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Reform Jewish Teens from Shoham and South Africa Making a Difference – Uganda 2018

‏יום חמישי ‏03 ‏ינואר ‏2019

Reform Jewish Teens from Shoham and South Africa Making a Difference – Uganda 2018

During Hanukkah, Rabbi Rinat Safania left for Uganda with ten teenagers from the Reform community in Shoham, along with four teens from South Africa and one from Memphis, TN. Their purpose as a delegation was to volunteer with children in orphanages and to visit a very unusual Jewish community in Uganda. 

Delegation Goals:

1. Strengthening the interpersonal relationship by building a "living bridge" between Jewish youth and their families in Israel and South Africa and discussing Jewish identity in Israel and the Diaspora;

2. Creating a platform for social action (Tikkun Olam) and contributing to the establishment of an egalitarian society with guiding principles rooted in human rights;

3. Creating a generation of young leaders working for meaningful social change in Israel and around the world by instilling values of giving and caring for the younger generation;

4. Familiarity with a variety of Jewish communities around the world, including an in-person meeting with the "Abuyadaya" Jewish community in Uganda.

Preparation process and selection:

More than 40 teenagers applied for this special program. After the selection process, ten lovely young people were chosen and committed themselves to an intensive preparatory program and continuing joint-volunteering upon their return from the delegation.

From our community center in Shoham, Israel, we spent a great deal of time learning about Ugandan culture and its similarities and differences from Israel. We considered racial, cultural and religious biases, and how they prevent us from seeing other people's humanity. We spent hours learning about the place we were traveling to, considering what we should and should not bring with us. Our activity planning was done with the knowledge that everything would likely need to be adapted based on the situation on the ground.

Partnership with the Jewish Agency – Project TEN

We decided, rather than reinvent the wheel, to join the Jewish Agency's Project TEN, in which young Israeli army graduates and young Jews from the Diaspora volunteer for three months in Uganda with local families.

Volunteering with the children

We arrived at Project TEN in Namulanda, Uganda filled with anticipation, ready to get to know the children the project's volunteers work with throughout the year. From the first day, in the first hour, in fact, we would learn the lesson that would stay with us forever: despite any socio-economical differences between us, children are children. All they all want someone to love them and play with them, those who have a loving home, and those growing up without one. They love the same things, laugh at the same things, ask for the same love, return hugs with the same strength, and just enjoy being together.

Our day was divided into a long morning of volunteering in two local orphanages and an afternoon volunteering in the nearby kindergartens whose children were on Christmas vacation. The first hours were difficult ones, and we learned about the lives of the children who ran to us for hugs. Some children had tattered or dirty shirts, and some were without shoes or clothes, or at times had only one meal a day. But right away we saw something we did not expect: their eyes were filled with joy, a freeness to show love and affection, an eagerness to play and to learn.

From that moment, we had a profound understanding that though their reality was different than ours (fewer options, fewer “things”) it was not by any means an inferior one, or even a sad one.  We had yearned to bring art supplies, games and treats from Israel, but rather had been advised to instead use whatever was around, and to buy supplies we needed from the locals. We made shakers from discarded plastic bottles and stones. We played the games of our childhood, we sang, we danced and just hung out together. Our teens learned quickly that love, play and dance are international languages, spanning all continents, race, culture, and religion.

The children of Namulanda waited anxiously for us to arrive, meeting us with hugs and squeals of laughter, and soon we equally looked forward to being with them. We learned from the children of Namulanda about having immense gratitude for what we have, instead of focusing on what we do not. We learned to embrace moments of love and kindness to guide us in future difficult days.

Integration with a Jewish community in the Diaspora:

Equally impactful to our trip was the partnership with South African Union for Progressive Judaism and the opportunity to join together with an amazing group of teens from South Africa. Beyond the international friendships that were formed, the partnership made us a multiracial group of volunteers, blurring the stereotype of the “white” savior volunteer by comprising a group made up of role models from different races. Thank you Rabbi Saar Shaked from The community of Beit Emanuel in Johannesburg for jumping in headfirst with me on this journey and making this partnership possible. Additional thanks to Erick Beswick from the community in Cape Town and to Paul Mukasa who accompanied the group.

