Article and Photos by Miri Arbiv
“Wow,” I mumbled when I was offered to fly on a volunteering mission to Ethiopia under the auspices of Partnership2Gether Beer Sheva-Bnei Shimon-Montreal of the Jewish Agency, “It’s the dream of my life”. For me, the visit to Ethiopia would not be my first time in Africa but certainly the first since I worked with the late Dr. Tamar Golan, Israel’s ambassador to Ghana and Congo and a known advocate for Africa. The idea behind the mission was to bring together a group of Beer Sheva-Bnei Shimon residents aged 30-35 and a parallel group from Canada to jointly learn about Jewish immigration from Ethiopia and engage in volunteering activities. In the Jewish world there are those who call such an activity ‘Tikkun Olam’. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a once in a lifetime experience.
One and a half months later, I found myself landing at Addis Ababa airport. Next to me were another eight residents from Beer Sheva and Bnei Shimon and ten Canadians from Montreal. The Israeli contingent included three Ethiopian-Israelis, two native born Israelis, a person who immigrated to Israel at the age of eight, another who immigrated ten years ago-from Montreal-and another who immigrated from Latvia when she was four years old. The composition of our group must have looked strange to an onlooker, but for me, it was a superb combination. We had all tasted a bit of all the worlds connected with the question of one’s Jewish identity: immigrants and native born Israelis, citizens from Israel and from the Diaspora, secular and religious.
Jews in Gondar
Upon arriving in Gondar, we were at once surrounded by numerous children dressed in rags. Clean rags, to be sure, but rags nonetheless. They begged us for money or at least something they’d be able to sell. Even an empty water bottle was enough to fill their eyes with joy. For us, this was not our first visit to a third world country and witnessing the ways people cope with poverty, but still…
That same day and over the three following days we visited a number of neighborhoods in Gondar. What they all shared in common was a landscape rich in trees and flowers in stark contrast with inconceivable poverty and living conditions that were difficult for Western eyes. It turns out that in the 21st century, there is no small number of people in the world who live without any connection to a water or electricity supply. Sure, I understand that you don’t need to travel to Africa to know this and that are quite a few Bedouin families who live under similar conditions in Israel, but nevertheless… In one of the neighborhoods we met several families from the Jewish Falash Mura community who are planning to immigrate to Israel in July-August. During the first moments of encountering them, I was beside myself. The experience was already very difficult for me, but seeing all those poor children and knowing that some of them were Jewish hit me hard. Although some of them will eventually immigrate to Israel (some 200 families before the ‘gates close’), the vast majority will stay. Estimates place the number of men and women at about 20,000, whose fates will not improve.
In the same place we meet Ashe Siyom, a Jewish Agency activist who oversees matters connected with immigration to Israel of the Falash Mura (arranging immigration authorizations, providing relevant knowledge and tools in preparation for Israeli life, learning Hebrew, etc.) “My role is very complex,” he confides in us, “the decision over who immigrates and who stays here rests in my hands. It’s very difficult when you understand the significance of a negative response in such a place.” During those same moments I praised the organizers of the mission who wisely arranged for a volunteering activity at our next stop. I very much needed to do something with all of these feelings I had inside, and an activity of this sort was very appropriate.
Volunteers in Gondar
“Each number 1 will help renovate the old synagogue building; number 2s will build an entrance path to the old Jewish cemetery,” announced a Canadian who split us into small working groups. I ought to mention that in each neighborhood we visited, we found remnants of a Jewish community – in other words places in which Jews once lived. The homes of those who immigrated to Israel were now occupied by members of other religions. In those same locations we were exposed to old synagogue buildings, cemeteries and more. Buildings with religious trappings were for the most part abandoned and neglected. We decided to respond to the challenge and improve the appearance of two such buildings.
In order to carry out our task, we used mud dough supplied to us by the locals and stones that were naturally scattered around. The work mainly called for spreading a layer of mud and placing stones on it, and repeating this process over and over again. Throughout the activity a great number of children surrounded us, wanting to see what ‘the white people’ were doing, and pose with us for pictures (before and after). As part of the group renovating the old synagogue building, I was pleasantly surprised to discover what my friends had done in arranging an entrance path to the Jewish cemetery accomplished. “Bravo to all of you! None of this was here before,” exulted Micha Feldman, the Jewish Agency guide who, within the framework of Operation Moses and subsequent operations, has brought thousands of families to Israel. “It seems to me that now you’re ready to meet the families that will be traveling with you tomorrow-and immigrating-to Israel.”
She’hecheyanu – “Thanksgiving to G-d”
The meeting with the 40 families scheduled to return with us to Israel was held in a makeshift house prepared and erected ahead of time by the JDC. When we arrived, the designated olim were sitting in a giant courtyard and waiting for the appointed time. “Excited?” we asked them. Those of them who already spoke Hebrew began a conversation with us while the others nodded their heads. Not one of them expressed any excitement in ways that are familiar to us Israelis. Their attitude was businesslike and very subdued. This is the culture in which they were raised, a culture that, unfortunately, doesn’t serve them over time in Israel. Here in Israel, they’ll have to be assertive, and knowing how to stand up for one’s self has little to do with the qualities of restraint and humbleness. Still, you couldn’t miss seeing the hope in the eyes of both the adults and children. Knowing that they were going to arrive in a different and better place gave them strength and confidence.
