Silver Spring Woman Edits Kulanu Book about Jewish Diversity

Jews are much more than just Ashkenazim. That’s the message that editor Karen Primack hopes readers will take from her new book, Under One Canopy: Readings in Jewish Diversity (Kulanu, Inc., 2003). “I would hope that people will finish reading the book, put it down and say, ‘Goodness we’re a varied lot,’ “Primack says. “The world has gotten so small, and we shouldn’t have the stereotype of the Ashkenazi as the world’s Jew.”

The idea for the book came to her during a “Diversity Shabbat” a few years ago at her synagogue, Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District. The book can be used, Primack writes in its Introduction, “as a source for synagogue services, home ceremonies, communal gatherings, and quiet contemplation of the rich diversity to be found within Judaism.” The 50-plus short essays are grouped into chapters called Sephardim/ Anousim, Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, Jews of Africa, Jews of Asia, Jews by Choice, Modern Israel and All of Us.

Among the essays included is Stephen L. Gomes’ “My 50-year Search for My Portuguese-Jewish Self.” Born into a Catholic family, Gomes converted to Judaism in 2002. His conversion followed a great attraction to Jews and Judaism and years of study and research that convinced him that he descended from a Portuguese Jewish family forced to convert during the Portuguese Inquisition. “For me, stepping into the Mikveh brought me full circle — I was home at last,” he writes. “The feeling is still very new and very vivid for me; I am fully certain for the first time. I truly know who I am at the core of my soul– without a trace of doubt or lingering hesitancy. This sense of certainty is a great gift.”

The book is published by, and its proceeds will benefit, Kulanu (“all of us”), an organization dedicated to discovering and helping lost Jewish communities around the world. A volunteer since it was founded in 1993, Primack is Kulanu’s secretary and newsletter editor. It is fitting that Primack, who has lived abroad on several occasions, should be hooked up with such a group. She was born in Richmond in 1944 — her father was an attorney for the U.S. Patent Office that had been moved to that city for security reasons during the World War II, but returned to the District when she was 1 year old. She grew up in Southeast D.C. and Silver Spring, going to Hebrew school and being confirmed at Temple Israel in Silver Spring.

After graduating from Montgomery Blair High School– she was active on the school paper, Silver Chips — Primack graduated from the University of Michigan (1966) and Boston College Law School (1969). Her husband, Aron, was an oncologist working for the National Cancer Institute. In 1971, he went to work for the Ugandan Cancer Institute. The Primacks lived in Uganda for a year, until that country’s leader, Idi Amin, began to become hostile to the West and Westerners. The family returned to the District, where she spent much of the next decade raising her children and doing volunteer work. In the early 1980s, Primack became a staff attorney for Rep. Robert Drinan (D-Mass.) who had been Primack’s law school dean.

Later, she worked for the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the U.s. Commission on Civil Rights and for six years represented abused and neglected children in the D.C. court system. In 1990, the lure of Africa pulled the family back, this time to Niger, where Aron Primack became a physician for Peace Corps volunteers. Returning to Washington after 2 1/2 years, Karen Primack hooked up with Kulanu. At first, the group was primarily interested in the Bnei Menashe, a group in India claiming to be descendants of the lost tribe of that name. Eventually, more “lost groups of Jews” began contacting the nonprofit. That trickle became a torrent after e-mail became a common form of communications, she explains.

Primack speaks with pride about Kulanu’s accomplishments. “Kulanu deals with individual communities and brings them out of their isolation so that people now know about and can support — especially giving moral support — groups like the Abayudaya in Uganda, the remnants of Kaifeng Jews in China, the Bnei Menashe in India and many others,” she says. “People have visited these communities, and these people have visited us and Israe1.” Among those with whom Kulanu is working are the Ibos of Nigeria, who believe they have Israelite roots. There are many small congregations forming, and the Ibos are asking for rabbis, teachers and prayer books. So far, Kulanu has supplied the latter. Some Tutsis of Rwanda also claim Jewish descendants — the Cushites who came from pre-Christian Ethiopia. The group hopes to make contact with a Tutsi emigre in Belgium, who has called on Kulanu to help bring his people back into the Jewish fold, to begin investigating those claims.

Under One Canopy: Readings in Jewish Diversity costs $15 plus $4 for postage and handling. It can be ordered online at www.kulanuboutique.com or by mail from Kulanu Boutique, Box103, Kutztown, PA 19530. Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit Kulanu programs.

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