Archive for May, 2008

We broke ground yesterday!!! It was such an exciting day. I posted a few pictures online and hope to write up a short description of the ceremony in the next few days (no promises, though, since we are heading to Kenya for the weekend).

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BCC’s new cd

One of the things I have missed most this year in Africa is singing with a choir. Around Pesach time, while brainstorming about different fundraising projects for the library, I thought about utilizing the voices and music at BCC. Morning glory at BCC is a truly remarkable experience. At 8:00 every morning, the staff pours out their heart to God with almost a half-hour of singing, bible study, and prayer. The songs are mostly local; they are in Lugisu, Luganda, English, and Swahili. After singing, someone from the staff “shares” from the Bible and then prays about the coming day. During my first three months in Uganda, while working at BCC, I started every morning by sitting in morning glory. Even though I didn’t sing the words to the songs, I really enjoyed learning each tune and allowing the exciting atmosphere of joyous prayer to sink in as I took my own time for self-reflection.

After capturing some of the morning glory music on the library video, Maital and I kept humming the tunes all the time. I wanted to share this music with people all over the world who could also enjoy the morning glory music for its great melodies, its motivating call to prayer, or its unique African beat. Maital and I decided that BCC should make a CD.

After talking with some of the BCC staff, Maital and I set to work to prepare a BCC choir for recording. Each day for three weeks, I left Nabugoye Hill after lunch to direct a group of staff while, Adam, the Joshua Primary School music teacher, worked with the children’s choir. At first, I just listened to a variety of songs from morning glory and together we compiled a list of songs that we thought were best for the group. After a few days, we were able to focus on a list of songs and began working on voice parts.

One of the most amazing things that I have observed about Ugandans is their natural ability to harmonize. It was pretty easy to work out harmonies for four voice parts since most of the staff already knew what voice parts they felt most comfortable singing and could easily pick out the harmonies appropriate to those voice parts. Before long, we picked soloists and finalized harmonies. Adam helped me in the last week before recording by adding some fun parts to the songs that would give them some more character.

Thanks to Maital’s administrative skills and a lot of help from some key people at BCC, we were able to schedule recording and organize for all the children and staff to spend two full days recording in Mbale town. The owner of the recording studio had warned me that the studio was small but I was still a little shocked when I was led into a room about 10×6 feet, with about 4 ft. of room to record. (I am not sure that you can even imagine how hot this insulated/sound proof room with no windows and a closed door became in the middle of the day, especially when we had to shut the fan during recording.) Somehow, sixteen children managed to squeeze into this small studio behind the large microphone and to sing beautifully. For all of the children and many of the staff, it was the first time they heard themselves sing. You should have seen the look on the children’s faces (and heard their giggles) each time we played back the song for them to hear. The producer is extremely talented and has brought a real professionalism to the recording. Everyone who participated is anxiously awaiting a final product!

In only two days, the children and staff finished recording the 8 songs and medleys that we had practiced for weeks. I will be working with the producer on final edits this week and then the cd will be finished! Everyone at BCC has been asking Maital and me about the cd and I am so excited for them to hear how wonderful it is.

Right now we are calling the cd “Bushiglory,” which is a contraction of Morning Glory at Bushikori but are open to other suggestions. We are very interested in publishing the cd in America in order to raise funds for the library. If anyone has any experience with publishing cds or graphic design, please don’t hesitate to email us. 

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We did it!

I have started many blog posts apologizing for the delay in writing and updating you about our life in Uganda. But this has definitely been the longest hiatus between posts, at least posts from me. My apologies. Since we returned from Ethiopia, life has been a whirlwind and now that we have less than a month until we return to the States, well, you can only imagine. There are so many projects to finish or prepare for handing over, people to see, and experiences to capture. But, life has been great and I really hope to have time to share with you some of the experiences we have had this year and especially those of the past two months.

