Opinion: Beyond ‘Kony 2012’

A week ago last Monday, my daughter brought her laptop to the dinner table and insisted, “We have to watch this.” This never happens in our house. We don’t watch TV at dinner, nor does my very independent 16-year-old tend to share. But her urgency was palpable, so we let her click on a YouTube video of — perhaps you’ve guessed by now — “Kony 2012,” the now-viral 30-minute advocacy film created by a nonprofit called Invisible Children, which wants to make the Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony famous so he will be tracked down and arrested for kidnapping boys and turning them into child soldiers.

When I checked early this week, just eight days after I first heard of Kony and