Abayudaya member on route to become Uganda’s first female rabbi
Growing up in Uganda, Shoshanna Nambi was active in her small Jewish community. She taught songs and the Torah portion to younger children, and was a member of her community’s youth group. Learning Hebrew also seemed to come easily. So it seemed obvious to her that she would consider becoming a rabbi.
But even though her community is egalitarian and affiliated with the Conservative movement, some were not aware that a woman could be a rabbi.
“One kid said to me that she would want me to be a rabbi, but I’m a woman,” Nambi, 29, recalled in a phone interview from Mbale, a rural town in Uganda’s east.
That incident was one of the reasons she decided to attend rabbinical school.
“I just feel like it’s something that we should have in the community,” Nambi told JTA. “We should have different leaders, and people should know that women and men can be rabbis.”
Nambi believes the community is now “open to having a woman rabbi”.
Towards the end of this year, she will start her first year of studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), the Reform movement’s seminary. She hopes to return to her community one day and act as a role model for other women and girls, but anticipates that she won’t be able to do so in the near future.
Her community struggles with issues like getting access to electricity and clean water, and Nambi worries whether they would be able to sustain a rabbi. The current rabbi, Gershom Sizomu, is a member of the country’s Parliament who works in Kampala during the week and travels home to Mbale on the weekends.
The Ugandan Jewish community, which is called the Abayudaya, traces its roots to the early 20th century, when a former leader read the Bible and embraced Judaism. Most of the community’s 2 000 members were converted under the auspices of American Conservative rabbis in the early 2000s, and thus are not recognised as Jewish by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Nambi says her grandparents started practicing Judaism, and her immediate family has been doing so ever since.
Nambi’s journey to rabbinical school wasn’t straightforward. After graduating from the University of Kampala in 2011 with a degree in business administration, she worked in healthcare and for an agricultural company.
She applied to study at HUC last year, but says she was rejected because her Hebrew skills were not sufficient. So, she spent the past year studying Hebrew and Jewish texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a nondenominational yeshiva in Jerusalem. That meant living with a host family in the Israeli city and leaving her nine-year-old daughter, Emunah, with family members in Uganda – an an experience she described as “hard for both of us”.
This time, Emunah will join her both for her first year of study in Jerusalem – HUC requires all its students to spend their first year at its campus there – and her remaining studies at the New York campus. The rabbinical school is covering her tuition and providing a living stipend, and she and her daughter will live with the same family that hosted Nambi last year.
Nambi hopes to arrive in Israel in July, when the HUC semester starts, but she is still waiting to hear from Israel about her visa application. Members of her community have faced problems entering the country, and last month, Israel’s interior ministry said it did not recognise the community as Jewish for the purpose of immigration. Nambi said she was “very disappointed” at the decision, which prompted an outcry from the Conservative movement.
“I just hope that the situation changes, but probably we have to fight a little more,” she said.
Many in her home community are “surprised” that she is attending a Reform institution rather than a Conservative one, but they are welcoming it nonetheless.
“People are really happy that somebody is going to study to be a rabbi,” she said. “They’re always very excited that somebody is pursuing and taking more Jewish education.”
Nambi said she was drawn to the Reform movement because of its openness to questioning Jewish tradition, such as the idea of Jews being G-d’s chosen people, and the observance of matrilineal descent. That differs from her home community, which is more rigid in its practices.
“[In] my community a lot of things are, ‘This is the right thing to do, this is the right prayer, and this is how you memorise this one’,” she said.
The Reform movement’s embrace of diversity in its communities also resonated deeply with her.
In addition to learning more about Reform practice, Nambi hopes to introduce fellow students to Ugandan Jewish traditions, such as the melodies used for prayers.
“Our services are very musical, and we have a lot of tunes of our own that we have composed to the various Hebrew songs,” she said. “I think it’s really nice, and I would like to bring together these two worlds.”
The majority of Ugandans are Christian, but the country has a significant Muslim minority. The Jewish community makes up only a tiny portion of the country’s population, which is about 40 million. But visits by Jews from other parts of the world make her feel more connected to the global Jewish community.
“It is [a source of] pride for us that there are other Jews in the world, this community is not alone.”
Nambi was also able to meet Jews from other parts of the world by participating in various programmes in the United States.
Kulanu, an organisation that supports Jewish communities in the developing world, paid for her to attend the American Jewish University’s Brandeis Collegiate Institute, a California-based programme that brings together young Jewish adults from around the world, and brought her to the US twice on fundraising speaking tours to synagogues. Kulanu also helped cover some of her expenses to study at Pardes.
Nambi had visited Israel prior to attending Pardes last year, but staying longer and living there was eye opening, helping her to expand her view of the country beyond what she had learned in Uganda.
“Israel is not what you think of when you’re back home,” she said. “It’s a modern-day reality. It’s a day-to-day living situation. It’s not only the Bible.”