            I am sitting in our apartment after midnight writing this post to thank all of you who have contributed, financially and otherwise, to the library project. In just two days, we will be breaking ground!! That’s right, we are beginning to build the library!! We have basically raised enough money to construct the main room of the library building and the foundation for the whole building. (We will build the classroom and storage space when funding becomes available.) This means that the dream of having a library for the sponsored children, the students at Joshua Primary School, the educational programs at the health center, and the community in general is actually becoming a physical reality. It’s not too late to be a part of this exciting project. We still need a bit more funding for the final touches of the building (like the electricity, which costs about $1250). We will also need funds for books, furniture, computers, and operating costs.

            I can’t wait to post pictures and stories of the ground breaking and subsequent construction. Again, I really want to appreciate the support that so many of you have given me this past year (and past years) as BCC and I have confronted and overcome various obstacles while pursuing this dream. You have made this possible!

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G’niza Ceremony under a Mango Tree

On a beautiful Sunday morning on Nabugoye Hill, the Abayudaya buried many unusable books containing shemot, names of God. Part of my work of organizing the books in the synagogue over the past few months has been separating out these unusable books from the collection. I have found humashim, books containing the five books of Moses, siddurim, prayer books, haggadot, books we use during a Passover seder, and other books and papers containing God’s name that once clean and new had become torn and broken. After planning with leaders of the community, Seth, Aaron, and Israel, for a few weeks, the community joined us in burying one large bag and a box of books under a Mango tree behind Rabbi Gershom’s house.

I was surprised and thrilled to see that over 30 people had come to the ceremony. A few of the teenagers, Isaac, Esau, Natan, and Rachman, dug barefoot with garden tools for over an hour in order to create a hole deep enough to inter all the books and papers. Over ten men stood around while they dug andchatted in Luganda and Luguere. Not understanding most of what was being said, I went to talk to some students that would be presenting during the ceremony. Finally, the hole was deep enough and more people had gathered. Since Ugandans are very particular about creating agendas for ceremonies, this geniza burying ceremony had an agenda as well. After Seth, the M.C.,  read through the agenda, Maccabee, one of the musically talented youth in the community, led us with his echidongo,  guitar, in singing aa few Psalms in Luganda. Seth described the Jewish custom of burying books with shemot before he turned it over to Israel who explained the history of the donations of holy books that the Abayudaya have received over the years. I then read a letter that I found mysteriously while sorting through the books an hour before the ceremony. The letter, attached to a donation of humashim, had been sent a few years ago by a friend and supporter of the Abayudaya, Rabbi Carl M. Perkins. The end of the letter read, “We feel very fortunate to be able to establish a link with your community through the gift of these humashim. We hope that you will be able to study and learn from these books for many years to come!” It was moving for those present to witness the burying of books that have been completely worn from use knowing that other usable books line the shelves of the synagogue thanks to the help of many friends of the Abayudaya from around the world.

After I read the blessing for studying Torah, Isaac, a youth in the community, read passages from different Jewish holy texts from the Siddur Sim Shalom. After a musical interlude, we continued with the reading in Hebrew and Luganda of Exodus, chapter 19 and 20, describing revelation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. One of the reasons that Seth and I chose these passages is that the Abayudaya are very familiar with them. Not many people in the community can read Luganda, but most can understand it when it is read or spoken.  Therefore, it was an exciting moment when Rachman, one of the Abayudaya youth, read the Ten Commandments in Luganda; many people (who unlike Rachman did not have the text in front of them) even corrected him each time he mispronounced a word!

The next part of the ceremony was the most moving. A few community members had prepared brief responses to a question Seth and I posed to them: Why is the Torah important to you, your community, and to the Jewish people? A few people spoke about the inherent good of God’s commandments and the positive affect that the Torah has had on the world because most countries’ governments uphold the Ten Commandments. Some spoke about how learning Torah and observing mitzvoth has been an incredible asset intheir lives and how it hasinfluenced the way that they behave and the way that they see the world. And some spoke about their relationship with God. The Torah for them is the constitution they must follow that will lead them to doing God’s will. Someone even gave the example of Adam eating of the fruit from the Garden of Eden and explained that because he was punished for disobeying God’s commandment, she has been careful to always observe the laws of Torah so that she will never be punished. I was surprised and thrilled that after those who had been asked to present gave their answers,  other community members volunteered to answer as well. The sharing of love and respect for the Torah continued for about twenty minutes. Most of the answers were given in Luganda, but Dr. Sam Wamani, the clinical officer from the community, was very kind to translate them to English for me.