Meeting with the Abuyadaya Jewish community in Uganda

The Abuyadaya Jewish Community in Uganda, which celebrates 100 years of belonging to the Jewish religion, was one of the most important goals of this journey. It was one of the most profound, exciting experiences I have had as a Rabbi. It's very exciting to see how in a place without a large Jewish center there is a wonderful Judaism, especially since it is a Judaism by choice. These are people who chose to put their fate in the faith of the Jewish God, and that is not a self-evident conclusion: they are surrounded in Uganda by Christians, Muslims and other religions, yet they insist on strict Jewish customs.

The community and its Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, welcomed us with love and joy, and our kids bonded immediately with the village youth who welcomed them with “Shalom!” Perhaps they did not fully understanding the significance of the common bond of Judaism that made the two groups instantly similar. The egalitarian service, rich in traditional liturgy with African language and melodies, was another unforgettable lesson in the fact that there are many, diverse ways to be Jewish. Shabbat with the Abuyadaya of M’bale, and the special opportunity to bring in the light together during Hannukah, stands out as one of the group's most significant experiences. Thank to Shoshana Nambi for teaching us about the community before we left, and to Samson Nderitu for your kind welcome reception.

Support and organization:

The final thing I must say about organizing a Delegation like this are the thanks.  An undertaking such as this can only be done with very good partners. First and foremost, Sharon Beth-Halachmy, who conceived and developed the program with me from the first moment and throughout the journey.

Great thanks to the Israel Reform Movement, its leaders Rabbi Gilad KarivAnna KislanskiLeah Feit and David Bernstein for investing in and supporting this delegation and my dreams, and for seeing in those dreams my greater vision for Reform Judaism.

I am especially grateful to the Shoham Reform Community for becoming partners in our larger and wider vision. 

Thank you to the Shoham Regional Council for their support of the framework by the Office of Foreign Affairs (Peleg ReshefDanny Shapiroand Anat Dotan).

Thank you to The Jewish Agency for its dedication to international, sustainable volunteerism. Project Director Shai Lazar, Director of the Volunteer Center in Uganda Tamar Aziz, and the facilitators Dasha and Tal. Thanks to Adi Romem for inspiring this journey.

Special thanks to all the donors who opened their hearts and pockets and contributed greatly, making this trip possible. First, Ashley Tobias, who accompanied us on a journey with her daughter. Her donation funded scholarships for participants from Israel and South Africa. 

Thanks to Rabbi Bennett Miller for his generous donation, and to all people who contributed through our GoFundMe – Susan Marks , Arnold Gluck ,Yaron Kapitulnik, Kenneth Roseman , Orley Desser , Sara Levine, Karen Levine , Jonathan Pont ,Leigh Altman, Nava Levy, Alisa Srulovitz, Dana Toib,Roberta Glick, Hilary Faverman, Lori Smith, Ken Steinberg, Avner Halperin.

And behind the Shoham Reform Community and the Delegation, the incredibly supportive and wonderful parents @Ronit Golan, @Oren Golan, @Dan Shwarzman, @Ilana Shahar-Toib, @Michael Gilinski, @Agranionik Gilinski, @Smadar Zalalichin Sabo, @David Haberfeld, Amir Sabo, Assaf Toib, and to parents Sharon & Ofer Nimtsovich, Rakefet Haberfeld Granot, Or-Li and Hadas Lahat, Yafit and Moshe Mizrachi, Amit and Galit Ben Zvi, who raised such incredible children and trusted us to take them to Uganda and return them safely.

Click here to see a few pictures that describe better than all this incredible experience: https://photos.app.goo.gl/K9yjvvfDtepG85BFA

It is my hope that our community continues to lead its members and youth to significant Jewish social activity, to creating and strengthening ties with Jewish communities around the world and to show all people love and respect.


Rabbi Rinat Safania