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Kenya First installment

Travel from Mbale to Kasuku with Jeremy Stein was long and arduous. But I am so glad to have made it. I miss my beautiful family and I miss my colleagues, but seeing the mountains of Kenya, Mount Kenya, the lakes and the completely different terrain was very inspiring. And then, meeting the Kehillat Kasuku congregation, Yehuda and his father Yosef, the leaders, brought me back to 2007 when I first visited Nabagoya. A brand new perspective, new people, new ideas, new ways of worshipping the One God. Once again, as in 2007, I am met by people who have a deeply spiritual connection to Judaism—the middle of the countryside of East Africa. Yehuda, as was told to me by Harriet Bograd, president of Kulanu, is a brilliant and responsible community leader—the word mensch was invented for him. His father, Yosef, is a strong prayer leader, spiritual leader and teacher—but he is also a sponge who wants to soak up every bit of Jewish knowledge that is possible. We had a wonderful few hours around Shabbat mincha time when I taught him about the rituals of Saturday afternoon—prayer and Torah reading. We went on to talk about the Shema, and rolled the kehillat’s paper Torah (they do not yet afford a real Torah) to the place in Deuteronomy where it appears and showed him the large ayin at the end of the word shema and the large dalet at the end of the word echad. He beamed upon learning how a different spelling would change the meaning and how the ayin and dalet spell the Hebrew word ayd which means witness. Every time we read the shema when we close our eyes we should feel that we were standing there with every other Jew receiving Torah. He said “I am there!” Lunch at Yosef’s home was delicious and we spent a good hour after dinner discussing Torah. The question of Nidah and women’s issues, and the difference between Ashkenaz and Sephardic traditions and the idea that we should be able to have disagreements as long as our argument is for the “sake of heaven.” Jeremy brought up Hillel and Shammai and I brought ilu v’ilu “this AND this” are correct. We are a great team—it is a pleasure doing this work together. In terms of nidah (the time when a woman is menstruating) and permission to do certain activities such as attending synagogue brought up issues of woman’s health and access to needed supplies. It was brought up that young women will not go to school if they do not have the proper supplies during that time. Of course, our belief is that women are always welcome in the synagogue, and yes, they should have proper access to hygienic supplies. As I sat in Yosef’s house, I thought to myself how fortunate I am to be sitting in the modest home of a Kenyan Jew, eating carefully prepared food and discussing Torah. What a blessing. 

There are countless other moments of teaching that took place on Shabbat morning and afternoon. The community asked for songs for Purim and an explanation of the rituals. Jeremy Stein and I taught songs and had a blast joking around and setting the mood for Purim. The children of the community had questions about how they should answer questions from other students about their Judaism. One was about baptism and the fact that Jews are immersed in a ritual bath upon conversion (and at other times). I told the young man to tell the questioner, who insisted that our practice was Christian in origin to ask his priest how long before Jesus Jews were immersing in the mikveh. Hopefully he will get the honest answer from his religious leaders. Other students asked about prayer ritual—every question was deeply meaningful and showed a genuine interest in Jewish practice. 

The services in the morning were an interesting mix of Sephardic, Abayudaya and Ashkenazic mix of melodies and prayer style. They really wanted to show us what they do, so that we can guide them in small ways in areas that at least in their minds, improve. Jeremy read the first aliyah from the paper Torah, and the rest were read by Yosef in Swahili. I chanted the haftarah. 

By the way, it is very cool here in the mountains. A great relief from the 90 degrees of Uganda. In fact, I have borrowed a jacket from Yehuda for the evening time. Last night we chanted havdallah under the Kenyan sky.

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