This week’s parsha is Lech Lecha in which Abraham is called by G-d to leave his country and travel to an unknown land. “To the place where I shall show you”. These were G-d’s words and G-d promises Abram that he will make of him a great nation and bless him.
I have been traveling in the last few weeks and although I planned to write my impressions earlier, it is today that I find myself ready to share my travel adventures.
When I heard about a JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) mission to Ethiopia my curiosity peaked. The trip was promoted as a journey of an immigrant from his homeland of Ethiopia to Israel.
All I knew was that in the 80’s there was Operation Moses where Jews from Ethiopia who walked to Sudan were airlifted to Israel. In the 90’s there was another operation called Solomon and more came, this time from Addis Ababa.
At that time I was living in the US, busy raising kids and, as an Israeli, acclimating to a new land and culture. I did not follow the plight of the Jews from Ethiopia.
We landed in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. It is a busy city with tall buildings, stores and lots of shanty towns. Old Eged buses (from Israel!), blue taxis (from Russia) and bikes are the mode of transportation… not enough for the millions who live there, so you see many people walking. Kids coming from school in their uniform and women carrying dry wood collected in the forest on their backs. There is a lot of construction and dust. We toured the Ethiopian National Museum and saw “Lucy”. Lucy consists of several hundred pieces of bone fossils representing 40% of a skeleton of a female of the hominid species and know by its Amharic language as “Dinkinesh” which means “you are marvelous”. We saw the Israeli embassy and met the ambassador; Belaynesh Zenaida, the first Ethiopian-born ambassador. We also met Dr. Rick Hodes who performs medical miracles on children with spinal conditions. He has been working tirelessly since the 1980’s on behalf of those without access to medical care. Although there are no more Jews left, it is important to maintain good relationship between the two governments.
The next day we flew to Axum, a town on the North which was once the crest of the Tigray Jewish community. There is only one paved road; the rest of the roads are unpaved and dusty. There are a few theories as to where the Jews came to Ethiopia from. One theory traces them to Yemen, the other claims that they came down from Egypt but the romantic legend is my favorite. It’s the story of the Queen of Sheba who traveled North to visit King Solomon, fell in love, converted to Judaism and bore a son to him and came back to live in Ethiopia. The story continues that this son went back to visit his father and one of his companions stole the Tablets of the Covenant which are housed in a church in Axum. We visited the church which is built like the Beit Hamikdash (The Temple in Jerusalem). We also saw Helen Sheba palace. We arrived to Axum on Friday and spend Shabbat touring the market which reminded me of the days of Abraham. People sitting on the ground with their merchandise. The Ethiopians are known for their coffee. They meet three times a day for a coffee break and there is a whole ceremony built around this daily ritual.
We made havdala on top of a mountain overlooking the field of Teff (an Ethiopian grain that is also used to make Ingera; a special spongybread that’s used to eat the different foods and sometimes is used as utensils… yes, no need for fork and knife).
On Sunday we visited a school funded by the JDC. Some of the students walk a few miles by foot to get to the school.
There are no Jews living in the area. The “Beta Israel”; the Ethiopian Jews lived in villages and had their own schools and synagogue. They were called “Falashas” (the landless). The government owned the land and the Jews were mostly metal smiths and worked the land. Amram, who came with us, left his village when he was 5 years old and walked to Sudan with his family in the hope of reaching Jerusalem. “Jerusalem” was a magical word that described the longing for a better place. When reading the Haggadah on Passover we say “Next Year in Jerusalem”. Amram and his generation took it literally…. We walked up the mountain to reach his village; his former neighbors have taken over the abandoned homes. His village was near Mt. Sigd. Sigd is a Jewish holiday celebrated 50 days after Yom Kippur only by Ethiopian Jews.
There was no running water or electricity in the village but the landscape is beautiful. I could imagine groups of people carrying their few belongings, walking through the fields and desert with a longing for Zion. We were following their footsteps, but before embarking on the plane to Tel Aviv we stopped at Lalibella.
Lalibela is called the New Jerusalem although there are no synagogues or strong Jewish history there, rather there are incredible churches carved into the ground. The air is crisp but the roads are unpaved. The homes are build from metal scrapes and wood. On an early morning walk you can see everyone waking up and washing their faces from water in plastic bottles.
I have read about third world countries; here I could see it with my own eyes.
We flew to Tel Aviv, landed in the middle of the night. We were told that when the Ethiopians arrived they did not know what Jerusalem looked like as it was only an idea and they thought that the lights at Ben Gurion Airport was Jerusalem… They were taken to Ofakim, a town in the Negev. I can only imagine their surprise on seeing running water from a faucet or flipping a switch to get light.
Thirty years passed and unfortunately the Ethiopian Jews are not fully accepted by the Israeli society. In the news you read about the injustice done to a soldier or the mistreating of a woman looking for a job just because her skin color is black.
We visited a few programs that deal with empowering the elderly through gardening and a multi year holistic intervention for Ethiopian-Israeli school children. We visited an Ethiopian culture center in Kiryat Gat where many of them settled.
We learned that even a generation after the community immigrated to Israel, young adults share the same obstacles when looking for a job. At Ort school in Ramat Gan we talked to students at a special 18 month pilot program which is a collaboration with El Al to teach them to be airplane technicians with the promise of a job at the company upon graduation. We also met a young Ethiopian who in 2007 started a not-for-profit called “Olim Beyahad” (rising up together) aimed at helping Ethiopian Israelis who hold university degrees integrate into the forefront of the Israeli workforce.
Our guide, Gideon named the mission: “It takes a village”. At the end of the 10 days we understood what he meant. Each individual that embarked on the journey across the deserts of Sudan or to addis Ababa with the dream of Jerusalem had no clue what was there behind the rainbow. They came from small villages carrying their tradition and culture in their mind. It takes more then a village to welcome the newcomers into the family of Israel. There is a comedy skit by Arik Einstein called Aliya in which he portrays hows each wave of immigrants mocks the next wave of new comers but at the end we are all Jews and Israel is our homeland.