Ugandans Nurture Jewish Identity at my Son’s Camp

  
Sammy with Jewish camp counselors from Uganda

Sammy with his Jewish camp counselors from Uganda

Last week my family hosted some of the international staff from my son’s Jewish camp before they went to camp for training. We have done this for the past four summers and it’s been a wonderful experience. Most of the staffers are Israeli, and we have built lasting relationships with them, giving us the opportunity to one day visit each of them in Israel.

This year, camp participated in a program with other Reform camps to bring young adult members of the Ugandan Jewish community to Jewish summer camps throughout the U.S. Most people’s reaction when I mentioned that camp would have Ugandan and Israeli staff this year said, “There are Jews in Uganda?” Yes, there are Ugandan Jews.

About a week before the international staff arrived, I received an email from one of the assistant camp directors asking if my family would host the Ugandan, rather than the Israeli, counselors. “Of the families who can host next week, you immediately jumped to mind as someone who could provide the most hospitable experience for these two new staff members.” How could I say no? Plus, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to learn and enable our entire family to experience the diversity of the global Jewish community.

Most Jews in Uganda are members of the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”), a 100-year-old community of nearly 2,000 Jews who live mostly in villages in Eastern Uganda. Unlike Ethiopian Jews, who are descendants of Israelite tribes that settled in Ethiopia, Ugandan Jews trace their Jewish origins to the turn of the 20th century and two powerful leaders, Joswa Kate Mugema, an influential Buganda chief, and Semei Kakungulu, who was selected by the British to be a Christian missionary.

Mugema and his tribe were dissident Protestants who were devoted to the Bible and adopted many Jewish traditions. They recognized Saturday as the Sabbath, violently opposed any sign of idol worship and forbade the eating or pork. Kakungulu, bitterly disillusioned by the British authorities, cooperated with the Mugema tribe, helping to spread its faith. During this period, Kakungulu was drawn to the teachings of the Old Testament and in 1919 he and his community began practicing Judaism.

When Idi Amin Dada rose to power in the early 1970s, he banned Jewish practice and many Jews were forced to convert to other religions. After the fall of Amin in 1979, the remaining members of the Abayudaya gathered to rebuild the Jewish tradition. Today, there are seven Jewish communities in Uganda and members try to come together as often as possible to interact, connect, worship and learn.

Our guests told us that Conservative rabbis in the early part of the 21st century began to come to Uganda to supervise the “conversion” of Uganda’s Jews. Some in the global Jewish community did not see the Abayudaya as Jewish since they didn’t have a biological link to Israel. While the rabbis viewed the ritual they were performing as a conversion, the community saw it as an “affirmation” of its Jewish faith. Our visitors told us, “Many people, especially in Israel, still do not accept us as Jews.”

I told them that they were not the only Jews with this problem. I explained patrilineal descent and how the Reform movement accepts as a Jew anyone raised Jewish with one Jewish parent but that many non-Reform traditions and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel do not accept this definition of “Who is a Jew.” We also discussed how those who convert to Judaism through a non-Orthodox tradition are also not considered Jewish according to some denominations and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I emphasized that they would meet many campers this summer who, like themselves, are not accepted as Jews by parts of the world Jewish community, and who, like them, feel strongly that their religious identity is Jewish.

The discussion made me think about how these two groups of Jewish outsiders would spend the summer nurturing each others’ Jewish growth. I smiled as I thought about the richness outsiders bring to the Jewish tradition and how we outsiders are slowly becoming insiders thanks to the efforts of those, including InterfaithFamily, who believe that Judaism’s tent is big, and its doors wide open.

Our Date with the Rabbi

  

Since moving back to Atlanta, my husband and I have been running around like madmen buying furniture, reconnecting with old friends, traveling to see family, settling into our jobs and new house and preparing for the kid-to-be.

Hectic is the theme of our life right now. Between CPR classes, baby showers, doctor appointments and pediatrician interviews, this tiny little baby in my belly has already squarely established himself as center of our attention.  But we’re okay with that… he’s just so darn cute.

This morning was no different as it was our first meeting with a rabbi of a local synagogue to discuss joining the temple and his views on intermarriage and conversion.  We’ve attended services at this synagogue a few times and both felt very comfortable, not an easy task for a family quite like ours.

After the usual formalities, our discussions varied from homosexuality and Hebrew school philosophies to Israeli politics and what makes someone Jewish.  It was not exactly what I expected, but I enjoyed the conversation immensely.  He shared personal stories of his own interfaith family (he is married to a Jew-by-choice) and inquired about our experience. His views on intermarriage and conversion meshed well with our own and his questions for us even made us stop and think about issues we’ve never considered… Again, not an easy task when it comes to two people who have had nearly 10 years to discuss everything under the sun (and believe me we both are known to be quite the talkers).

