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A Love of Judaism, From Uganda to Georgia

A Love of Judaism, From Uganda to Georgia

Shoshana Nambi

Ugandan native Shoshana Nambi, 27, was one of a dozen Ugandan Jewish young adults who spent this summer working as counselors and specialists at Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) camps. Hailing from the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”) Jewish community in eastern Uganda, these staff role models are part of the Reform Jewish community’s extensive international efforts, in partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel, to bring Judaism’s rich and diverse global culture to life for thousands of North American campers.

Two years earlier, Harriet Bograd, President of Kulanu, Inc., contacted Bobby Harris, director of URJ Camp Coleman and asked if he would be interested in hiring some counselors from the Ugandan Jewish community. In summer of 2015, Shoshana and Sarah Nabaggala came to Camp Coleman. The initiative was so successful that Bobby, Shoshana, and Sarah worked together with URJ Director of Youth Programs Dan Lange to hire 13 Ugandan staffers to work in six URJ Camps in 2016.

I caught up with Shoshana as she completed her second summer at Camp Coleman, the Reform Jewish summer camp in Cleveland, Georgia, to hear about that experience and what it’s like to grow up Jewish in Uganda.

What can you tell us about where you’re from?

I’m from the Ugandan village of Nabugoye, home to about 500 Jews. It’s also the headquarters of the Abayudaya Jewish community, but it’s not an exclusively Jewish village. It’s common for extended Jewish families to share their homes with Christian and Muslim aunts and uncles. 

Most of the people in my village are subsistence farmers who live on less than a dollar a day. My family grew beans and corn and raised chickens for food. We also cultivated coffee to sell.

How far back do your Jewish roots go?

My 97-year-old grandfather’s father was among those who converted to Judaism with Semei Kakungulu, the founder of the Abayudaya. They adopted a biblical version of Judaism without ever having met a Jew. Although my family has been Jewish for generations, I was among the 400 Abayudaya who were formally converted in 2002 by five rabbis from the U.S. and Israel. Today there are about 1,500 of us in seven communities, and our spiritual leader is Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, ordained in 2008 by the Conservative seminary in Los Angeles. His grandfather, Samson Mugombe, was Kakungulu’s successor as leader of the Abayudaya.

You spent this summer working at a Jewish summer camp in the United States. What impressed you most about camp culture here?                   

I love how children are encouraged to think for themselves, to express their feelings and creativity. In my country, personal expression is not encouraged. You cannot go to your parent or teacher and say you don’t like something. You just do what you are told.

I met so many new people. I almost felt like I was in Israel because there were so many Israelis and people from other places! This summer, I organized programming for campers, and I enjoyed working with the others programmers to create meaningful experiences for the kids. My campers were 10-year-olds, and our theme was Glo (discover) Israel, which involved learning about Jewish communities around the world. I taught about Abayudaya community, and the kids asked so many questions. They loved learning about Uganda – and I learned a lot from them, too.

What do you think is the value of Jewish camp for kids?

You can see that these campers have made really strong friendships at camp – and some of them come from areas with small Jewish populations, so camp is where they come to meet other Jewish kids. That’s incredible.

The kids learn so much from camps that they don’t learn at school. They get to do Jewish activities, meet different people from different places, and learn from each other. When kids grow up at camp, they have the opportunity to become interested in so many things: Israel, Judaism, what they can be when they grow up.

Shabbat at camp is one of my favorite things: Everyone wears white, and the staff blesses the campers. It’s just a wonderful community. I think every kid should go to camp! I wish there were a Jewish camping system like this in Uganda.

Was any specific interaction with a camper particularly memorable?

I can’t point to any one camper because all of the kids were wonderful! There was one camper, who wasn’t even in my unit, who wants to come to Uganda and learn more about our Jewish community. Another girl decided she wants to do her bat mitzvah project with the Ugandan Jewish community, and maybe even have a bat mitzvah with one of the kids from Uganda. Even at just 10 years old, these campers were very curious and eager to learn.

Let’s talk more about your home. What are the greatest concerns and needs of the Abayudaya today?

We still have a lot of problems with malaria, typhoid, and other diseases. My community has a health center and a doctor, but not everyone can afford to buy medicine. Another concern is access to clean water; most people have to travel long distances for it. I’m so happy to learn that URJ Greene Family Camp, a Jewish summer camp in Texas where one of my Abayudaya friends was a counselor this summer, has raised money to dig a well in one of our villages.

Another challenge is education. Our two Jewish schools are tuition-subsidized, but many children can’t attend because they have no money to buy books and uniforms. This situation has been changing because of outside help from organizations like Be’chol Lashon, which has funded the construction of synagogues and helped put our rabbi through rabbinical school.

I wouldn’t have been able to go to high school had it not been for Kulanu, which supports remote Jewish communities – and of course, individuals have also made a difference. Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, a Reform rabbi who recorded a CD of our music, and Richard Sobol, who chronicled our lives in a book of photographs, have turned their projects into fundraisers for us. That’s how I was able to go to university and learn business administration, which led to my job in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

Speaking of the broader Jewish community, how do the Abayudaya view Israel?

I know some people who have visited Israel, but I don’t know of anyone who has made aliyah (immigrated). We enjoy religious freedom and get along well with our neighbors, so I don’t think people would leave their farmland and animals to go to Israel – but everyone is proud that our people have a home where the ancient Temple once stood in what we call “Jerusalemi.”

I believe the Jewish people have a bright future here in Uganda.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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