Cantor Jerry Berkowitz spent weeks trying to figure out how to get a Torah from Manitowoc to Uganda.
“I don’t want it in baggage. Why? Because it’s a Torah,” Berkowitz gently explained. Berkowitz was the cantor at Congregation Beth-El Ner Tamid, formerly of Mequon, until 2010.
“I wanted it with us at all times and I wanted it to be treated properly,” he added.
Nine cantors from around the nation, including Berkowitz and Hazzan Jeremy Stein of Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid of Glendale, have left for Uganda, to connect with the Abayudaya Jews there. They’re bringing the Torah, a gift from Manitowoc Jews to the African Jewish community; it may go to a smaller part of the community there that has no Torah at all.
Anshe Poale Zedek Synagogue of Manitowoc is not as large as it once was and has decided to donate one of its five Torahs to the Abayudaya. The Manitowoc congregants there see this as support for future generations, said Berkowitz, who is the cantor and sole clergy for the congregation.
The nine cantors on the trip are accompanied by two others, including Stein’s wife, Amanda, who is earning her doctorate in musicology at Northwestern University. They will be in Uganda for about 10 days, having left Jan. 28. The trip is a project of the Cantors Assembly of the Conservative movement, though the cantors and others are coming up with their own funding.
When most of them head back to the United States on Feb. 7, Stein will be staying for a few more days to visit another African Jewish community in Kenya. Their leader, Yehudah Kimani, of the Kehillat Israel Kenya-Jewish Congregation of Ol-Kalou, visited Milwaukee about three years ago.
Years ago, when Stein was in cantorial school, an Abayudayan named Gershom Sizomu was enrolled in the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. The pair happened to meet and talk in Israel during their studies, spending some time in Sizomu’s apartment. Stein felt a connection formed, to now-Rabbi Sizomu and to the Abayudaya.
In May, the Israeli Interior Ministry denied recognition to the Abayudaya, according to Haaretz. Its decision was reportedly in response to a request from a member of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community, who sought to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Others have reportedly been denied visas for mere travel in Israel.
Most Abayudaya were converted by Conservative rabbis between 2002 and 2008, and therefore should qualify for immigration under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by Israel’s mostly ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, according to the Times of Israel.
“These are people who have taken on the serious obligation and identity of Judaism. They’re serious in their commitment to Judaism and living a Jewish life and their commitment to the state of Israel. I’m personally bothered by the decision not to grant them a visa into Israel,” Stein said.
Though he considers himself a strong supporter of Israel, he added, “We were very bothered by this and as cantors we wanted to show our solidarity with the Abayudaya and really recognize their legitimacy as Jews.”
Stein and others on the trip will work on two projects with African Jews while there. One will be work towards the creation of a Haggadah that tells the story of the Abayudaya. The plan is to publish it, with it serving as a supplement to a Passover Seder’s core Haggadah. For example, it may have four questions based on the Abayudaya experience that can be used as a jumping off point for discussion.
This being a trip of music professionals, the second project is musical. Participants are to record Abayudaya folk songs, also related to the Abayudaya experience. The plan is to release them in America. A Jewish Community Foundation grant of $3,000 is paying for recording project expenses, said Chief Development Officer Caren B. Goldberg of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Transporting the Torah
The gifted Torah is not part of either the musical project or the Haggadah project; it has been something of a project all its own.
Berkowitz spent weeks phoning and emailing with Kenya Airways, discussing how to transport a Torah to Africa. “It’s not a little Torah,” Berkowitz said.
It’s one that elderly congregants in Manitowoc can’t easily lift, so that makes it a good choice for donating. The Torah is about 29 pounds and 40 inches high.
Berkowitz considered taking the Torah apart for travel, even slicing it up under Jewish law, but ultimately decided to keep it intact.
Berkowitz said before he left that he planned to drive the Torah from Manitowoc to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. He wasn’t yet sure if it would go in an overhead compartment or a closet on the plane, but Kenya Airways assured him it would not go in baggage, he said. He wanted it with him at all times, he said.
“I think what we worked out is that it would be able to be in the cabin of the plane for us,” he said. But he knows there’s no guarantee.
“We have a backup plan. We’re not going to check it. One of the cantor’s sons lives in New York and (if necessary) we’ll give it to him to hold until the end of the trip. We’re just not going to put it in baggage.”