Trinity Contingent Performs Community Service in Uganda

Hillel Director, Students experience Life among 1,500 Ugandan Jews

HARTFORD, CT, February 2, 2012 – Continuing Trinity’s long tradition of community service, Lisa Kassow, director of Trinity College Hillel, and three students journeyed halfway around the world to Uganda during the winter break to meet with members of that country’s tiny Jewish community and help spruce up a school in dire need of a facelift.

The Trinity foursome -- which included students Shawna Berk ’13, Rebecca Levy ’12, and Jillian Zieff ’14 -- was joined by Kassow’s daughter, Miri, as well as three students from Wellesley College and one from Babson College. Accompanying them were Patti Sheinman, Hillel director at Wellesley, and Denning Aaris, Babson’s assistant director of Multi-Faith Programs.

Trinity student Shawna Berk ’13 prepares lunch with children from the Abayudaya Jewish community at a private home in Nasenyi Village, eastern Uganda. Photo by Lisa Kassow.

Inspired by Miri Kassow’s trip to Uganda two summers ago with the American Jewish World Service, Lisa Kassow thought it would be a uniquely fulfilling experience for the contingent to meet with the Jewish community in eastern Uganda, the Abayudaya (which means Jewish in Lugandan), and to engage in a service project on their behalf. The participants, not all of whom are Jewish, departed for Entebbe on January 5 and returned to the United States on January 16.

“It was an absolutely incredible experience,” said Kassow, adding that many of her pre-conceived notions about the country and the Jewish community were at odds with what the group found. For one thing, Kassow said, “we went there thinking that we would tutor children in basic math. But when we got there we were told there were other more pressing needs.”

At the top of the needs list was the dilapidated condition of several rooms in the Hadassah Primary School near the town of Mbale. The headmaster of the boarding school asked the Americans if they could paint the dormitory and classrooms, which they did, as well as clean the library and dust hundreds of books.

In the journal she kept, Kassow wrote this about the service project: “We continue to paint, taking on another building that houses the classrooms of the secondary school. It’s hard work. There is no accessible running water and no electricity. Water must be drawn from a well nearby. The walls are caked in layers of glued bits of paper from years of posters and projects. Today’s posse of children tries to help, but these are very young children and get dust in their eyes, cry and need cuddling.  The day passes too quickly, but we succeed in completing a face-lift of another large space – interior and exterior. Rabbi Aaron [Kintu Moses] is thrilled with the progress and tells us we have changed this environment for the better. I wish we could stay a few more days and really attack all the spaces, but it is Friday afternoon and we must get ready for Shabbat (the Sabbath).”

The school, whose students are Jewish, Christian and Muslim, is supported by fees, donations and proceeds from the interfaith coffee collective nearby, founded by JJ Keki, who is not only a farmer but also an ordained cantor. The Delicious Peace Coffee Collective of East Uganda provides a livelihood for many of the community’s residents, and Keki and his wife have 10 children and support 15 orphans.

Keki was in New York City on September 11, 2001, when two planes destroyed the World Trade Center’s twin towers. 

“In the aftermath of the disaster, he understood what people were saying and feeling about Muslims – the enemy, the other. In his life, on his land, Muslim, Christian and Abayudaya live next to each other in peace. It is a simple life of living from the land,” said Kassow. “JJ decided to establish an interfaith cooperative with his neighbors and thus, the Coffee Peace Collective - Mirembe Kawomera - was born. As JJ said, ‘at noon, everyone is hungry. It doesn’t matter what you are, Jewish, Christian or Muslim’.”

Keki also participated in the Shabbat service, leading the community in Kabbalat Shabbat psalms in Lugandan. Afterward, the congregation sang Lecha Dodi, while scores of children held the hands of the Americans, leading them around. As Kassow described it, “the rest of the service is mostly as it would be in any conservative synagogue in North America. The Sim Shalom prayer book is used.”

Kassow called the service “beautiful, engaging, completely egalitarian [and] inclusive.”

Berk, the Trinity student, was honored with an aliyah (saying blessings before and after passages from the Torah are chanted). Until that time, Berk, who has one Jewish parent, hadn’t known what an aliyah was.

After the service, the rabbi made a “gentle pitch” for money to build a new synagogue, one that would meet the needs of the growing Jewish community and that had a proper roof, not one made out of tin. Then the congregants gathered outside for a discussion about the weekly Torah portion, followed by a lunch of goat.

As Kassow concluded in her journal: “After Shabbat, our group comes together to reflect on our experiences here. Many tears, we are all overcome by emotion. We have been exposed to a completely different world in Uganda, but one that we all can relate to so deeply…. We talk about the quote from the Talmud – saving one life is like saving an entire world. We are all profoundly moved by this extraordinary community.”

“Uganda Reflections,” an exhibit of photos from the January trip, will be on display from February 10 to March 2 in the Mather Art Space. An opening event featuring the student participants will be Thursday, February 16 at 4:30 p.m. in the Rittenberg Lounge in Mather Hall.​​​​​​