Matchmaker, Matchmaker Make Me a Match: Kulanu as Yente (2015)

by Harriet Bograd

Amir Etele, the Leader of Beth Yeshourun of Cameroon and Rabbi Stuart Fischman in Yeshiva in Efrat Photo courtesy of Amir Etele

The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, Shavei Israel, Masorti Olami, Brandeis Collegiate Institute, Tufts University Hillel, Ohr Torah Stone Yeshiva, Union for Reform Judaism: what in the world do these organizations have in common? They represent a few of the many partnerships and sustaining connections that Kulanu has helped “our” communities to forge in the last twenty-one years.

Kulanu began as a small organization and has purposely remained that way. We have only two paid part-time staff. As full-time president, I am a volunteer, along with our devoted board members and regional coordinators. Observers have been surprised that we work so effectively with communities throughout the world with so few paid personnel. As more and more communities have reached out to us, how have we maintained our support without becoming larger and escalating our overhead–for example, by increasing our paid workforce or moving to bigger quarters from our home office? The answer is due in great part to the network of friends and resources that we have helped communities to build.

We see Kulanu as an “incubator” or “gateway” organization. Once we get to know a community (typically through visitors, volunteers, and correspondence), we help the rest of the world learn about it (through our website, magazine, social media, speaking tours, and other publicity, and by encouraging community leaders to do their own networking). We then work with the community members to identify goals to meet their needs. But rather than addressing these objectives on our own, we prefer to help the community connect with other resources. We believe that the most beneficial tactic is to encourage community leaders to create and develop relationships with other organizations. These organizations can help the community attain their goals and, perhaps just as importantly, allow access to connections and supporters beyond the scope of Kulanu alone.

We have learned that in most cases a crucial step in this process is access to the internet, including email and Facebook. These are essential to community members for online Jewish learning, as well as for finding resources and making friends around the world. Kulanu’s technology fund provides a laptop and funds for an internet connection to communities that cannot afford these tools. Volunteer Sarapage Podolsky, an electrical engineer in Carmiel, Israel, represents a vital resource to help community leaders determine which hardware and internet plans best meet their needs with a modest budget. She takes into account how often there are blackouts (not unusual in third-world communities), whether the laptop user has electricity in the home, and whether the internet will continue to work when the electricity goes off. Significantly, she teaches local people to use spreadsheets to analyze various options and choose the best plan.

Art Spar and Aaron Kintu Moses at Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs Conference in Miami  (Photo courtesy of Art Spar )

We also help communities help themselves by connecting with Jewish religious movements. The most striking example concerns the Abayudaya community of Uganda, a group that has been practicing Judaism for generations since 1919. In 2002, we arranged for a group of Conservative rabbis to conduct conversion rituals to affirm the Jewish identity of community members. Since then, the Conservative movement has embraced the Abayudaya. With help from Be’chol Lashon (a California-based organization that promotes Jewish diversity, to whom we introduced the community), American Jewish University, and Shomrei Torah Synagogue, Abayudaya spiritual leader Gershom Sizomu attended Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles. In 2008, Rabbi Sizomu was ordained and he returned to Uganda as a full member of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Since then, the Conservative international group, Masorti Olami, supported an Abayudaya outpost in Kampala called Marom Uganda. Students, university graduates, and other Jews living in Kampala gather on Friday nights for services and meals. Another outstanding example of our teamwork occurred last year at the annual Kulanu-supported Abayudaya Women’s Conference. After the idea surfaced of having a similar group for men, I introduced Aaron Kintu Moses, headmaster of the Abayudaya elementary school, to a leader of the Conservative Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC). This year Aaron was able to attend the FJMC national conference, all expenses paid, as a speaker, workshop leader, and active learner. One FJMC region committed itself to an ongoing partnership with the Abayudaya Men’s Club.

