‘The best thing I have in my life’

OCONOMOWOC – They left Africa for the first time, to connect with other Jews here in Wisconsin, and the experience has been warm and affirming.

Samson Nderitu, 23, and his fellow African madrichim (counselor) Isaac Wamani, 22, are spending their summer at OSRUI, the Reform Jewish overnight camp in Oconomowoc. They’re serving as cultural ambassadors from the Abayudaya, a tiny Jewish community in Uganda, a landlocked country in east Africa.

Abayudaya means “People of Judah.” The Abayudaya people live inside a nation of Christians and Muslims. They’re not a lost tribe – they’re converts and descendants of converts, having gotten their start with one man who tried out Christianity, then switched to Judaism and became a religious leader.

Nderitu and Wamani bring up issues that a Jew from anywhere in the world might also talk about, from whether one should marry within the faith to anti-Semitism to keeping kosher. Nderitu and Wamani both keep kosher. Wamani tells a story of a friend who quit a job because they wanted him to work on Shabbat.

“Jews killed Jesus,” kids would shout at Wamani. He was in high school and kids at school in Uganda singled him out for bullying. “There were three Jews in the school and I was the only boy – putting on a kippah,” he said.

But Nderitu said that’s how high school is and for the most part, it’s OK to be Jewish in their region of Africa, despite persecution during the Idi Amin regime in 1970s Uganda. “We live in harmony with the Muslims and the Christians,” Nderitu said. “They don’t have a problem with being Jewish.”

Despite the challenges of being a tiny minority in their country, they say they love being Jewish. “Being Jewish is the best thing I have in my life,” said Nderitu. “It defines my life.”

Spending the summer at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, one of several summer camps operated by the Union for Reform Judaism in North America, the men have been playing ga-ga, going biking with campers, talking about the Abayudaya and doing arts and crafts with kids.

This was their first trip out of Africa, arranged by the Union for Reform Judaism in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Dan Lange, associate director of camping for URJ, said there are six Reform camps with Ugandans this summer. “For us it’s another opportunity for our campers, for the chance to see that Judaism is everywhere. We want to expose them,” he said. “This is a chance to show our campers that Judaism is a global endeavor. We have a lot to learn from them and they have things to learn from us.”

Recognition in Israel

Abayudaya Jews have faced difficulties obtaining visas from Israel’s Ministry of Interior for study programs in the Jewish state, according to Haaretz. Yet since the early 20th century, members of the Abayudaya community, which now numbers approximately 1,500 to 2,000, have been observing Judaism, and in 2002 the majority formally converted.

In April, the Jewish Agency for Israel said in a letter to Israel’s Conservative movement that the Abayudaya Jews are a “recognized” community. In the letter to Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel, the Jewish Agency said it has recognized the community as Jewish since 2009 and also recognizes the authority of its rabbi, Gershom Sizomu.

Such recognition means the Abayudaya Jews are allowed to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Enjoying camp

Nderitu and Wamani haven’t come to Wisconsin to get away from Uganda. Rather, they seek to connect with Jewish life here and, at least for them, it has worked out wonderfully. They say they feel very comfortable at camp, with Nderitu noting he has yet to meet even one person he doesn’t like.

“I love kids. I love connecting with kids,” said Nderitu, who really struggled with the end of the first month when some children went home. “I couldn’t believe they are going,” he said.

Wamani plans to attend Kampala International University, to study mass communication and journalism. Nderitu is in school at Uganda Christian University. He’s thinking of either information technology (IT) or rabbinical school.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this story.

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A Jewish journey

Visitors from the Abayudaya, a tiny Jewish community in Uganda, have been spending time with campers and other counselors in Oconomowoc.