World news in brief
Antwerp mayor warns rule flouting triggers antisemitism
The mayor of Antwerp, a city in Belgium where about 15 000 haredi Orthodox Jews live, warned that their failure to comply with COVID-19 measures has triggered some antisemitism, and it could turn into a wave.
“In the Jewish community, not everyone realises this, they have their own logic, but the backlash of public opinion that I see in my inbox, it’s terrible,” Bart De Wever, a right-wing politician who has enjoyed good relations with his city’s Jewish community, told the ATV station on Sunday, 24 January. “If we really want to move towards a wave of antisemitism, this is the way to go.”
His statement followed the two-week shutdown of a Belz synagogue by the Hasidic sect’s leaders in Antwerp. Police had determined that the shul on Van Spangen Street was twice in violation of emergency measures that forbid group prayer but allow individual worship.
Antwerp police have tolerated minyans, but have intervened when they were exceeded.
Legislators criticise Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians
Joaquin Castro, a top foreign policy Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, has joined a handful of other Democrats in criticising Israel for not supplying Palestinians with the coronavirus vaccine.
“I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by its government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making COVID-19 vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” Castrol, of Texas, told Ha’aretz this week.
A number of other Democrats, including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Marie Newman of Illinois have also criticised Israel for excluding the Palestinians.
Israel says it isn’t required to vaccinate West Bank Palestinians under international law and prior agreements with the Palestinians.
Israeli museum accused of smuggling artifacts out of Warsaw
The City of Warsaw has accused an Israeli Holocaust museum of smuggling Jewish prayer artifacts out of Poland that the museum said were found inside an old bunker in the Polish capital.
The Shem Olam museum near Hadera announced this week that it had obtained 10 sets of tefillin found by construction workers in Warsaw near the entrance to a bunker dug by Jewish fighters in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
The City of Warsaw has no knowledge of the find, said spokesperson Karolina Gałecka. If Shem Olam was telling the truth about what it obtained and where, “a crime has occurred” because Poland requires anyone who finds archaeological items to report their discovery to the authorities.
Rabbi Avraham Krieger, Shem Olam’s director, said Judaica artifacts, including from the Warsaw Ghetto, are widely available for sale in Polish antique stores and online.
Leifer finally extradited to Australia
Malka Leifer has boarded a plane from Israel en route to Australia where she faces 74 charges of child sexual abuse.
Leifer fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused students when she was the principal at the Adass Yisroel School in Melbourne. In 2014, Australia filed a formal extradition request, but Israeli authorities deemed her unstable and unfit for extradition.
After an investigation showed she was living a normal life, she was rearrested in 2018, and last year, an Israeli panel cleared her for extradition.
Leifer’s departure from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport came shortly before the country was due to ground all flights for at least a week to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Israelis torch bus in protest against COVID-19 restrictions
A mob of Orthodox Jews torched a bus in Israel after beating the bus driver amid ongoing riots protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Police officers in other cities were also injured during riots in Orthodox neighbourhoods, where COVID-19 rates have spiked but residents object to lockdown restrictions.
The bus burning in Bnei Brak on Sunday, 24 January, a largely haredi or ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, came days after rioters there injured seven police officers in clashes last week. Police have sought to close haredi schools and other institutions, which has sparked a violent backlash from protesters.
Index cards of Dutch Holocaust victims to be made public
(JTA) Sonja Levy was a positive person who made an excellent first impression and whose important position exempted her from deportation, according to the personal card that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam made for her during the Nazi occupation.
But the accolades on the card weren’t enough to save Levy, a kindergarten teacher who was in her early 20s when the Germans invaded.
Like more than 100 000 Dutch Jews, she was eventually put on a train to the death camps in occupied Poland, and murdered there in a gas chamber.
On Monday, the ownership of her personal card – it turned out to be her first epitaph – was handed over to the main museum of the community to which she belonged.
Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, 27 January, the Netherlands branch of the Red Cross has transferred to the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam ownership of more than 140 000 personal cards of Dutch Jews that are to be displayed to the public for the first time. The Jewish Cultural Quarter is an umbrella organisation of several Jewish institutions including the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.
The entire index of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, a body that the Nazis set up to have Jews oversee preparations for the extermination of their own minority throughout the Netherlands, is among the most comprehensive and best-kept registries of its kind anywhere in Europe.
It’s unusual in that it includes references to status and personal traits, reflecting how this registry, unlike most other Nazi lists, was made by for Jews by Jews.
In more than 75% of the cards, the Red Cross after World War II added the date of deportation in red ink, a rare tangible reminder of how in the Netherlands, the Nazis achieved their highest death rate anywhere in occupied Western Europe. Of about 110 000 Jews deported, only a few thousand survived.
The Red Cross has transferred its entire wartime archives to the Dutch National Archives, except for the Jewish Council’s index card archive. On Monday, the Red Cross transferred ownership of the archive to the National Holocaust Museum, which is undergoing renovations. The index will go on display next year when the museum reopens, the Red Cross said.