After I offered a prayer to the community and thanked everyone for coming, Maccabee led us in some more songs as we placed the bag and box of shemot into the hole and shoveled in dirt. Everyone joined in throwing dirt into the hole and then those with shovels smoothed it over. The ceremony was  very moving and many community members expressed their thanks to me and the other planners of the service. During my blessing to the community, I  urged them to move from these unusable books to those on the shelves of the synagogue so that they continue to learn Torah each day throughout their lives. Some understood that I was speaking metaphorically, but others moved to the synagogue to learn more Torah thinking that it was next on the agenda. I guess my comments had been lost in translation…

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When we stepped off the plane in Gonder, Ethiopia, we didn’t know what to expect. Maital, Ronit (our close friend and Maital’s counselor on Nesiya), and I were supposed to meet Getenet, an Ethiopian Israeli who was helping the Gonder Jewish community with their Pesach seder. Ronit found a short, smiling man in the parking lot who immediately took our bags for us and explained in an Ethiopian accent, “slicha, ani lo yodeah anglit. Efshar l’daber b’ivrit?” “Sorry, I don’t know English, is it possible to speak in Hebrew?” Ronit, Maital, and I assured him that we all spoke Hebrew and then set off toward Gonder’s city center (or Piazza). Getenet introduced us to Getu, the president of the Jewish community, who doesn’t speak a word of Hebrew. So while we communicated with Getenet in Hebrew and Getu in English, they communicated with each other in Amharic, the dominant local languages in Ethiopia.

Getenet explained that there would be about 5,000 people at the seder. Although many claim that Chabad’s seder in Nepal is the largest in the world, we have to say that the seder in Gonder might actually be bigger! In preparation for the 5,000 person seder and for the week of Passover, the community employed 110 people to back 280,000 (no, I didn’t miscount the zeros) matzot in two weeks. The next day, we toured four rooms stacked high with matzot, or small light brown circles which ended up tasting like cardboard. But we didn’t expect Manischewitz. In addition to preparing the matzot, they were also fermenting wine in huge garbage bins.

Our first morning in Gonder, Thursday morning, we went to the Jewish compound that includes the synagogue, mikveh, and feeding center. We arrived at 7:00am in time for morning minyan. After getting the ok from the three armed guards sitting in front of the gate with a sign attached that read “Beta Israel,” the Falash Muras’ preferred title, we entered a huge space covered by sheet metal and tarps completely full of people dressed in white. The women sat on the left of the mechitza and the men on the right. The women (all of them – married and unmarried) wrapped themselves in white shawls and covered their heads with white scarves as well (most Ethiopians wear shawls all the time, we think due to the cold). About 30 of the 300 men donned beautiful, large t’filin and all the men were wrapped in matching white talitot with blue stripes. Four men stood facing away from the congregation on a high bimah, platform, and prayed in a soft monotone throughout the service. They prayed according to Sephardi nusach, mostly in Amharic. The congregation responded amen once in a while and chanted a few other prayers, but for the most part, the baalay t’filah, the service leaders, ran the show. Even the amidah was only said by the leaders and the congregants responded amen to the 19 benedictions. From my limited knowledge of the community, it seemed that the majority of people were either illiterate or there weren’t enough books for everyone. During the sh’ma, the congregants repeated each word the leaders said at such a fast pace that sometimes the leaders interrupted the congregation with the next word. It was a very interesting solution to the problems I mentioned above related to the amidah, and I reminded me of the repition of certain lines in Hallel.

The most exciting part of the service, in my opinion, was when they brought out the huge sephardic Torah with its large round case and brought it around the front of the bimah. Men started bowing their knees successively and kissing the tzitzit wrapped around their fingers while the women ululated in excitement. The leaders opened the Torah, people said the brachah after touching and kissing the Torah parchment, but someone faced the congregation and read the aliyah in Amharic. After the service, I asked Getenet if those who read the Torah in Amharic know how to read Torah in Hebrew. He answered that they don’t and would appreciate if I would read for them. So, just like that, I was assigned to read the Pesach reading a few days later.

