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Stopping at a Jewish Camp on the Way from Uganda to Rabbinical School

Stopping at a Jewish Camp on the Way from Uganda to Rabbinical School

The author with another staff member at Camp Coleman

As a young girl in Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community, I spent a lot of time in and around the synagogue with friends – acting and singing psalms in Hebrew and Luganda, as well as songs for the volunteers who came to our village to teach Hebrew and English. During services, my friends and I took the younger kids out to teach them the Hebrew songs and prayers we had learned. I remember how proud I felt when, having memorized the Mourners Kaddish, I taught it to my friend's mother to say in honor of her father.

Although I had visited the U.S. before to participate in various Jewish programs, in 2015, a friend and I embarked on a long-anticipated trip from Uganda to URJ Camp Coleman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Cleveland, GA, where we had been hired as summer camp counselors. I was not looking only for a summer job, though; I was looking for an opportunity to connect and grow and learn more about Judaism.

During that first summer, I couldn’t believe the faith Camp Coleman had in us – its Ugandan staff members. Despite the fact that we had never worked with American kids, we quickly learned that children all over the world just need love and are curious to learn and listen to your stories, no matter where you’re from. Camp Coleman has continued to hire Ugandans every summer since 2015, and we have a special bond with the camp and our fellow staff members.

This summer was extra special, not only because I returned to camp, but also because my 10-year-old daughter, Emunah, accompanied me as a Coleman camper. Camp is the best thing that can happen for kids and thanks to a generous scholarship, it happened for her. Recently, Emunah passed her swimming test, and because of the camp’s aquatic staff, my daughter, who didn't know how to swim at all when she arrived, is now a fish. Best of all, I see the happiness in her eyes that comes from forming new friendships and doing fun, new things.

In the meantime, although I had studied business administration and finance when I went to university, the idea of being a rabbi has long been my dream. I was especially inspired by our rabbi, who encourages women and girls to take on leadership roles in the community. Thanks to him, I began to see rabbis as change-makers, and I wanted to be one.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know where to begin.

In our traditional Jewish community in Uganda, we went to synagogue every Shabbat, but practicing Judaism was a one-way affair. Although that’s changing now, my religious education focused on how to observe Shabbat and how to recite prayers correctly – not why we say prayers or the different ways we can say them. As a result, Reform Judaism at first was as strange to me as American culture, and so I considered applying to traditional rabbinical schools.

Thankfully, my Camp Coleman family gave me the confidence, encouragement, and even some connections to apply to the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). After a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem to improve my Hebrew, English, and formal Jewish knowledge, I was accepted to HUC-JIR on my second try.

I spent the 2018-19 academic year in Jerusalem and loved being part of a community of progressive-minded students and teachers. I was fortunate, too, to live with a wonderful family that welcomed and loved me and my daughter, making us an addition to their family. They taught me so much about living outside Uganda: how to bake, recycle, and make a great Israeli Shabbat dinner with a Bukharian touch. Even so, living in Israel was so tough on some days – between the Jewish-Palestinian conflict and so many offensive government policies surrounding treatment of asylum seekers – it could bring my spirit low.

When I returned to Coleman this summer, after being in Jerusalem, it was as if my whole Jewish self was back. I am more confident now about who I am, having made up my mind that the Reform Jewish world is the right place for me. I’m grateful to the mishlachat (literally “delegation;” Israeli staff), open-minded young people who help make camp like the Israel we desire, continually teaching us that Israel is not just government policies, but also wonderful people, the magnificent land, and tremendous cultural diversity. I also have new appreciation for the many rabbis and other Jewish professionals who serve as camp faculty. We talked endlessly about rabbinical school and their experiences working in the Jewish community, and they recommended great books and materials for me to read.

Although I often joke that what makes me return to Camp Coleman year after year is the silent lunch during the camp's Maccabiah Games, the truth is I now truly understand what it means to have a place like camp. I belong here; this is my camp. I hope the relationship between Camp Coleman and the Jewish community in Uganda will continue to grow and that Emunah and I will continue to be an important part of it for years to come.

Want to learn more about Jewish life in Uganda? Check out this 2016 interview with Shoshanna after her first summer working at URJ Camp Coleman. 

Shoshanna Nambi, a member of Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community, is a second-year student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

Shoshanna Nambi
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