'In Uganda, All of Us - Jews, Muslims and Christians - Are Friends'

A young Ugandan Jew says his stay in Israel was perfect – except for the hummus; life is easier in Italy, says an Israeli couple returning home after eight years

Tal Maoz and Isaac Makidosi.
Tomer Appelbaum

Isaac Makidosi, 28, from Mbale, Uganda, and Tal Maoz, 31, from Tel Aviv; Isaac is flying to Entebbe, Uganda

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

Isaac: I am part of the Jewish community in Uganda, and I came to Israel through the World Noam program [of Masorti, or Conservative, Judaism].

Tal: Nine people from five countries – all of them from branches of the Conservative movement in Judaism – were here as part of the Jewish Agency’s Onward Israel program.

What did it involve?

Tal: They have been given tools for leadership, creative thinking, negotiating and Jewish values.

Which values are considered Jewish?

Tal: Healing the world, Zionism, community and family, halakha [Jewish religious law]. But they also come here in order to specialize in their fields.

Isaac, what is your field?

Isaac: I have an undergraduate degree in child development, and I, along with two colleagues in the program, was at a preschool for foreign workers’ kids in Jerusalem.

Tal: The ultimate goal is for them to return to their communities and work with the youth there and engage in entrepreneurship. 

And what is your ultimate goal?

Tal: I am the director of the world Conservative youth movement.

What exactly is Conservative Judaism?

Tal: The Conservatives are a denomination in Judaism that advocates halakha by the book, but in the spirit of the age. With us, for example, a woman is equal to a man and can be called up to the Torah. We have egalitarian minyanim [prayer quorums] and there is official agreement both to allow same-sex couples to marry and to release agunot [women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce].

Great. Why isn’t everyone like you?

Tal: It seems to me that our public relations aren’t good enough. The dialogue today is one of identities. People would grab the “product” called Conservative Judaism.

What would happen if everyone was Conservative?

Tal: The Messiah would come. (Laughs) Don’t write this, but yes, we would be a better society. The concept of “Love your neighbor as yourself” is given expression in our movement.

I’m not sure the Orthodox would agree with you.

I have no problem with the Orthodox, but they have a problem with me.

Isaac, what kind of Jew are you?

Isaac: In my case, both my mother and father are Jewish and I was raised as a Jew, meaning that mainly we celebrated the Jewish holidays. A decade ago, when I was 18, three Jewish rabbis came to Uganda and taught us all kinds of things.

Like what?

Isaac: I learned how to be a ritual slaughterer in the community, so we would have kosher food, and to this day that is something I do. It’s not really a job, because I don’t want to be paid; mostly it makes me feel good. Every Shabbat we slaughter a goat, and after the prayers everyone has lunch together.

The truth is that I didn’t know there were Jews in Uganda.

Isaac: Once there were more than a million Jews in Uganda, but – do you know Idi Amin?

I’ve heard the name.

Isaac: He persecuted the Jews, so some left and some converted to Christianity, but my great-great-grandfather and my grandfather and a few more people stayed the course, so we still exist. I don’t know exactly what happened and how they maintained their religion, but I do know that they never let up. Now we have seven synagogues and learning centers and about 2,500 believers, and during holidays people come and everyone prays together.

You have a community life.

Isaac: What I like in Uganda is that all the Jews are connected with one another, and even more I like the fact that all of us – Muslims, Christians and Jews – are friends. A Jew can attend a Muslim school, a Muslim can go to a Christian school and a Christian can attend a Jewish school. People don’t care – whoever wants can come and learn wherever they want.

Sounds good. Did you ever hear of the Uganda Plan?

No. 

Okay, never mind. How was it in Israel?

Isaac: It was my first time here. I spent six intense weeks here; my time was perfect.

Wow.

Isaac: As far as I’m concerned, this is truly the Promised Land, a land of milk and honey. The honey is the people who live here, and the milk is everything I see around me that fills my heart, and my heart is filled to overflowing when I am in Israel.

Poetic. You didn’t run into any problems at all?

Isaac: Only one thing, maybe. Early on I ate food I’m not familiar with – hummus and falafel – and it gave me a stomachache.

Moran Shitrit and Ariel Melloul.
Tomer Appelbaum

Ariel Melloul, 31, and Moran Shitrit, 31, from Tel Aviv; arriving from Milan

Hello, can I ask where you know each other from?

Moran: From high school in Jerusalem, in Ramot – a tough neighborhood. (Both laugh)

What did you do in Italy?

Moran: We went there eight years ago, to study. Ariel studied medicine and I took urban planning. Israel doesn’t offer an undergraduate degree in that field.

Eight years is more than one degree.

Moran: I also did a master’s there and even started a job.

Ariel: I completed med school and did an internship. I’ve already worked five months in an ER and as a family doctor.

Moran: We lived well there, the mentality and the style and pace of life suited us very much. And everything there is very different from here.

In what way?

Ariel: In Israel the feeling is that you work for the sake of work and success, but with the Italian mentality, the emphasis is that you work so you will have the possibility to live a good life. For example, in August the university closes down and all the professors go on vacation. It also doesn’t matter how intensive the studies were – morning in a hospital, then studies until night – there was always an hour and a half for lunch and coffee. It’s true that the evening sometimes ends later, but there’s always that pause, time to recharge. I didn’t feel that here.

Moran: We had a full life there, and within one day to stop everything and start something else – it’s hard to grasp.

You both already did that once.

Moran: When you’re young you don’t think, you just do. That’s the beauty of it.

Why come back, actually?

Moran: Because we decided that Italy is a honey trap.

Ariel, are you ready to return to Israel?

Ariel: It’s hard to come back, it’s madness to give up the quiet. It’s quiet in every way, in terms of family and friends, too. Here you get back into the intensity of life. There’s no escape and there’s less control over things. I’m starting an internship at Assaf Harofeh [Hospital] on October 1, so the plan is to fly to India for a month.

Moran, what’s your plan?

Moran: I want to continue in my studies and focus on public spaces, but I haven’t checked and haven’t sent out résumés.

What did you do, exactly?

Moran: I worked in a studio that does consultation for transportation and traffic projects worldwide, especially in countries that have a lot of money and do plenty of projects, like Dubai, for example.

Charity begins at home – what do you have to say about the traffic and transportation in Israel?

Moran: One of the things that bothered me most in Israel was the behavior on the roads, and that is certainly affected by their design.

In what way?

Moran: Transportation here is terrible. In Milan there isn’t a square meter that doesn’t have public transportation – buses, trains and electric buses. Here there’s one route for the train to Jerusalem.

Why is that?

Moran: It’s just a more developed field in Europe. But it’s not just transportation, it’s basically movement of people in space. For example, we did a lot of work there with a computer program aimed at understanding the geometry of spaces. The program does an analysis of which areas are more accessible, and only then do you decide, for example, where to install an escalator.

You sound aggravated.

Moran: In daily life there are things that should be convenient, but if I get up in the morning and have to get somewhere and I know it will take a lot of time, it’s frustrating and upsetting. In Europe there are huge squares and fantastic public spaces that are so right, some of them were planned long ago. A great deal draws on Greece and Rome – they were geniuses.

The Israeli planners are maybe a little less so.

Moran: There’s no need to change everything, at least it’s not obligatory. That’s what they’re doing in Dubai, and we can learn from them. You just need to add pergolas or elements that create shade or choose cooling materials for surfacing, because asphalt reflects the sun into your face. Here we are, standing at the exit from the airport, and there’s only a small square of shade. There’s no place to sit for a minute and have a smoke. And this is an airport, people meet outside here and there’s no place to sit.