By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – Last winter Lisa Pleskow Kassow, director of Trinity College Hillel, and two other college advisors took a group of students to eastern rural Uganda to meet and volunteer with the Abayudaya Jewish community. Kassow’s photos from that journey will be on display next month at the Mandell JCC in West Hartford.
“The Abayudaya – People of Judah” will run in the JCC’s Chase Family Gallery from Sept. 2 – 15.
Kassow was accompanied to Uganda by Patti Sheinman, Wellesley Hillel Director and Denning Aaris, assistant director of Multifaith Programs at Babson College, who all led groups of students from the three schools on the trip.
The group included three students from Trinity College – Shawna Berk ’13, Rebecca Levy ’12, and Jillian Zieff ’14, three students from Wellesley College – Christine Lee ’14, Emily Wood ’13, and Katie Hargreaves ’12; and from Babson College, Alan Klipper ’14. Kassow’s daughter Miri Kassow, a junior at Muhlenberg College, also went on the trip. Miri spent seven weeks in Uganda volunteering with American Jewish World Service.
The Abayudaya (which means “People of Judah” in Lugandan, the Ugandan language) community is comprised of approximately 1,500 people who maintain their Jewish identity in several villages throughout eastern Uganda. The community has five active synagogues.
Prior to becoming Hillel Director in 2001, Kassow spent many years in Israel as an award-winning photojournalist. Kassow’s photo exhibit focuses on the Hadassah Primary School, an elementary school that serves Jewish, Christian and Muslim children where the group volunteered, as well as the Delicious Peace Coffee Cooperative – known as “Mirembe Kawomera,” an interfaith collective of coffee farmers, who share their profits to raise the standard of living for its member families.
The Peace Kawomera Cooperative has grown to over 1,000 members. Due to their collective efforts, the standard of living has risen for its member families, especially in the areas of health care and education, and plans are under way to expand beyond coffee into vanilla and cocoa.
“I have heard of this man and this project for years. JJ is considered a very good farmer, and a tzaddik, a very righteous man.,” Kassow said. “He explains the genesis of this cooperative project – JJ was in New York City on September 11, 2001. 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 (Jews) live next to each other in peace. It is a simple life of living from the land. Over 80% of Ugandans work in agriculture. They eat what they grow. JJ decided to establish an interfaith cooperative with his neighbors and thus, the Coffee Peace Collective – Mirembe Kawomera – was born.”
When the group made it to the Hadassah Primary School they were greeted by Headmaster Rabbi Aaron Kintu Moses who gave them a tour. The Jewish primary and secondary boarding school serves Jews, Christians and Muslims. The school is supported by school fees, donations and proceeds from the coffee collective. “The dormitories are in very sorry shape,” Kassow observed. “We expected that our Tzedek project would be to tutor basic math to young children, but Rabbi Aaron lets us know that painting the dormitories and play equipment would be even more appreciated.”
So the group spent two days cleaning and painting spaces inside the school building’s living quarters for boarding students and a building that houses the classrooms for the secondary school.
The group celebrated Shabbat in the Nabugoya community’s synagogue and stayed next door in the Abayudaya Guest House. The group sponsored a community Shabbat dinner on Friday night and lunch on Shabbat afternoon. JJ Keki led the community in Kabbalat Shabbat psalms in Luganda, the local language. The community’s Chief Rabbi, Gershon Sizomu, was ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies a five-year graduate program at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles along with Cantor JJ.
Kassow wil speak about her visit to Uganda and the Abayudaya Jewish commuity at a gallery talk and Ugandan food experience at the Mandell Jewish Community Center, 335 Bloomfield Ave., on Sunday, Sept. 9, from 3-5 p.m. The event is free and open to the community.