On November 11th and 12th, 2008, MAJC welcomed Israel Siriri of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. A construction engineer by profession, he helped design and directly supervised the many public works projects the community has accomplished. These include the installation of water catchment tanks in every village and the first running water well in the community; construction of new classrooms, dormitories, latrines, a guesthouse, a science lab and working showers for the schools; as well as bringing the first electricity to the main village center at Nabagoye Hill. This is an opportunity for MAJC to perform a very special multilayered mitzvah—educating our community about the Abayudaya, helping the Abayudaya form relationships with the wider Jewish community and providing support for the educational, economic and spiritual growth of the Abayudaya.
Gan Ami Preschool Upon arrival Mr. Siriri visited the Gan Ami Preschool at the Jewish Community Center. The children there have learned some of the Abayudayan melodies. Together we all sang Minei Ma Tov the Abayudayan way. Clearly, Israel was touched that halfway around the world Jewish children were singing nthe same songs as the children in his community. Mr. Siriri talked about his home and community before playing a number of Abayudayan songs and dancing with the children. After singing and dancing, Mr. Siriri toured the JCC and had lunch with MAJC board member Steve Baruch (Coalition for Jewish Learning, Executive Director) and JCC Jewish educator Jody Hirsh at CafA BData.
Radio WMCS 1290, Eric Von Mr. Sirriri next appeared on radio on the, “Eric Von Show”. Eric is a dear friend of MAJC, having visited Israel on a project Interchange mission at our behest. The two discussed the little known Abayudaya Jewish community of Mbale Hill (Uganda) its origins, leadership, conversion to Judiaism in 1919 and future plans for growth. They discussed how the Abayudaya are taking a leadership role in bringing diverse tribal and religious communities together through the schools, and through the “Delicious Peace” Mirembe Kawomera fair trade organic coffee project, involving more than 750 farmers of all three faiths working together. multi-religious coffee cooperative
The Black Jews of Milwaukee Dinner that evening was at the MAJC office, where Israel met with African heritage members of the Milwaukee Jewish community. One of the teens present remarked that this was so wonderful for her since she was one of only 2 Black Jews at her school.
Peace and Sustainability: Brewing Grounds for Change A gathering of coffee lovers and MAJC friends came together for a presentation on “Peace and Sustainability,” at Brewing Grounds for Change. This fair trade and organic coffee establishment provided the right atmosphere for Mr. Siriri’s presentation on the multi-religious Mirembe Kawomera Coffee Project. The Abayudaya community and their Christian and Muslim neighbors have elected to collectively and pluralistically cultivate coffee. Income earned is invested into the many community projects intended to benefit all community members. Supporters also enjoyed a glimpse into the Abayudaya Jewish community as Mr. Siriri touched on topics such as, Jewish life, school projects and facilities, health, sanitation, business development and women’s projects.
Nicolet HS, School presentation
Nicolet High School hosted an early morning meeting between Mr. Siriri and the Hebrew classes. About 30 students enjoyed a glimpse into the Abayudaya Jewish community as Mr. Siriri explained Jewish life in Uganda, with emphasis on education, Israel and women’s projects. For many students and faculty this was the first time they had been introduced to the Abayudaya Jewish community of Uganda. Despite the early hour, the students joined in on a number of local Abayudaya songs.
Milwaukee Jewish Day School
Rounding off the morning school meetings, Mr. Siriri sang and presented in front of a standing room only crowd in the Bet Midrash of the Milwaukee Jewish Day School. About 150 students and faculty were treated to a power point presentation of the Abayudaya Jewish community. This was followed by an opportunity for the students to ask questions of Mr. Siriri. There was no shortage of curiosity from eager students and they queried on a wide range of topics covering Mr. Siriri’s community, family and the history of the Abayudaya. Unfortunately for all, lunch hunger prevented an afternoon of questions and answers from knowledge hungry students. The students agreed that all of the tzedaka (charity) raised in the school through December would be earmarked for the Abayudaya community.
Wisconsin Council of Rabbis
Lunch was with the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis hosted by Rabbi Jacob Herber at Congregation Beth Israel. The rabbis present interesting questions regarding the prospects for aliyah, none at this time, numbers of “kosher” converts, over 650, number of synagogues, 3 and a new one under construction, and the oppression of the community under the reign of Idi Amin.
A civil engineer by profession, and lead engineer in his community, Israel Siriri received an afternoon tour of the downtown Milwaukee Area Technical College facility. He met with a number of MATC faculty to discuss architectural design and learn about the many other programs offered at the college. Within his own community structural improvements have been made to water storage containers, health facilities and schools. MATC generously sent back with him models to be used in the the Mbale Hill construction projects..
Hands Across the Campus-Rufus King HS
The Hands Across the Campus program at Rufus King High School hosted Mr. Siriri for a late afternoon presentation. Mr. Siriri was warmly welcomed by faculty and members of the Jew Crew and the African Student Union. Those in attendance took the opportunity to inquire about the Abayudayan communities’ plans for future growth. The community plans to focus structural improvements and additions to a number of sanitation and school facilities. In addition, students went above and beyond welcoming by holding a bake sale which raised more than $200, a donation which will contribute to ongoing construction project costs in the Abayudayan community. Special thanks to Marie Newby-Randle, Rufus King Principal and Kelly O’Keefe-Boetcher, English teacher and Hands facilitator/advisor.
Congregation Beth Israel
Over 300 people attended an evening presentation entitled, “Two Jews, Two Continents, One People” with Mr. Siriri and CBI’s Rabbi Jacob Herber, to complete his Milwaukee tour. Rabbi Herber recounted his personal experiences after a recent and emotional travel to the Abayudaya community in July of 2007. During trip he served as a member of the beit din (religious court) and helped formally convert over 250 Ugandan Jews. Mr. Siriri spoke to the congregation about his Jewish community’s will to survive after years of persecution, particularly harsh under Idi Amin’s reign in the 1970s. At one point approximately 3,000 Jews converted out of Judaism under duress and left about 300 faithful. Israel spoke about the Abayudaya primary and high schools, feeding and educating 500 Jewish, Muslim and Christian children studying together in peace. Mr. Siriri reported on the child hunger project; public health education and women’s empowerment programs; on-going classroom, dorm and school kitchen construction; as well as the village micro-finance, crafts, music CD, coffee, dried fruit and eco-tourism self-help projects. Both Rabbi Herber and Mr. Siriri spoke of the importance of building ties between the two communities. Every single Abayudayan made kippah, cd, and lb. Of coffee we received was sold with the proceeds benefiting the Abayudayan community.
Since Mr. Siriri’s visa is good for 2 years, we hope he will visit us again in 2009. Special thanks to Congregation Beth Israel’s Social Justice Committee and MAJC member Judy Margolis.