My husband Gary, son Benji (Herzlia Grade 9) and I visited Jewish communities in East Africa — mainly Uganda and Tanzania (passing through Nairobi) for five weeks in August and September for an immersive volunteering experience.
Our lives were enriched by new friendships, relationships, insights and engagements, and we have come away feeling more African, holding nuanced perspectives on Jewish life — from privilege to passion. Our dream is to bring African Jews into the hearts of our South African Jewish community. Our community’s presence in Africa is visibly absent, and we should play our part.
As South Africans and as Jews, let us start a trend of giving back to Africa. Sharing resources, exchanging leadership and organisational models, encouraging voluntarism, creating business and mentorship opportunities, and prioritising how to collaborate so that the freedoms of our privileged South African Jewish life can be felt. One thing is for certain — we can all make a difference.”
When considering the prospects of a five-week ‘sabbatical’ I explored volunteering with Jewish communities around the world; then my direction was channelled by Clive Lawton via the Commonwealth Jewish Council’s offer for our family to take on the function of ‘field workers’. This way we were ‘invited’ guests, traveling with purpose to interact with the local Jewish communities, with the aim of making connections, sharing conversations and problem-solving together. For many years I have also monitored the scope of the African Jewish Congress (a project of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies). This trip had merged my interests.
The 100-year-old Ugandan Jewish (Abayudaya) community is around 3000-strong, spread across eight geographical and ideological communities, from Conservative to Orthodox Judaism. Made up of armers and pastoralists they live in rural villages, sans running water nor electricity. Families are united by their unwavering faith, love of community and pursuit of education. Communities are more or less established, with more or less resources, but how to live a full Jewish life is always central.
Tanzania’s 4th largest city is Arusha, home to about 70 Yemenite Jews, anchored by a remarkable couple, a lawyer and a human rights advocate. Rooted in ancient Sephardi tradition, this religious community is yearning for the language and the land.
The three of us each interpreted our roles and ‘brief’ in our unique ways: Benji brought his religious observance and ability to lead liturgy with melody. Being a teen amongst peers who are dedicated to their spiritual journeys with a thirst for knowledge, a passion for the Hebrew language and for ritual and bond to the Jewish people was truly refreshing. Those who have less want more, while those who have more want less.
Gary brought his interest in history, the outdoors, and community analysis (after decades by my side), and business and his role as business coach into the mix. Light bulbs went on as we unpacked the high rates of unemployment amongst university graduates, struggling to find or hold onto jobs and forced to make sacrifices to keep Shabbat.
I was in my element: exploring and strengthening community, defining and refining networks, using my skill set to find creative, innovative and constructive solutions, while being a connector to all things kosher, Jewish, and community-focused. The major and consistent request was to bring unity and we explored models of leadership and organisation to achieve this for the sake of advocacy and a more enriched and sustainable Jewish life.
Most times, even as the only whites, we could celebrate sharing common traditions and interests. But as South Africans travelling at the height of the xenophobic crisis in SA, we felt shame. There was outright condemnation for what our hosts saw as ‘black on black’ violence and we had no excuses. There is so much opportunity in South Africa, if only we would harness our resources into dignity, education, safety and security, employment and a stable economy.
Please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org to become involved.
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