Local boy to become a man in Uganda

Local boy to become a man in Uganda

Spencer Latterman
Spencer Latterman

A young man’s coming of age has  precedent in Judaism. Dating to Talmudic  times, focus has been placed upon  the ascent to manhood, and as centuries  progressed, practices and traditions surrounding  a bar mitzvah changed. In  contemporary Jewish life, festivities often  support the event. But for one Point  Breeze family, the celebration will be  unprecedented. 

“We wanted to bring out the mitzvah  in the bar mitzvah,” said Leslie  Latterman. 

Several months ago, Latterman, a local  physician, began preparing for her  son Spencer’s upcoming bar mitzvah.  She turned to blogs, started reading and  had an idea. 

“Why not Africa?” she wondered. 

“We always love to travel, and we’re  interested in Jewish cultures,” explained  12-year-old Spencer. So the Lattermans  started researching Jews in Africa. They  discovered the Ugandan Jewish group  called the Abayudaya and reached out  to their leader, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu. 

Sizomu educated the Lattermans on  Ugandan Jewish life, detailing the  hardships Ugandans face: impoverishment,  malnutrition and the abundance  of orphans. 

The latter weighed heavily on  Spencer. 

“In Uganda, there are over two million  orphans,” he said. UNICEF reports  that as of 2012, Uganda possesses 2.7  million orphaned children under the  age of 15. 

“He feels connected with them because  they’re his age,” said Shelby,  Spencer’s 15-year-old sister. 

Deeply troubled by the figures,  Spencer developed a plan. He and Shelby  created a website — spencersgoatproject.com — which introduces visitors  to the Abayudaya, provides a video  of Sizomu and features Spencer’s tactic  for orphan aid: goats. 

“These kids are extremely impoverished,  and by having a goat, it gives  them wealth and status,” Spencer said. 

With a goat, according to Spencer, an  orphan can sell its milk or offspring and  use the proceeds for food, medicine and  school costs. 

Visitors to the website can purchase  a goat for $40. Steve Latterman,  Spencer’s father, said that each goat  purchased can be named; several have  been named after loved ones, while  some are named “Leslie” in honor of  his wife, he said. 

In addition to goats, Spencer is also  selling jewelry, bringing beaded and embroidered  bracelets in partnership with  beadforlife.org, an organization committed  to creating sustainable opportunities  for women, and the Ugandan  dance and musical group Hope Troupe,  which benefits orphans. 

“We wanted him to have a hands-on  project, something that he could bring  to school and sell to his friends,”  Spencer’s mother said of the jewelry  initiative. 

Since March, between his website and  jewelry sales, Spencer has raised nearly  $8,000 for Ugandan orphans. While  there is joy in the accomplishment,  Spencer is saving his excitement. In July,  to celebrate his bar mitzvah, Spencer  will travel with his family to Uganda  and distribute more than 200 goats to  orphaned children. 

After the Lattermans arrive in Uganda,  Spencer and Shelby will spend a day  at a school with local children, while  their mother will travel with Sizomu to  the Tobin Health Clinic outside the village.  The goat distribution will take  place the following day. Spencer also  will spend a Friday assisting Sizomu’s  wife with Shabbat dinner preparations  for the village. That Shabbat, he will be  called to the Torah for his bar mitzvah. 

For Spencer, every element of the bar  mitzvah will render personal significance.  Upon distributing each goat, he  plans on telling the recipient the goat’s  name, its meaning and who purchased  the animal. In preparing the Shabbat  meal, he will help slaughter a goat and  make stew for the community, and at  the Saturday night celebration, Shelby,  who receives college credit through her  work with the Bodiography Center for  Movement, will dance with the members  of the Hope Troupe.

“We wanted this to be an interesting  cultural bar mitzvah,” said Shelby. 

Given the locale, the Lattermans’  preparation has been diverse, requiring  research, immunizations and partnering  with local nonprofits. Spencer and Shelby  studied Ugandan Jewish history, including  the imprisonment of Sizomu’s  father under the regime of Idi Amin for  building a sukkah. 

They also researched the 1976 events  surrounding the hijacking of an Air  France flight and the rescue of its passengers  by commandos of the Israel Defense  Forces, who staged an assault at  the Entebbe Airport. 

“I vividly remember when that happened,”  said Steve Latterman.  Upon arriving at Entebbe, the Lattermans  will unload cargo dispatched by  other Jewish communities around the  world, including 70 Haggadot from a  rabbi in Washington, siddurim, toothbrushes  and solar lights. Villagers have  made a special request for the Lattermans  to bring in kosher wine, but customs  restrictions may prove too difficult  to overcome. 

With all of the planning, study, preparation  and travel, the Lattermans hope  that their children gain a lot from the  bar mitzvah. 

“Even though Spencer is just one person,  one person can make a difference,”  said Leslie Latterman. “That’s what I  want my kids to learn.” 

“I can’t help everyone in Uganda,”  said Spencer. “I just want to help as  many people as I can.”  (Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.)     

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