We take light for granted. But in the Torah’s opening chapter of Bereshit, it was God’s first gift.
It seems fitting, then, that when a local synagogue committed itself to helping an impoverished village in rural Uganda, the first gift would be to turn on the lights — to give the gift of solar-powered electricity. With light, doctors can deliver babies with more than just candlelight late into the night; people can see one another and plan activities in the long evening and night hours. Indoor classrooms in schools can be lit, so students can learn more easily.
The project began a couple of years ago, when the spiritual community of IKAR first conceived of founding its first nursery school for its congregation. Rabbi Sharon Brous and IKAR executive director Melissa Balaban saw an opportunity to do more than just offer one more educational program in Los Angeles; they wanted to instill a sense of connection to a larger world in the “DNA of the preschool,” as Balaban put it. They knew it would take about $100,000 to establish their school, so they decided to allocate 10 percent of all donations to another school project somewhere else in the world, where it could benefit others. “To teach our kids, this is what it means to be a Jew; it’s our responsibility,” Balaban said.
Brous and Balaban had both just read the book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and they were inspired by its message that even a small amount of cash can have a ripple effect, effecting enormous change in communities by allowing people to rebuild their own lives.
“We spent a lot of time fretting about which school and where,” Brous told a group of supporters who gathered one evening last August at a Santa Monica home to learn about the project. After lots of research and one false start, Brous and Balaban, working with a group of IKAR volunteers, came across an organization called Jewish Heart for Africa (JHA — jhasol.org). It employs Jewish people in African communities to bring Israeli solar systems to power African schools, medical clinics, orphanages and water pumping systems.
It was a perfect match for IKAR, to partner with a Jewish group that could oversee their project on the ground and to bring “the best of Israel,” as Balaban said — Israel’s technology — to a remote place where a little could go a long way.
JHA connected IKAR with the village of Katira, some five hours from the Ugandan capital city of Kampala. And in early August, the lights went on.
IKAR donated about $12,000 for this initial project, and JHA installed solar panels on the roof of the Katira Primary School, a simple, blocky building with large, unadorned classrooms, that serves nearly 1,400 students from the surrounding area, according to JHA. People in Katira live in primitive thatched-roof huts, and their school had the lowest academic performance in its district.
As it turned out, the school’s pitched metal roof was perfect for capturing the strong African sunlight, and the JHA representatives have trained the locals on the simple techniques of maintaining the panels so they can keep it working themselves, without outside help. And now, although the solar-powered electricity lights only the one building, students — who once had nowhere to go to do their homework after spending long days in school and then helping with the housework at home — can now go to the school to study late into the evenings. They will have the opportunity to study harder, enhancing their chances of future success.
No IKAR members could make it to Katira for the ceremony, but witnessing the lights going on was still important. So, Brous’ mother, Marcia Brous, made a connection to a woman she had met through Rotary Club here — Marsha Hunt, who travels regularly to Uganda through the Uganda Development Initiative (udiworks.org), an aid group. Hunt was already planning a summer trip there, and she readily agreed to become IKAR’s emissary, adding to her trip a visit to Katira to watch the ceremony of the lights being turned on.
“I thought I’d be doing a simple report,” Hunt said. Instead, she arrived at the village to a scene of “tears and celebration, singing and dancing.” She became a witness to a modern Bereshit.
The Israeli solar panels had already been installed. And as she watched, lights for the first time lit the school’s classrooms.
“They were so gracious and wonderful,” Hunt said of the villagers. And in thanks, the people of Katira gave her gifts intended for her to bring back home to Los Angeles — a turkey, a chicken and a rooster. For obvious reasons, those didn’t make it back to L.A.
But what did was the sense of accomplishment, extraordinary joy and connection between the people of Katira and the people of IKAR, as evidenced through photos that you can see by viewing this article at jewishjournal.com.
And the project continues, Balaban said. “We are now raising money to light the medical clinic, and hopefully to install a solar-powered water pump.”
The light that came from God is now being harnessed to power a different kind of light — an electric energy that will also sustain growth, vision and warmth into the future.
And it is being channeled from Los Angeles via Israel to a remote village in Africa.
As Balaban said, “This is what it means to be a Jew.”