On the road to Ambover, a once-thriving Jewish village in northern Ethiopia, young children ran beside our vehicle waving and shouting, “Money, money.” From outside the bus window I saw malnourished-looking donkeys carrying heavy loads and mothers with babies tied onto their backs.
We passed houses made of concrete, plastic, tin, or aluminum. There wasn’t any running water or electricity, no modern farm tools, and few vehicles. Several people walked with cumbersome bundles on their heads and backs, some dressed in traditional white robes, making them resemble ghost-like figures, though these apparitions wore rubber shoes and sandals, or no shoes at all. It was a road trip into the distant past for us but a startling peek into the villagers’ present reality.
Ethiopia was never on my Bucket List until I met with Amir Shacham, the associate executive vice president of Global Connections for Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest N.J. He told me about a mission to Ethiopia and Israel being organized by Stuart Wainberg of Livingston and Selah, an Israeli immigrant aid organization, taking place fron Dec. 31-Jan. 4. Having Micha Feldmann, the architect of Operation Solomon in which some 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia were airlifted to Israel within a 36-hour time span in 1991, as the tour leader sealed the deal for me.
Through the eyes of Feldmann, author of “On Wings of Eagles: The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus,” (Gefen Publishing House, 2012) and five Ethiopian-Israelis who accompanied our group of 35, we learned the history and struggles of Beta Israel, descendants of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. They also taught us about the Falash Mura, which refers to Jews who either did not adhere to Jewish law or converted to Christianity, either voluntarily or under pressure, while living in Ethiopia.
Our introduction to Ethiopia was The Red Terror Martyrs’ Museum in Addis Ababa, a memorial to the victims tortured, imprisoned, and killed for their political beliefs under the Marxist Derg regime which overthrew Haile Selassie and ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987. Here we began to learn about the struggle of the Ethiopian people and the cruelty they endured.
At the museum Atitegeb Belay, now a nurse in Israel who accompanied us on the trip, searched for a record or even a photograph of her sister, a victim of the genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. None was found. It was devastating for her and heartbreaking for us to witness.
We then flew to Gondar and boarded a bus for the 37-km.drive to Ambover. Another native of Ethiopia on the trip, Belaynesh Zevadia, took us to her childhood home. She left the village when she was 13, and immigrated to Israel at 17 with Operation Moses, a 1984 rescue mission. In 2012 she was Israel’s first ambassador of Ethiopian descent and she served in Addis Ababa.
In the Ambover synagogue, which remains intact thanks to private donors, we were spellbound by the emotional story Zevadia shared of her brother Yosef’s three-year imprisonment for teaching Hebrew. Her father, the village kes (rabbi), lived in the synagogue most of that time, sleeping on the floor and praying that his son would be released.
Also with us was David Ermiase, now a social worker in Ramat Eliyahu. Ermiase grew up in a nearby village but walked to the school in Ambover daily. He told us about fleeing with friends to Sudan when he was 18. Bandits demanded bribe money and assaulted them along the way, and by the time they reached border 13 days later, his mouth was so dry from lack of water that he completely lost his voice. This was his first time back in Ethiopia. He said it was “the best day of his life” and cried. We cried with him.
Feldmann wanted us to walk in the footsteps of those who escaped through the Semien Mountains to Sudan. Children and elders had marched alongside their families, trying to avoid loose stones on the trails. Some died over the course of their long journey, a proper burial all-but impossible, and babies were born in this rugged but stunning mountain range. Our 90-minute, abridged hike in daylight didn’t compare to their trek along the narrow mountain paths at night without flashlights or maps to guide them. Rather, their determination to reach Jerusalem and live a free Jewish life was their guiding light; there is no other way to explain their exodus through such treacherous terrain.
At a magnificent lookout point Orly Malessa, who was 2 when her family left Ethiopia, told us their story. Through tears she described her parents’ anguish when they thought Orly’s younger sibling had died en route to the border. But the baby survived, and after spending several years in a Sudanese refugee camp, they finally arrived in Israel. Malessa is now a filmmaker in Tel Aviv.
Hearing their stories, we were amazed by the resilience of the Ethiopian-Israelis who accompanied us. What could have left them bitter and weak has made them strong and kind, their experiences inspiring them to give generously of themselves to others, the true spirit of the Ethiopian culture.
Our final stop in Ethiopia was the Jewish Community Center in Gondar where so many wait, in dire, conditions for approval of their application to go to Israel. It was virtually unbearable to see children covered in filth, trapped in what one young boy told me feels like a hopeless situation.
The Israeli government assists each new immigrant from Ethiopia with the cost of aliyah, according to The Jewish Agency. This includes the flight, Hebrew and Judaism studies, children’s education, social and cultural activities, plus a housing grant.
The most recent aliyah from Ethiopia occurred in 2017, with 1,300 people coming to Israel. Twenty-seven hundred had applied, 500 were rejected, and the remaining 900 are still waiting to find out if they’ve been approved, according to the Jewish Agency.
It is estimated that approximately 8,000 Falash Mura are hoping to immigrate. Their relatives in Israel apply for their family in Ethiopia to be reunited but, at present, there is no approved budget to allow more Ethiopians into the Jewish state. One woman told me she has been waiting for 19 years.
She and the others who remain are in limbo. What will happen to them? Soni Udler, who heads the Ethiopian Absorption Programs of The Jewish Agency, said “It isn’t over.”
Let’s hope she’s right.
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