Temple Emanuel fetes Ugandan activist’s year of political asylum


Focus on Newton & Brookline


NEWTON – It was a dreary morning in early March 2018. Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz and Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger arrived at the Suffolk County Jail to offer prayers and pastoral support to immigrant detainees. They moved through security and rode the elevator to the visitor’s room.

They were introduced to Qwin Mbabazi, who sat down and began to share her story. She grew up in Uganda. She was persecuted as a child because she was born left-handed in a culture where left-hand dominance is considered the work of the Devil. She was persecuted as a teen and as a young adult because she was born gay in a country where being gay was legally a death sentence until 2013. Uganda remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be LGBTIQ. And despite this persecution, Qwin had a clear sense of self and a clear sense of purpose from an early age. In 2010, she became an activist, speaking up at rallies and protests, working to promote feminism, human dignity, and equality. She was an important part of Uganda’s courageous LGBTIQ movement. She helped to organize Ugandan Pride gatherings, served and volunteered in different capacities in the Sexual and Gender minority movement, offered consultancy services on both individual and organizational levels to boost the capacity of the LGBTIQ movement, and was even brave enough to be featured in a magazine article where she publicly claimed her LGBTIQ identity and affirmed that everyone deserves to be able to love and be loved for who they are. For these reasons, she was persecuted, and fled for her very life, seeking asylum in Boston.

After that first visit, Rabbi Gardenswartz and Rav Hazzan Berger visited often. They would talk with Qwin about her life back in Uganda, about her dreams for the future, about her hopes for the LGBTIQ community in Uganda and in Africa. Every visit was intensely emotional. Every visit was hard. Qwin had narrowly escaped her home with her life, but she was now living out her days incarcerated. She could not call her wife; she could not call her mother. Every night, she would lie awake listening to other immigrant detainees sob themselves to sleep or wake up screaming from nightmares. Every day she worried. What if she were deported? What if she had made the wrong choice? What if Boston was also homophobic and dangerous? How would she survive without a source of income? Without a job?

And while Qwin anxiously counted the days inside the jail, the community of Temple Emanuel rallied around her cause. Rabbi Gardenswartz and Rav Hazzan Berger sent an email to the community asking for help. Instantly, people responded.

A pro bono team of lawyers from Mintz, Levin stepped forward. They knew that her immigration judge would determine the course of her life. If her request for asylum was granted, they knew she could build a life here in Boston as a free woman. But if her request was denied, they knew that she would be deported back to Uganda to face unspeakable punishment and persecution. This team of lawyers worked countless hours to prepare her case, gather evidence, and represent her on her day of judgement.

Community members stepped forward to house her. They knew that if she were granted asylum she would have nowhere to go. Some said she could live with us for a year. Others said she could live with us indefinitely. Within 24 hours, seven families had offered to open their homes to a total stranger.

She had no phone; no way to communicate with her family back home. Someone took her to get a phone and put it on their account indefinitely.

She had no health insurance. Doctors offered to treat her for free until she could support herself and get health insurance.

She had endured trauma, loss, dislocation. Mental health professionals offered to counsel her for free.

She had no job. People offered to help her find a job.

She had no car. People offered to drive her around.

She had no money. People offered to give her resources to get her on her feet.

All for a total stranger.

“The immediacy of the response, the intensity of the response, made me think about a prayer we say in the Amidah, that God frees captives, matir asurim,” Rabbi Gardenswartz said. “Because it is in the Amidah, we say that God frees captives three times a day, every morning, noon and evening. On Shabbat, counting musaf, we say it four times. It is a recurring motif of our daily and Shabbat prayer. Matir asurim. God frees captives. God frees captives. God frees captives. Every day. Forever. We say it. What does it mean? I think it means that when we free those unjustly imprisoned, we are doing God’s work. In a deep sense, our community’s instant and overwhelming generosity channels this core Jewish value.”

The day of her immigration hearing arrived and there was a miracle. After 31 years of abuse, discrimination, and struggle in Uganda, after watching LGBTIQ friends killed and maimed by homophobic mobs, after harrowing escapes to Nigeria and then to Boston, after 112 days in jail, there was a miracle in June of 2018. Qwin Mbabazi Fiona was granted political asylum.

Qwin was released from the Suffolk County House of Corrections on June 6, 2018. Within 24 hours, she was back in touch with LGBTIQ activists in Uganda and Africa. On that Saturday, she marched proudly in Boston’s Pride festival. It was the first time in her life that Qwin saw LGBTIQ people marching proudly through the streets without fear. Seeing police officers protecting LGBTIQ people brought her to tears. And she knew that she would spend her life working to bring that blessing to her people in Uganda.

Today, Qwin works as GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders’ community engagement manager. She travels around the country, promoting human rights and teaching about her own experiences and the importance of supporting and protecting the LGBTIQ community. Qwin has dedicated her life to GLAD’s mission: to create a just society free of discrimination based on gender identity and expression, HIV status, and sexual orientation through strategic litigation, public policy advocacy, and education.

Outside of her professional activism, Qwin has also become invested in the organizations and communities that supported her on her journey. She has deep friendships with the volunteers who helped her build her life here. She has spoken at various local schools, to tell children about what life can be like in other places and to inspire them to make the world a better place. She has spoken at immigration rallies and volunteered to promote immigrant rights. And she continues to invest her time and energy into supporting her LGBTIQ activist friends who are still fighting for basic human rights and protections in Uganda and in Africa.

