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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)