Bar Mitzvah for Kenya

A Family Mitzvah Trip to Kenya

By Michelle (last name withheld at author’s request)
Read more: From Kenya: With Gratitude

Editor’s Note: Several members of the Kulanu team supported Michelle’s family in planning this mitzvah project. Harriet Bograd, Kulanu’s president, assisted this family in choosing a community to partner with and visit. The plans and budget for the kitchen and social hall were developed by Yehudah Kimani, Kenya’s Kehillat Kasuku Jewish community leader. He was assisted by Harriet and Sarapage Podolsky, Kulanu’s technology director. Harriet and Mili Leitner, Kulanu’s former communication director, helped the family create a personal fundraising page. Jerry Krasny, Kulanu’s business manager, tracked the income and payments and sent thank you notes to donors. Peter Persoff, volunteer engineer, assisted in providing oversight on the progress of the construction. Kulanu is now seeking families or congregations to help fundraise for furniture as well as cooking and eating utensils. Please contact Kulanu for more information about how your family, synagogue, or group can get involved.

For their bar or bat mitzvah, our children have been presented with the opportunity to participate in a community service project. In response, we made our second trip to Africa. Two years ago we traveled to Uganda with our second oldest son. This time we went to Kenya with our youngest son.
After collecting donations from family and friends, as well as contributing ourselves, my husband Eric, our son Wyatt, and I traveled to a remote Jewish community in northern Kenya near Nyahururu. The objective was to help the Kehillat Kasuku Jewish community to build a social hall and kitchen so that they can effectively gather as many as two hundred people during holidays and for special occasions. In addition, we brought soccer balls and school supplies for the children.

While we were there helping them to build, we also spent time learning about their culture and customs, as well as taking time to enjoy meals with community members during work breaks. We tried to show our son the power of providing for others in a respectful, compassionate, and caring manner. We are hoping that he internalizes significant lessons going forward as he matures.

Values We Learned

Diversity and Openness
In the village, Jews, Catholics, and Muslims live together peacefully and tolerantly. They share natural resources, live near one another, and unequivocally help each other if there is a need. The community leader reported that he expects to share the structure we built with his neighbors because it is the only one of its kind and is in close proximity to neighboring communities. He expressed that it is customary for surrounding communities to share and be generous with their resources.

It was explained to us that there are children in Kasuku who were originally from other communities. They requested to change their faith and were given permission by their parents to join the Kasuku community. These children, as young as six, remain in contact with their biological parents, but live with community members and practice their new faith.

A community member who identified as a convert told us that as a child and teen, she would stay home while her family attended church because she found herself unmotivated and uninterested. I asked how her family feels about her conversion. She responded that her parents are happy that she is actively participating in an organized religion and that she has found a religion that she feels joyful about and connected to.

Sharing and Empathy

I was astonished to see how caring and connected the community seems to be. Several examples stood out. We distributed some specialty snacks when we arrived. A mother was eating one and realized that her son didn’t get one. When she offered hers to him, he quickly said he didn’t want it. I was surprised that he wouldn’t jump at the chance; I thought that maybe he just didn’t like it. When I asked why he was giving it up, his mother explained that he would never take food away from her, even if he really wanted it. He preferred that she enjoy it and didn’t want to get in the way of her pleasure.

It was evident, as well, that community members come to the aid of others in need. If parents are sick or have died, community members step in to foster or adopt their children. If someone is hospitalized, the community raises funds to pay their hospital bill. Otherwise, a patient is unable to leave until their bill is fully paid.

Personal Responsibility and Independence

Children do chores from a very young age and are expected and required to contribute to the needs of the family and household while they are living at home. A member told us that as soon as her three-year-old is able, she will teach her how to wash clothes by hand. She will help with many other tasks, including cooking, cleaning, and watching younger siblings when she is older.
Children walk to school by themselves, often a great distance. One community member expressed the idea that it teaches them independence and to work for what they need and want. They see personal responsibility as being both independent and interdependent, that one does not preclude the other. Their attention is generally toward the collective, even if they are doing something independently.

Gratitude and Being in the Present Moment

Members shared that social mores and the value system focus on gratitude for everything they have and being a kind, caring, and hard-working member of the community. Because resources are scarce, and life is generally precarious because of the economy, the weather, and other factors, community members are taught to avoid comparing themselves to others and to base their pride on who they are and their own accomplishments. The people who live here stress that they feel gratitude for all they have, and they do not dwell on what they don’t have. When I spoke with many of them, they shared that they are happy to be healthy and alive, to eat every day, and especially to cherish occasions when they can gather and enjoy each other’s company.

Parenting and Family

There is a well-established hierarchy in families. Because of the need, family members highly rely on one another. During holidays when children are off from school, they are expected to follow up on tasks that they are not able to do when they are engaged in their studies. While we were visiting, children were harvesting in the fields, helping their mothers prepare meals, and even assisting their fathers at the construction site.
Siblings are especially close and protective of one another. They are cognizant of where their siblings are and include them in their tasks. It was heartwarming to see the sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that community children share, whether they are biological siblings or not. They travel in groups and are playful with one another. Children are taught to share and to give up their own things for the sake of others. A member explained that most things are purposefully shared, even if they don’t necessarily need to be, in order to teach children to be flexible, resilient in the face of discomfort, and to be open to others. This was evident in their interactions. When we inflated and disseminated the five soccer balls, it was noticeable that among 20 or so children, none of them quarreled over their turn. Each child quickly took their turn and generously passed the ball on. They were excited about taking their turn and were not concerned with what other children were doing.

Expressing Love and Affection

Community members are especially warm and affectionate. They have no qualms about expressing their feelings very straightforwardly. Many of the children wrote endearing notes to my son, expressing warmth and appreciation for his project. The letters were written in a heartfelt, thoughtful, and loving way. The leader, his delightful wife, and other community members openly expressed love and gratitude toward us.
We continue to receive messages conveying love for who we are and what we and our community provided for them. We videotaped our son in order to hear his perspectives and reflections about his experience. He said that he is left feeling “a greater understanding about how people in other parts of the world live and how hard it could be for them” and that he realizes that “it’s important to be happy with all that you have and always try to give to others.”
We have gained so many gifts and life lessons from our experience with the Kasuku community. Our experience has helped us to get in touch with what is truly important in life and the need to return to our fundamental values when we are interacting on a daily basis. It amazes us that despite all the adversity the community has to contend with, including lack of sanitation, contaminated water, and meager financial resources, they maintain their integrity, kindness, and connectedness.

We left feeling a bit guilty and shameful for all that we take for granted. We also questioned our ability to connect, to accommodate the intensity of emotion when we were approached with such open expressions of love and appreciation. We were reminded that we need to strive to be present, to be grateful, to express appreciation and to work toward more open emotive and expressive connectedness with those we love.
These are the values and life lessons we will continue to reinforce with our son and our other children through their development. Our experiences in Kenya were incredibly meaningful and powerful. We will savor and continue to learn and grow from each of them throughout our lives. We are so grateful for all the support and assistance from Kulanu, especially from Harriet, Jerry, Sarapage, and Mili. Your guidance made this trip not only possible but successful. We encourage other families to explore traveling to a Kulanu community.