The rest of the day I spent playing with Robbie, a two and a half year old boy. He was looking for friends to play soccer with or simply someone to push him in a swing. I volunteered for this task as did others from our mission, and we discovered a charming little boy with a huge sense of joie de vivre. When the moment came, he entered the house where he greeted the olim scheduled to fly to Israel. He spoke in Amharic as I, who didn’t understand a word, stood to the side. Suddenly the stream of words turned into the familiar “Baruch ata adonai, elohenu melekh ha’olam, she’hecheyanu ve higanu l’zman hazeh.” Without noticing it, tears began to flow from my eyes. The truth is that until that moment, I’d never thought about this blessing at all. I wasn’t really aware of its existence or its meaning.
A few hours later, at the airport, I witnessed the new immigrants boarding the plane; and again I thought about the meaning of this simple blessing. At this point I should mention that I’m not a religious person, so getting emotional over the blessing isn’t something that’s obvious for me. During those same moments I thought about the hope those olim were given, but then my thoughts turned to the Falash Mura who remained behind and lost part of their hope for receiving a new life. “Did you hear?” one of the mission’s members said to me, trying to draw my attention as we were returning to Israel early in the morning, “We’re meeting at the Kalisher Absorption Center in Beer Sheva at 5 p.m.”
A heart-stirring discovery
I arrived at the absorption center before the appointed time and I noticed that the other members of the mission hadn’t yet arrived. I saw children playing at the entrance to the building, with a number of adults sitting on a bench to the side, so I decided to get out of the car and join them. “Shalom,” I said to them, “today I’ve returned from Ethiopia.” The adults were surprised to hear this and flooded me with questions. A moment later I got an idea and I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. I looked for the photos I’d taken and invited them to view them. The Ethiopian-Israelis were overcome with intense excitement. They flipped through the photos and asked a great many questions. Then, at a certain moment, one of them jumped up in excitement. Startled, I asked: “What happened?”
“He’s just seen that someone from his family is among the olim that came with you to Israel today,” explained one of the adults.
When I asked to see which of the olim was related to this relatively veteran immigrant, I discovered that it was the father of little Robbie.
Longings for Ethiopia
After hearing about the activities at the absorption center, we were given cardboard sheets, paints and stickers, and together with 10 eight-year olds, we were asked to draw Ethiopia. As we did this, we talked with the children. “I miss Ethiopia,” said the little girl who I was drawing with. “Really?” I replied, surprised, “Why?”
“Because it was more fun there,” she said as she shrugged her shoulders and returned to her drawing. I attempted to understand whether other children felt like this and I discovered that almost all felt the same way. They missed Ethiopia and felt that it could have been more fun there. “Look, it’s natural for a child to think that another place is better,” said one of the mission’s members, trying to explain the children’s attitudes. At that moment, a feeling of distress welled up within me regarding the way Ethiopians are absorbed in Israeli society. It’s not something that didn’t exist previously-but the feeling simply intensified upon recalling the memory of seeing those same eyes filled with so much hope on the way to Israel.
Start-up for success
“We have a lot of plans aimed at helping young Ethiopian-Israelis integrate into employment, academic frameworks and even various volunteering locations,” said Tali Reinberg-Shchori, a fellow member of the mission and director of the Young Adults Center in Beer Sheva. It’s not always easy but there are a lot of success stories. A portion of the success stories actually participated in this mission: There was Dagu, who served in an elite army unit followed by obtaining a degree in political science…today he works at an important public position; there’s Tova, who is currently employed as a social worker; and Anat who works with at-risk youth. All of them invest their best efforts in their work and contribute to Israeli society. “What I do is very important,” Tova tells me during our stay in Ethiopia, “I feel that I contribute to society and help people who need someone to listen to them.” In another conversation, Dagu explains to me: “If a native born Israeli requires three hours to study for a particular exam, then I need to invest eight hours. That’s how it is. I intend to invest more in order to be like everyone else and then I will help others.”
Charity begins at home?
Prior to finishing up our visit, the mission’s members gathered in one room. The goal was to discuss how to follow-up on this mission. A campaign such as this can’t leave you indifferent or without the desire to do something meaningful. We started out by reading some texts dealing with the well-known question “Does charity begin at home?” Since half of us are from Israel and the other half from Canada, it was easy for us Israelis to decide that as far as we were concerned, charity begins with helping Ethiopian olim living in Israel. Even so, it appears that we’ll be conducting a clothes drive for the benefit of those living in Ethiopia. It’s relatively easy to carry out such a project and it doesn’t require a great deal of effort.
In order to discuss the ways in which we’d like to work for the benefit of Ethiopian-Israelis, we split up into three groups. Each of the groups dealt with the issue from different angles: humanitarian, Judaism and patriotism (Israeli / Canadian). Ultimately the key activity we decided upon was to help advance the integration of Ethiopian-Israelis into Israeli society. At this stage it still isn’t clear exactly how we’ll choose to work towards this goal and we still have a ways to go. At the same time we need to preserve this connection between us Israelis and the Canadians. “How would you summarize the mission?” asks one of the Israelis as we depart the discussion. After thinking a bit, I answered “The things you see from one place you really don’t see from another.”
May more and more olim be absorbed in Israel and into Israeli society soon, amen.
Wishing all of you an interesting and fruitful day,