Isaac Wamani had applied for a visa for Israel several times without much success. So when he discovered that Taglit-Birthright – the organization that brings young Jewish adults on free trips to Israel – wanted to pull a group out of Uganda this summer, he took advantage of the opportunity.
"From the age of 16 I dreamed of making this journey," he told Haaretz in Jerusalem, a melancholy look in his eyes. "And now that I am here, I feel so connected with this place, and I actually cried when I first saw the Western Wall. & # 39;
Wamani, a 23-year-old student of mass communication at Kampala International University, is one of 36 participants in this very first Birthright group from Uganda.
They belong to the Abayudaya community, whose members embraced Judaism some 100 years ago, but were only officially converted in recent years. Almost all Abayudaya were converted by rabbis who are associated with the Conservative-Masorti movement.
Birthright has been watched this summer after a series of statements by Jewish-American participants protesting what they claim to be deliberately obscuring the Israeli occupation.
On the other hand, these birthright owners from Africa have had to overcome huge obstacles just to get into the Jewish state. And now that they are here, they can not be happier.
The fact that they come from East Africa is not the only thing that distinguishes them from other Birthright groups. The other distinction they use – a questionable certainty – is that the Israeli government does not recognize them as Jewish.
In recent years, dozens of members of the Abayudaya community, like Wamani, have seen that their visa applications have been rejected. Last December, a member of the community that was admitted to a program was detained at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport and deported the next morning. The incident led to international outrage and accusations of racism.
A few months ago, his request was rejected by another member of the community, who had signed up to emigrate to Israel according to the law of return.
The treatment received by other members of the Abayudaya community raised concerns about the fact that the birthright group may not enter Israel.
Fearing such a fiasco, Birthright almost canceled the trip. But then, responding to pleas from the Jewish Agency, the Ministry of the Interior agreed to not cause problems for them. Marom Olami, the young adult division of the conservative world movement, helped to arrange details of the group tour.
The T-shirts with the birthright logo in white T-shirts, gathered this inaugural Abayudaya group at Dung Gate in the old city of Jerusalem on Monday morning for a highlight of their journey: taking part in a ceremony that has a new Torah role introduced into the egalitarian prayer room of the western wall. (The Torah was donated by Temple Beth Am in Margate, Florida.)
A shofar was blown to mark the beginning of the ceremony, and the birthrighters sang and danced their way from the Dung Gate to the prayer square. A tall young man dressed in dark sunglasses and phylacteries wore the Torah under a special canopy held by four of his friends. Others danced around them to the beat of a throbbing drum. Tourists who walked to the traditional prayer square stopped for a moment to take in the view.
After the procession reached its final destination, the Shaharith began morning prayer service. Many of the young women in the group wore prayer scarves.
The men and women stood side by side as they prayed, and when the Torah lecture began, it was the women who were called for the first time to honor a portion. The traditional dvarora – reflections on the Torah part of the week – was also delivered by a woman.
Rachel Nasinza, a 21-year-old nurse, said she dreamed of visiting Israel "for a very, very long time."
The country turned out to be very different from what she had imagined. "I thought there would be soldiers everywhere, because it would be dangerous here, and that the whole country would be one great desert, but that's not how it is," Nasinza said. "Actually, it is a very peaceful and hospitable country."
Solomon Walusimbi, a 22-year-old law student, said he worried about the last minute the trip would be canceled. But since he landed with his group in Israel last Tuesday, he breathed much easier, he said.
The highlight for him was the sight of nearby places he had read about for years in the Bible. "We have visited Mount Gilboa and Mount Arbel and finally I see that they really exist," he said.
The most difficult experience for many of the participants was the visit to Yad Vashem, the national memorial for the Holocaust. "It was a shock to many of them," said Sarah Nabaggala, a 27-year-old lawyer who is one of the group leaders. "A few of them did not know anything about the Holocaust, and many of them cried when we were in Yad Vashem."
Yonit Nagudi, a 27-year-old graduate student in education, said she had a hard time recovering from that visit. "It was so emotional for me – how they tortured our fellow brothers and sisters," she said. "I could not see some of the photos there, and now I just can not think about it anymore."