The index “is of great value not only as an archive, but also as a museum monument and a tangible reminder of the Holocaust”, the Red Cross wrote.
The cards were digitised in 2012, and made available for viewing online upon request for a name or other identifying details. But browsing the cards hasn’t been possible. The National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands is now designing the cards’ display ahead of the reopening, but they will be visible for all to see, according to Emile Schrijver, the director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.
Bernie Sanders has his most viral week ever
(JTA) Bernie Sanders was everywhere on James Corden’s late night show set on Thursday, 21 January.
Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the Jewish senator in his now famous inauguration ceremony pose – hands and legs crossed, slightly crumpled in his chair, wearing a pair of fawned-over mittens – sat behind a synthesiser next to the house band, behind the bar for guests, and scattered throughout the practically non-existent audience.
“Speaking of breakout stars of the inauguration, we have another one with us in the studio,” Corden said, barely holding in his laughter.
It was a fitting indication of just how ubiquitous Sanders’ image was in pop culture and for the eyeballs of social media this week. No regular Instagram or Twitter user could have scrolled through their feeds since the presidential inauguration on Wednesday, 20 January, without seeing the mittened Sanders, usually in meme form, with humorous accompanying text, often comparing him to cranky relatives and the like.
Many employed Jewish humour along the way.
Then came the photoshop phenomenon. Social media users began splicing the Sanders’ silhouette into other photos of people and places all over the world, even into screen shots from movies and TV shows.
Our sister site Alma, not content with one long slideshow of Bernie memes on Instagram, posted three sets of Bernie photoshopped into everything from Fiddler on the Roof to When Harry Met Sally, to a Haim music video.
The meme deluge became so unrelenting, some were fatigued with the image by Friday.
An entire market of merchandise inspired by the image has quickly sprouted. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is hawking “bundled up Bernie mugs” and more. Designers are incorporating it into their work on Etsy. Sanders’ own online store is now selling a sweatshirt with the image, and donating all of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels Vermont. Even the progressive magazine Jewish Currents has its own “Bernie merch”.
“The mug for a bris, a shiva, a long line at Zabar’s, a protracted and infuriating call with your insurance provider. This isn’t an endorsement of anything other than sitting like this,” the magazine tweeted.
As with most random internet phenomena, there’s no firm answer as to why the image went viral. Sanders has been a social media star before, most notably for the memes based on his December 2019 presidential campaign advert, in which the progressive legislator asks his supporters “once again” for donations.
But this photo seemed to capture the essence of Sanders’ public persona as the nation’s grumpy grandfather – and a Jewish one at that, with Ashkenazi features and an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. His homemade wool mittens, a symbol of Sanders’ Vermont style and his repudiation of anything fancy, also fit just a little too perfectly with a senator known for his rants about income inequality. (The gloves have a heartwarming backstory involving a public-school teacher that only helped fuel the fire.)
The intensity of the political moment, charged into a new gear after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol – especially for Jews, newly frightened by the display of antisemitism at the right-wing riot – probably had something to do with it too. The country, one could argue, was primed for a feel-good meme sensation. As a Refinery29 writer put it, the inauguration was, for the majority of liberal-leaning America, a “sigh of relief”.
Alma’s Emily Burack wrote, “As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year – well, in the past four years, really – when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis.”
Writer Amanda Silberling tweeted that the memes “offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant antisemitism in the news cycle”.
A large part of Sanders’ appeal to his progressive fans has always been his stubborn focus on substantive policy debate and his impatience with the fluff of pop culture. As Refinery29 continued, the cross-legged Sanders photo captured that ethic perfectly.
“He has things to do and places to be. His demeanour is unsentimental, unmoved, and largely unbothered,” Michelle Santiago Cortes wrote.
Sanders’ comic response to the phenomenon was a TikTok video that expressed just that. Its caption, “Fashion? Let’s get to work.” The video showed a clip of him responding to a question about the photo on a news show and what he had “in mind” at the time of the shot.
“Two thousand dollars per adult. That’s what the Senate has got to do,” he replies, referring to the debate over how much money the next COVID-19 stimulus relief should include.
But Sanders eventually did have some sense of humour about the whole thing. The timing of the shot, taken as the country watched Joe Biden become president, prompted inevitable musings as to whether Bernie truly was cranky about the event, especially after coming so close to winning the Democratic nomination last year. Sanders, a long-time friend of Biden’s, dispelled those thoughts in an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Thursday night.
“I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, paying attention to what’s going on,” he said to Meyers with a smile.
As the Biden era begins without the prospect of a President Sanders and subsequently no pressing need for Larry David to portray Sanders on Saturday Night Live, could this be the end of Sanders’ pop culture stardom?
As one Twitter user wrote, “If @nbcsnl doesn’t have Larry David dressed as @SenSanders in the background of every skit this weekend … then I don’t want it.”
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