Isaac Wamani had applied for visas to Israel several times without much success. So when he found out that Taglit-Birthright – the organization that brings young Jewish adults on free trips to Israel – wanted to bring over a group from Uganda this summer, he jumped at the opportunity.
“Ever since I was 16 I dreamed of making this trip,” he told Haaretz in Jerusalem, a wistful look in his eyes. “And now that I’m here, I feel so connected to this place. I actually cried when I first saw the Western Wall.”
Wamani, a 23-year-old student of mass communication at Kampala International University, is one of 36 participants in this first-ever Birthright group from Uganda.
They belong to the Abayudaya community, whose members embraced Judaism about 100 years ago but were only officially converted in recent years. Almost all of the Abayudaya were converted by rabbis affiliated with the Conservative-Masorti movement.
Birthright has come under scrutiny this summer following a series of walkouts by Jewish-American participants protesting what they claim to be the program’s intentional cover-up of the Israeli occupation.
By contrast, these Birthright participants from Africa have had to overcome huge obstacles just to get into the Jewish state. And now they’re here, they couldn’t be happier.
The fact that they hail from East Africa is not the only thing that sets them apart from other Birthright groups. The other distinction they hold – a dubious one, to be sure – is that the Israeli government does not recognize them as Jewish.
In recent years, dozens of members of the Abayudaya community have, just like Wamani, seen their visa requests rejected. Last December, a member of the community who had been accepted into a program at the Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem was detained upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport and deported the following morning. The incident sparked international outrage and accusations of racism.
A few months ago, another member of the community, who had applied to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, had his request denied.
The treatment other members of the Abayudaya community received raised concerns that the Birthright group might not be allowed to enter Israel.
Fearing such a fiasco, Birthright almost canceled the trip. But then, responding to pleas from the Jewish Agency, the Interior Ministry agreed not to make any problems for them. Marom Olami, the young adult division of the world Conservative movement, has helped arrange details of the group’s itinerary.
Dressed in white T-shirts bearing the Birthright logo, this inaugural Abayudaya group gathered at Dung Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on Monday morning for a highlight of their trip: Participating in a ceremony inaugurating a new Torah scroll at the Western Wall’s egalitarian prayer area. (The Torah was donated by Temple Beth Am in Margate, Florida.)
A shofar was blown to mark the beginning of the ceremony, and the Birthright participants sang and danced their way from Dung Gate to the prayer plaza. A tall young man, wearing dark sunglasses and phylacteries, carried the Torah under a special canopy being held up by four of his friends. Others danced around them to the rhythm of a beating drum. Tourists making their way to the traditional prayer plaza paused to take in the sight.
After the procession reached its final destination, the shaharith morning prayer service commenced. Many of the young women in the group were wearing prayer shawls.
The men and women stood side by side as they prayed, and when the Torah reading began, it was the women who were first called up for the honor of chanting a portion. The traditional dvar torah – musings on the Torah portion of the week – were also delivered by a woman.
Rachel Nasinza, a 21-year-old nurse, said she had been dreaming of visiting Israel “for a very, very long time.”
The country turned out to be quite different from what she imagined, though. “I thought there would be soldiers all over the place, because it was supposed to be dangerous here, and that the whole country would be one big desert. But it isn’t like that at all,” Nasinza said. “Actually, it’s a very peaceful and welcoming land.”
Solomon Walusimbi, a 22-year-old law student, said he worried until the last moment that the trip might be canceled. But since landing in Israel with his group last Tuesday, he has been breathing much more easily, he said.
The highlight for him was seeing up close places that he has spent years reading about in the Bible. “We visited Mount Gilboa and Mount Arbel, and at long last I see they actually exist,” he said.
The most difficult experience for many of the participants was the visit to Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial. “It was a shock for many of them,” said Sarah Nabaggala, a 27-year-old lawyer who is one of the group leaders. “A couple of them didn’t know about the Holocaust, and many of them cried when we were at Yad Vashem.”
Yonit Nagudi, a 27-year-old graduate student in education, said she was having a very hard time recovering from that visit. “It was so emotional for me – how they tortured our fellow brothers and sisters,” she said. “I couldn’t look at some of the pictures there, and now I just can’t stop thinking about it.”
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