When Qwin is not working as a fierce activist or volunteering her time for an important cause, she loves reading crime and detective books and watching horror movies. And, on the Friday nights when she is not travelling, she loves coming back to her Temple Emanuel community for Shabbat Alive! Friday night services.

Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, she is free at last.

Celebrating Mental Health Awareness


By Judy Bolton-Fasman for JewishBoston

This week close to 400 people came together at Temple Emanuel in Newton to share and celebrate the ongoing work of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP). Thirty-five rabbis were among the crowd, and 45 synagogues were acknowledged for their work in inclusion and mental health awareness.

RSIP began four years ago with three synagogues representing Judaism’s Orthodox, Conservative and Reform denominations. They were Congregation Shaarei Tefillah of Newton, Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley and Temple Emunah of Lexington, recalled Sharon Shapiro, a trustee of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Shapiro, who focuses on mental health awareness for the foundation, said in a recent interview with JewishBoston at her office in Newton: “I’m passionate about the subject. With statistics being as high as they are regarding mental health issues, it makes sense that it’s something that needs to be addressed. We started to learn the landscape of mental health last year. We’ve noticed through this project and other partnerships that mental health is coming to the surface, making it a natural topic for the synagogue inclusion project.”

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(Courtesy CJP)

Molly Silver, manager of RSIP for CJP, praised the Ruderman Family Foundation for “bringing inclusion to the forefront of the Boston Jewish community.” Silver added that local synagogues have been key partners with the foundation “in fostering this work. They make this subject a priority in their communities and do everything they can to make everyone feel welcomed into Jewish life. This is what it means to be holy, inclusive and welcoming to all. This is what it means to be a sacred community.”

Both Silver and Shapiro noted RSIP’s remarkable growth over the past three years, which now includes an alumni group. During the course of the evening, there were workshops for seasoned partners, as well as those new to RSIP. Alumni and others could attend facilitated talks on “Moving Your Inclusion Agenda Forward” with representatives from three synagogues that included Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, Temple Beth Elohim and Temple Isaiah of Lexington. There was an option to explore “Disability Awareness” in an interactive session with staff from Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. More recent partners had the opportunity to become better acquainted with the goals of the project in a session on “Strategies for Synagogue Inclusion.”

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(Courtesy CJP)

“RSIP’s embrace of mental illness as an issue has been very important to the community,” Shapiro noted. “Anyone who has dealt with mental illness knows how personal and isolating it is. It’s the type of thing where you may look fine, but you’re suffering. I’m so thankful and impressed with people who have spoken out about the subject.” Shapiro further observed: “We’re becoming more strategic in the workshops we offer. For example, new partners are going to ‘Strategies for Synagogue Inclusion.’ People are thirsty to learn. And RSIP has been so successful because synagogues and people have come out to address mental health in the community. It has a ripple effect. This is the time to come to the surface and directly address it.”

The evening also featured Anita Diamant, best-selling author and founder of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh, talking about “Hiddur Mitzvah: Making Jewish Life Beautiful for All.” Diamant said she initially encountered a thoughtfully crafted, universally designed space at an exhibit at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. The kitchen on display was both beautiful and accessible. When it came time to build Mayyim Hayyim, access was crucial to the organization. Diamant pointed out that from the beginning, Mayyim Hayyim had a lift for anyone in a wheelchair who wanted to descend into the water. “We didn’t want to exclude anyone,” she said. “We wanted immersion for all.”

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(Courtesy CJP)

In addition to universal access, Mayyim Hayyim’s vision of inclusion included a gender-neutral color scheme. The intention was “to welcome those who had never been in a Jewish space,” Diamant said. She cited the mikveh’s seven “Principles of Common Purpose,” which includes offering meaningful ways to immerse while remaining accessible to the entire Jewish community. “We’re an unhyphenated Jewish space in which we embrace diversity and ahavat Yisrael—love of Israel,” she said. “There is full accessibility and expression of beauty in every detail.”

Additionally, there is a dedicated art gallery that enhances the commandment of hiddur mitzvah (the principle of enhancing a mitzvah through aesthetics). Volunteers curate the space and select work solely on their quality. The art does not have to be Jewish or Judaica. Over the years, exhibits have included sculpture, works on paper, paintings and tapestries. “The art,” Diamant noted, “is meant to encourage wonder and inspiration. It elicits questions and fosters conversations. It builds community and opens doors for people who have difficulty reading or communicating.”

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(Courtesy CJP)

Diamant also showed an example of accessibility from her temple, Congregation Beth El in Sudbury. The temple has a garden that people can see from a window or wander into during silent prayer. There had been a steep incline at the door to reach the garden until the community installed a ramp. However, Diamant said she didn’t care for the world “ramp”—“it’s utilitarian and functional.” Instead, she emphasized a bridge had been built. Bridges, she observed, are beautiful and can be a metaphor. “The wider our community opens its doors and heart, the more inclusive and beautiful we make our buildings and language,” she said. “The stronger and happier and more beautiful our people are. [Inclusion] will make us better Jews, and a light unto nations.”


Judy Bolton-Fasman

Judy Bolton-Fasman is the culture reporter for JewishBoston.com. She has written about arts and culture for over two decades. Her essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Forward, Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Report, Cognoscenti and other venues. Email her at judy@jewishboston.com.

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