I’ve always had a love and a talent for making things work out. When I see a problem in my community or a chance to improve, it’s in my nature to find a way to fix it – and from a young age, I was able to put my ability into practice.
My father passed away when I was 9 years old, but because clan members in our village of Namutumba, Uganda, had decreed that a woman had no right to her husband’s land, my mother was sent away from my father’s property, with my seven siblings and me in tow.
I placed a high priority on education, but at that time, in order to receive an education in Uganda, students had to pay for schooling – and so, even as a little boy, I began working. My uncle, a butcher, gave me two kilograms of meat every day, which I then cooked into meals and sold. The money I made helped me to pay for three years of my elementary schooling.
My family took notice: When I completed elementary school, my grandfather told me that if I stayed with him and worked on his farm, he would pay for the rest of my education. As a result of this deal, by the time I started high school, I had 14 goats and three cows, and I had even collected some savings. Finally, I was financially stable.
My family was Jewish: We believed in one God, we didn’t mix meat and milk, and we stood steadfastly against those who tried to convert us to Christianity or Islam. In 2002, a group of rabbis arrived in our village to provide guidance to our Jewish community, helping to affirm our practices. They gave structure to our services, taught us Hebrew, and guided us in becoming more observant Jews.
In Uganda, we practice a very Torah-centered, “by the book” Judaism. We observe Shabbat, celebrate all Jewish holidays, and keep kosher. Services are very long; we read all seven aliyot each week. It wasn’t until recently that women were allowed on the bimah with the Torah, and it’s still a highly controversial issue.
I soon grew close to the group of rabbis who came to lead us and began to emerge as leader myself within the local religious community. As a result of these connections, I came to the United States in 2013 to participate in the Brandeis Collegiate Institute, a program that teaches leadership skills to young Jews from around the world.
At first, America was shocking. When I walked into a store, doors slid open for me. I placed my hand under a faucet, and water came out. Food is easily accessible, and meals are served three times a day.
Everywhere I went, I saw music, light, colorful screens, and electricity. After the initial culture shock, I opened myself up to the opportunity to learn from so many Jewish young people from around the world. That summer left me craving more opportunities to learn and grow as a Jew – and more chances to share my own story of global Judaism.
That’s how, three years later, I found myself working as a counselor at URJ Greene Family Camp, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Bruceville, TX. The Judaism at camp is different from what I’m used to at home: Campers don’t wear kippot to services, and service participants don’t always wear tallitot when carrying the Torah. At camp, Judaism is less about strict adherence to the rules of ritual and more focused on learning from one another.
At camp, kids can love Judaism openly in ways they may not be able to in the small towns where they live, especially those from places like Texas and Oklahoma. Judaism becomes the core of their lives and relationships in the time they spend at camp, and they bring the values and awareness of Judaism back into their everyday lives.
One of the many lessons I taught my campers, 14-year-old boys, was the importance of not wasting. Every time they put too much on their plates at a meal, they remembered that elsewhere in the world, there are Jews who are lucky to have just one meal a day. As a result of my stories, campers returned home with a more worldly view of Judaism – and the knowledge to not take so much for granted.
I want to take camp back to my community, too, including the joyful Jewish songs and the inclusive, communal style of leading services. I also intend to bring back something more tangible: funds to construct a water well in my community.
As soon as I began telling my story not just to campers and staff but to the greater Waco community, people asked how they could give back to the Jews of Uganda. When they asked what my village needs most, the answer was easy: We need water.
Before the summer began, I had raised almost $3,000 for the construction of a well in my village. By the end of the summer, after telling my story around Central Texas, I had raised over $10,000. Now, with the help of a nonprofit organization called Water for Kids International, a well will be built for my village in Uganda when I return home.
I am fortunate not only for the ability to help my people at home, but to have gotten to study and teach in places so special and holy. I look forward to opportunities to further my story, while continuing to learn and grow through the stories and experiences of others.
Yoash Mayende is from Namutumba, Uganda, where he is a member of Abayudaya (the People of Judah), a group of seven communities in Eastern Uganda practicing and observing Judaism. Yoash founded the Tikkun Olam Nursery and Primary School in his home community and is currently raising money to build a well for his village. He recently completed a summer working as a counselor and cultural ambassador at URJ Greene Family Camp, a Reform Jewish summer camp, in Bruceville, TX, as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s extensive efforts, in partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel, to bring Judaism’s rich and diverse culture to life for thousands of North American campers.