On the last day of school the floors shook. Five hundred little feet pounded against the hardwood in Community Day School’s gymnasium as large circles began to form. As 250 children danced around him, Rachman Nachman, a 28-year-old hip-hop-inspired Ugandan Jewish cantor, sang messages of peace, appreciation and encouragement.
“This is an amazing end to the school year,” said Eileen Freedman, music teacher at CDS.
“It’s an amazing cultural and musical experience.”
Every other Friday, students at CDS participate in a Kabbalat Shabbat program. Children from grades pre-K through eighth grade trek up to the gymnasium on the fourth floor of the school, sit within designated groups, sing melodies welcoming Shabbat and often break into dance.
While the program is regularly led by Freedman and Rabbi Donni Aaron, Nachman joined the two guitar-playing women for the school year’s final performance.
With Freedman and Aaron accompanying him, and several bongo beaters alongside, Nachman sang “Lekhah Dodi,” “Hi Nei Matov” and “Mirembe.”
Freedman explained that the latter, which contains lyrics in Hebrew, Arabic and Luganda (the primary language of Uganda), was taught to students a week prior to Nachman’s arrival.
“We seek rich diverse opportunities,” said Avi Munro, CDS’s head of school.
Nachman provided a “unique Jewish story,” she added.
Nachman is a member of the Abayudaya community, a group of Eastern Ugandan Jews who liken their own experience to that of ancient Israel.
Every Passover, at the seder, “we tell the story of the community and how we became free,” said Nachman.
Under the regime of former Ugandan President Idi Amin, “If you were found praying on Shabbat, you were killed,” Nachman said. “The community had to go into caves to have Shabbat services.” Jewish people “were hunted, arrested and killed.”
However, on April 11, 1979, (the day before Passover that year), Amin fled Uganda by helicopter. Ugandan Jews eventually started practicing their faith more freely. These days, he said, members of the Abayudaya community mark the seder by recounting their own oppression.
Munro explained that by Skyping Nachman, while he was in Uganda, the students developed a relationship with him and his 500-member Jewish community.
Before visiting CDS, Nachman had never seen a Jewish day school nor ever been to Pittsburgh.
But he did have friends here, the Latterman family of Point Breeze. Last summer, 13-year-old Spencer Latterman celebrated his bar mitzvah in a Ugandan village. While there, he and his family met with Nachman and other community members, including numerous children orphaned by AIDS and malaria. To help, the young Latterman distributed fertile goats, whose offspring’s proceeds could assist with children’s education, medicine and food-related costs. Spencer’s Goat Project has raised more than $25,000. (The story of Spencer Lattermans’ bar mitzvah project was the subject of a Chronicle article last summer.)
Last week in Pittsburgh at a special ceremony for the Lattermans’ friends and family, Nachman surprised the young benefactor, performing several songs for the party-goers.
“[It’s] a different style of music, Jewish Afrobeat,” said Nachman. “It’s a different voice, different style.”
He said he was “proud” of the way his culture and his music were received at both Lattermans’ soiree and CDS.
“I will tell the community back home.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.