The Rosengarten-Friedland families’ Ugandan adventure

How eight Vancouverites would up building a playground for the Abayudaya’s Jewish elementary school.

Uganda Shabbat (photo credit: courtesy)
Uganda Shabbat
(photo credit: courtesy)
Unless they’re going on safari, Uganda is not the first country on most families’ wish lists. But when the Rosengarten and Friedland families disembarked at Entebbe in December, vacation was the furthest thing from their mind. The eight Vancouverites had come to build a playground for the Hadassah Primary School in Nabugoye Hill, not far from Uganda’s second- largest city, Mbali.
The two families had learned about the Abayudaya – a Luganda word for the people of Judah – through their kids’ high school. Students at King David High School (KDHS) had raised $10,000 for the Abayudaya in May 2010, and Gershom Sizumu, the Abayudaya rabbi, had flown to Vancouver to receive the money.
“After we learned there was a conservative Jewish community living in the middle of Uganda, our friend Phillipa Friedland suggested we go and visit them,” says Natalie Rosengarten. “At first we thought it was a crazy idea.
Uganda is so remote. How would we get there? Then we thought again. We knew there would be some unknowns, but it would be a family adventure. We decided to just go for it.”
The Abayudaya are devout Jews who number approximately 1,100 and observe kashrut and Shabbat.
The sect began about 1919 with Semei Kakungulu, a military leader who adopted Judaism nine years before his death from tetanus. By then he had a group of followers, but after his passing it split in two. One group became Christians, and the other, the Abayudaya, became practicing Jews.
Their practice of Judaism was by no means easy. Idi Amin, the president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, outlawed Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues.
By the time his persecutions were over there remained only about 300 members of the group. The rest had converted to Christianity or Islam.
Those members remained strong in their beliefs, however, and began establishing contacts with Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. Today Uganda has five synagogues and Jewish schools attended by Jewish, Christian and Muslim pupils.
Back at King David High School, Sizumu’s visit had a profound impact on David Rosengarten, 17, his sister Gabi, 13, Aaron Friedland, 18, and his sister Elli, 11. “Gabi and her friends had raised $2,000 for the Abayudaya in May, and she was very fired up about the idea of going to Uganda,” Rosengarten says.
It didn’t seem enough just to visit, though, so the families brainstormed about how they could help, what they could bring that would have an important impact on the community. They decided to partner with a playground contractor and create a playground for the children of Hadassah Primary School. The two families would split the $5,000 cost and help install it on their visit. At the last minute, Vancouver Talmud Torah contributed $1,800.
In preparation, everyone received inoculations and ensured their malaria tablets were packed and ready to go. “We were apprehensive about the trip,” Rosengarten confesses. “Even after the vaccines we wondered if we were going into a danger zone. We were most nervous about the conditions of the roads and how we would navigate them safely.”
Both families are originally from South Africa, and they stopped there first before flying to Entebbe and driving six hours to Mbali.
They stayed in a guest house in Nabugoye Hill in conditions that were more luxurious than those of the locals. The guest house had cold running water and some electricity, but no stove or refrigerator.
A Muslim woman cooked their meals on a coal stove, and for two days the families worked in 32º weather, preparing a site for playground equipment.
At first, they saw the community from the perspective of outsiders, noticing the mud huts, the absence of electricity and running water, the number of AIDS orphans at the school and the dearth of lighting, chalkboards and other educational instruments.
“We felt very different to the locals,” Rosengarten says. “Initially our differences were more striking than our similarities.
And though we knew we were doing a good deed, we didn’t feel the Jewish connection that strongly.”
Everything changed, though, as Shabbat approached. “On Friday afternoon we noticed a buzz of activity as people were cleaning their vegetables, making halla in coal ovens and getting their children clean and tidy for the Sabbath,” she recalls.
Friedland recalls walking to synagogue and hearing a traditional African beat and the words of “Lecha Dodi” being sung. “All of a sudden, these people who had seemed so foreign to us were singing songs we knew, with the same tunes,” she says.
On Saturday morning, her son Aaron and David Rosengarten carried the Torah, and later the families gathered with other Jews outside the synagogue for a lesson and a Sabbath- end havdala service.
“Shabbat with the Abayudaya was a highlight for us,” Rosengarten says.
“Until that time we were doing work in what could have been any community.
But on Shabbat, we truly witnessed something spectacular. On Shabbat our similarities with the Abayudaya became more visible, and witnessing that religious connection was quite an emotional experience. As we sat in a Ugandan shul singing the same songs we sing back home, we no longer felt so much like outsiders.”
Back in Vancouver, she says the trip to Uganda is like a gift that keeps on giving back to them. “My kids keep talking about what they saw and how privileged they are,” she reflects. “They noticed how happy the Uganda children are, despite how little they have.”
The trip itself was a fleeting idea first discussed in the hot tub at their vacation home. It could easily have been dismissed, she says. “The fact that we made it happen is the whole story.
What I learned is that if you want to do something, it’s not that complicated.
And it felt good to leave something tangible behind, because there is so much need there.”