An Humbling Experience
I am seated between two colleagues in Mukono, Uganda, a family of five, mother and father, fifteen year old daughter and two adult sons are seated, facing us across a table. There is not a dry eye in the room. Words escape us and are superfluous.
We sit opposite a family comprising a man, his two wives, five children, another two at school. Elements of angst are in the air, emanating from more than a single direction. The tone is serious, even dour. Then a revelation — two of the children are not his and not his wives’. Suddenly the mood flips. They are his brother’s, a brother who is confined to an asylum — the man before us is bringing them up as his own, a sincere promise to his brother that he will not abandon them, that he will treat them identically to his children. And that’s why they too sit before us.
A single mother with three children. The father of two of the children walked out on her because she wanted to be Jewish but he christian. The third child is the son of the lady’s friend, who asked her to mind her three year old son. Six months later his mother has yet to return; she has not been in touch; her mobile phone is disconnected; no-one at her home locality has heard from her in the intervening months. She has vanished. This single mother continues to care for and support this little boy as her own. The self-sacrifice we are seeing is inspiring.
The boda-boda [motorbike taxi] driver who cannot afford his own bike, his earnings so meagre that he fears he will never marry and have a Jewish family … the single mother who makes a living producing mud bricks … the immaculately school-uniformed prep schoolgirl crying uncontrollably because we are unable to help her achieve her dream, as much as our emotions strive to dictate our decision-making … the confident, well-spoken army colonel whose search already commenced when he was just five years old … the mother, now teaching herself to read Hebrew via the Web, who has already memorised swaths of prayers and t'hilim, reciting them three times a day … the manager of a supermarket whose new owners would not allow him to continue taking shabath off — so he quit and now does not have a job.
I spent a shabath with this community eight months ago together with Rabbi Riskin and have been in contact with them in preparation for this visit. Since then, one of my colleagues has visited here twice to teach Tora; additionally he learns with them via an Internet classroom.
We are here to meet them, both individually and as a community. We must decide after each discussion, who deserves to join the nation of Yisrael at this time, and who, in the interim, must continue to study and increase community participation in anticipation of a future deliberation. This difficult decision is in our hands alone. Our responsibility rests extremely heavily on our shoulders, not just to the people that we are meeting during this week, but to the entire nation of Yisrael, of all generations, from our assembly at the foot of Mount Sinai through to our time and from now into the future. Our rabbis and teachers have bestowed upon us a duty seemingly beyond human, the power to bring Jewish souls into previously non-Jewish bodies. As sons of Holocaust survivors, the three of us represent not just all previous generations of the House of Yisrael, of the Jewish world, but the souls of our prewar families: siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins; of each and every one of six million murdered Jews, of Jews persecuted throughout the Diaspora generations, their robbed lives, their destroyed identities. Our liability and accountability is to all of them. I and my colleagues are keenly aware of our duty. We are answerable first to ourselves, but ultimately to our entire past and future nation.
What endows us this incredible license? Are we forcing haShem’s hand? Our Rabbis tell us in multiple sources that the people of Yisrael were exiled for the purpose of returning Home with increased numbers from amongst the nations; that in the future the entire world will willingly accept haShem and his Tora. Jews, Yisrael, are not a race; Judaism is colourblind. Consequently perhaps we are not compelling haShem in the least, but we are agents of His Will. He assigned the choice and power of this spirituality to human hands, to human intellect, to human understanding for us to decide whom He accepts as members of His nation.
Why these people, in this place, at this time?
We do not actively pursue aspirants to join us in our mission to create the ideal world according to haShem’s will as explained to us by our Rabbis. The people we are now meeting, and also many others in different locations around Africa and worldwide, discovered haShem and his Tora willingly, of their own volition. They solicited us after years of study and practice, initially living in a Jewish vacuum. For some, the path seeking the real truth, has been long and arduous. We have arrived here at the end of their long journey, we are here to formalise their status, to fulfil their enthusiastic yearning, to finally include them in our fold.
Our Rabbis have sent us on this assignment, deputising for them. Their confidence in us is singular and I think unprecedented. I personally am more than merely humbled. Our Rabbis continue a chain of rabbis, scholars, teachers, sages and prophets all the way back to the source, Moshe our teacher on Sinai. An unbroken and unbreakable chain, each connection tightly gripping its predecessor. An unbroken historic sequence and progression, of whom we are but a tiny link, continuing forwards to the generations we beget, physically and spiritually. Our hands have been entrusted to append new bonds to this indestructible succession.
Spontaneous singing and dancing by young men in the mikve following their immersion and reciting שהחינו, the blessing for “reaching this auspicious time”, shrills of joy from women at the same juncture, Amen shouted with an exuberance I wish I would hear in daily prayers, שמע recited with a strong intent and determination I rarely see. I am humbled, very humbled by what I am witnessing and humbled in what I have been entrusted, humbled by the portion haShem has granted me and the role He asked me to play. Warm smiles all around; everyone is overjoyed; tears of happiness — for me it is all worthwhile.
I have experienced similar events with perhaps three hundred new Jews. However on each occasion I thrill for these people as though I am participating and witnessing the event for the first time. Each individual is notable and special … and holy. I rejoice with each and every one, as well as within myself for the privilege I have been endowed to enable this ebullience. And I rejoice that the people of Yisrael have the honour and privilege of counting these marvellous people amongst their numbers. I am truly awed.
By the edge of the living waters we sing with our newborn brethren, עם ישראל חי, “the People of Yisrael lives”. Today our people again flourish in a way that for the last 2,200 years no-one, not even our greatest optimists, dreamt possible. We are a strong nation and we are again building ourselves from within and from the outside, something from which we were largely prevented from doing for two millennium. We have outlived those nations, who sought to destroy us and prevent the enlargement of our numbers. The Orthodox congregation of Mukono is now formally counted within the Nation of Israel.
As each individual emerges from the living waters of the spring into which they just immersed, every one a unique individual, a person, a human being, born anew, I congratulate them saying, “Now you and I are equally Jewish!” Each of us share the identical bond and affiliation of our people, from today henceforth for eternity.
30th March, 2020 -- 5th Nisan, 5780