We have developed connections with the Reform branch of Judaism, too. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, Kulanu’s coordinator for Guatemala, has assisted the Adat Israel community of Guatemala City to gain recognition from the Reform movement. Jeannette Orantes, president of Adat Israel, has been invited to the biennial conference of Women of Reform Judaism to take place soon in Florida. The conference will connect Adat Israel with a huge international organization advocating for Jewish women. This will be an extraordinary opportunity for Jeanette to move the women of the community forward as decision-makers, leaders, and activists and to bring back music, ideas, and spiritual growth to her community. The movement is paying for airfare and registration, while Kulanu is helping with hotel and meals.

Kulanu has had a remarkable partnership with Brandeis Collegiate Institute, run by American Jewish University in California. Since 2012, ten outstanding young people from “our” communities–two from China, four from Uganda, two from Zimbabwe, and two from Guatemala–have participated in a month-long program that enhances Jewish identity and learning. Before and after the program, these potential Jewish leaders have traveled around the US, enjoying the hospitality of friends of Kulanu and spreading goodwill. BCI pays for airfare and all program expenses, while Kulanu and former Kulanu BCI participants help coach the students through visa applications, health inoculations, and travel planning. Kulanu pays for extra costs not covered by BCI. This has been a life-changing experience for participants who return to their communities with skills, knowledge, and enthusiasm to share, and with a network of new friends and allies around the world, and special friendships with young people in other Kulanu communities.

Kulanu has another rewarding association with Tufts University Hillel. Rabbi Jeffrey Summit has taken on responsibility for raising $50,000 per year for the Abayudaya community’s higher education program. Thanks to stipends from his program, a multitude of impoverished students have been able to attend university to prepare for better futures. Though his involvement with the Abayudaya started independently of Kulanu, he reports that his partnership with Kulanu has been a great support in sustaining his work and thinking about how best to proceed.

Children in Kenya Jewish community use computers donated by Kulanu. Photo courtesy of Yehudah Kimani

Through the years, Kulanu has not only encouraged other groups to get involved but even to take over the work that Kulanu has initiated. For several years, for example, Kulanu sent Rabbi Aaron Rehberg, a young rabbi from Israel, to the small emerging community of Armenia, El Salvador. During that time Rabbi Rehberg established a program of daily services, beit midrash independent study, and a Hebrew school for children. Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization with larger financial resources, then stepped in and now sends an emissary rabbi from Mexico for two weeks a month to work in Armenia and San Salvador, the capital. Continuing on this theme, we cannot forget Ohr Torah Stone Yeshiva in Israel, founded by esteemed Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Rabbi Riskin has provided advanced Jewish learning to Serge Etele, leader of the Beth Yeshourun community in Cameroon, hopefully leading to his eventual rabbinical ordination. Many of our communities in poor countries lack essential services and seek opportunities for economic development. Though on occasion Kulanu works with a community in one of these areas, we prefer to empower community leaders to reach out to other sources for help in obtaining important building blocks for development, including clean water, electricity, better farming methods, and micro-credit services. Among a host of volunteers who has mentored community leaders in finding resources in these areas are current volunteers Meylekh Viswanath, professor of finance at Pace University with a specialty in microfinance (who recently visited our community in Kenya), and Peter Persoff, a sanitary engineer who works with leaders in Uganda on water issues. New volunteers with expertise in these areas are always welcome.

Since its founding, Kulanu has been blessed with a cadre of skilled and caring teachers and other volunteers, too numerous to mention in a brief article, who have visited communities worldwide at their own expense. We owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for making a difference to isolated and emerging communities around the globe. Many others would like to help, but do not have the money for travel. Likewise, community leaders lack funds for travel that would benefit their own and other communities. Donating funds specified for travel will help community leaders take advantage of opportunities like the ones we have documented in this article. Do you have frequent flyer miles you can donate? That would be a tremendous mitzvah. Finally, please introduce your own organization to Kulanu and get in touch with the leaders of our far-flung communities. We and they would love to hear from you!