In the Ugandan village of Nabugoya, Shabbat services are a destination. The synagogue is packed with Jewish Ugandans known as Abayudaya. As prayers are chanted to tunes familiar from Minneapolis to Tel Aviv, the congregation dances. The prayers are accompanied by drummers. When someone is called up to read from the Torah, the entire congregation rises to honor them and sing in celebration.
Ilana Shemesh was surprised and delighted by her first Shabbat in Uganda. As a midwife volunteering in the country, she was all too familiar with the struggles women faced. Shabbat services, however, told a different story; a story where women are called to read from the Torah and encouraged to participate in services.
In short, synagogue is one of few places women are respected in Uganda.
“Ugandan culture centers around males,” Ilana says. Girls are harassed from a very young age, then shamed for menstruating—to the point where many drop out of school. When it comes time to give birth, women walk miles to the clinic to be greeted not by ultrasounds of tiny feet and the thump-thump of a heartbeat, but by malaria pills and AIDS tests. 1 in 47 women die during pregnancy or birth. Only 1 in 19 babies survive the first year of life.
While visiting, Ilana felt compelled to do something. She left the country with a plan: raise thousands of dollars to open a safe birthing center and improve prenatal conditions in the Abayudaya community.
Nearly eight months later, the birthing center is up and running. “The reaction has been amazing,” says Ilana. “People are so grateful just for a private room, a toilet, and blankets. They’ve never seen something so luxurious.”
The Abayudaya women have taught Ilana about optimism, survival, and pikuach nefesh (the preservation of human life.) On February 5 Ilana will share more about their stories, the joys, and struggles of opening a birth center in the developing world, and the spirit of the Jewish community in Uganda. Ilana is the keynote speaker at Women Repair the World, a new partnership of Minneapolis Jewish Federation Women’s Philanthropy and NCJW Minnesota, designed to involve and engage Jewish women allies in feminism and activism worldwide.
Ilana’s talk will be followed by a panel discussion of women’s health, the Jewish community in Uganda, and more facilitated by NCJW Board President Laura Monn Ginsburg. Panelists include Ilana, along with:
- Sonja Ausen, MPH, MA, co-founder of SMS Maama, a prenatal curriculum delivered via SMS to pregnant women in Kampala, Uganda
- Joanne Trangle, founder of Global Village Connect, a nonprofit helping women and children in Uganda and an international volunteer tour provider.