After the service, Rabbi Waldman, an Israeli rabbi, who has had a relationship with the Ethiopian Jewish community for over twenty years, made his bimonthly phone call to the community. I was amazed to learn that every other Friday Rabbi Waldman calls to give a d’var Torah, which Getenet translates from Hebrew to Amharic (over the phone when he is in Israel). He gave a very moving speech, in which he spoke about the laws of Pesach from the Torah and from the rabbis, the prophecy from Jeremiah that the Jews would be brought back from their land from exile and the importance of am echad, mishpacha achat, one people, one family.

Most of the Jews from Ethiopia have already moved to Israel. Their family members, still in Gonder, came back to Judaism after practicing Christianity for many years. They were possibly forced to convert or given incentives which caused them to convert. These Jews want to be Jewish again and move to Israel to live with their family members. These people, who number around 12,000, have moved away from their villages and now rent space in Gonder to be close to the Jewish compound. They moved to the city so that they wouldn’t be forgotten in the transport of Jews to Israel. The Israeli government, who has promised to bring more Falash mura to Israel, recently stopped bringing people to Israel and are keeping these Jews in limbo. While these people wait in Gonder, they are receiving financial aid from an American non-profit called NACEJ, (The North American Committee for Ethiopian Jewry), which supplies food to children under six and pregnant mothers twice per day and runs the half day Hebrew school for Jewish culture.

After the services, I asked Getu how many of the people have family members living in Israel. He immediately turned to the congregation and called out in Amharic, “Raise your hands if your grandparents are in Israel.” One quarter of the room raised their hands. “Raise your hands if your mothers and fathers are in Israel.” Half the room raised their hands. “Uncles and aunts.” More raised their hands. “Brothers and sisters.” Almost half the room raised their hands and cheered. This was a room full of people whose families were in Israel and who couldn’t wait to make aliyah to live with them. Getu announced that just that morning, Ethiopian Israelis were protesting in Tel Aviv that the Israeli government bring the rest of Beta Israel to their homeland.

The next day, also the morning before the seder, many people came to volunteer to pick the pits out of hundreds of dates, to cut ginger, and to peel bananas in order to prepare kharoset, one of the necessities for the seder. This was by far the sweetest kharoset I’d ever tasted. In the next room, we could smell thousands of eggs and potatoes cooking in huge pots.

The seder itself was an amazing experience. There was great excitement as people tried to find any available seats amidst a crowd of 5,000. I was asked to sit with Getenet and Getu on the bimah to help them lead the seder, which was mostly in Amharic, except for the blessings and some of the songs. The end of the seder was the most incredible part. As everyone sang L’shana haba b’yerushalayim hab’nuyah, a group of boys started a moving moshpit as they screamed, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” It was an amazing feeling, and I looked over to see wide smiles on the faces of Getenet and Getu. It also stirred mixed emotions, because as they chanted, we realized that most likely next year would not be in Jerusalem for them and not by their choice!

The next night Maital and I made our own seder, in which we used haggadot from the community, although we read from the Hebrew side (not the Amharic one!) We were joined by 10 people, mostly Israeli travelers that were staying at the Belegez Pension with us and then two Americans that have been volunteering with the Jewish community for a few months. The seder was really great. We made it through the whole haggadah, had some really interesting conversations, and enjoyed Israeli wine, thanks to a present from Saba and Savta, Maital’s grandparents. There was an Israeli film crew that was in the area filming a documentary on the community that might air on arutz shtayim at some point in the future that stopped by for an hour and interviewed us a few days before. So who knows, we might be famous! The Israeli film crew also left us a box of Israeli matzah, which we rationed and made last for the rest of the holiday!!

We spent the rest of Pesach seeing some amazing castles and an Orthodox church in Gonder. We then made our way south to Bahir Dar where we hiked to see the Blue Nile waterfalls and took a boat on Lake Tana to see a few islands housing more incredible churches and even a monastery for 70 monks, where only men were allowed to visit. It was a truly incredible Pesach.

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