The rabbi, of course, asked me why I haven’t considered conversion and listened without judgment or interruption as I explained my personal decision not to convert.  Yes, my conversion would make everything easier and on the practical level makes complete sense.  I mean, I already live in a Jewish household, keep kosher, celebrate Jewish holidays, attend synagogue, know Hebrew and even lived in Israel for a year.  Come on, it is all right there!

But I’m not looking for easy.  I’m not looking for practicality when it comes to my spiritual needs.  I’m looking for a relationship with G-d.  My own faith fulfills that need and until it doesn’t and until I find I am fulfilled by Judaism, I have no plans to convert.  He accepted my reasoning under the caveat that the discussion, not only for conversion purposes, but for the overall role of religion and spirituality in our lives between us as a couple, our families, our community and internally never be over.  As a true believer in the art of good communication and continued personally growth, I fully agreed.  I don’t expect us to know the answers to every hurdle we may face as a family and I want someone in our religious community I can trust to help us navigate the path ahead.

I hope we have found a home temple where we both feel comfortable, where my husband and our children can grow in their Judaism, where we can find a community of acceptance and support and leaders who guide us to better ourselves as a family.

Having a baby has flipped our world upside down in hundreds of ways already and I can’t wait to see what this little guy has in store for us next.  He is making us better and opening our eyes to our greater potential every single day.

Before leaving us with a firm handshake, another date to discuss a mohel, a few booklets and a membership packet, the rabbi said he hoped he’d see us in services very soon.  I think he just may.

Deciding to Raise Our Children as Jews

  

When Bryan and I started talking long-term, I blurted out carefully and tactfully broached the subject of whether he’d want to raise any children we might have as Jews. And, since I’m not Jewish and currently have no plans to convert (nor have I been asked or pressured to), I’m sure my question threw Bryan for a loop. He thought for a minute and said, “Well, I never really thought I’d have that option, especially since Bubba and Bear aren’t.” That was the beginning of our faith discussions.

Never having expected an interfaith relationship to become the love of my life, I had never really thought about what religion I’d raise my children. I took it for granted that they’d be raised the same way I was, in the Christian faith. Now, I needed to think about it, seriously, carefully, prayerfully. I realized that it was important to me to raise a child with one religion. But which one? How do you make that call? If you’re going to raise a child in one faith when there are two faiths in the home, the parents have to agree on which faith to instill. I knew Bryan wouldn’t feel comfortable raising a child in only the Christian faith. However, he was quite comfortable raising Baby the same way that Bubba and Bear are being raised (exposed to both Judaism and Christianity). So, it was on me to decide what I was really comfortable with, and what was truly important to me.

After some initial study and lots of talking together, I told Bryan that I thought I wanted to raise our kids Jewish. He was floored. He insisted that I take more time – MUCH more time – to think about it, study more, and really be sure I knew what I was getting into. We found a synagogue and rabbi with whom we felt comfortable (Congregation Beth Israel). We took an Intro to Judaism course at that synagogue. We found InterfaithFamily.com. We read. A LOT. We got engaged and started premarital counseling with both our rabbi and a minister. We studied some more.

Bryan gave me plenty of time for an “out.” I took several more months to study, learn more, and make my decision. As I learned more about Judaism, I realized that the basics of the two faiths were very similar. (Yes, I know that oversimplifies it, but work with me here; this is a blog post, not a thesis… hopefully.)  And it came down to this: I feel very comfortable with the Jewish faith. It’s the basis for my own religion, and the major tenets of being a good person and doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing are the same values I was raised with. Yes, there is the major difference of whether Jesus was or was not the Messiah, but for me, that argument has become less important than the emphasis that both religions place on doing the right thing, acting in the right way, and just in general being a good person.

There really was so much more that went into my thoughts and decisions, but like I said, this is a blog post, and I fear I’ve gone on too long already. I’m happy to answer any specific questions anyone might have (yes, Baby had a Brit Milah ceremony on his 8th day). But, what I hope you’ve gotten from this feeble attempt at explanation is that my decision was entered into willingly, with lots of thought, study, and prayer behind it. I didn’t come to my decision to be any kind of martyr or “give a gift” to the Jewish side of the family, or to disregard my own past or heritage. I simply felt in my heart that it was the right decision for me, for our family, and now, for Baby. It’s not always easy for me or my non-Jewish family (that’s another post altogether), but it’s the right decision for us.