Eye-open­ing jour­ney to Ethiopia

‘Ethiopia, I re­al­ized, was part of the Dis­per­sion, a tem­po­rary res­i­dence. I’m Is­raeli and my fu­ture is only in Is­rael’

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - OBSERVATIO­NS - BAR­BARA SOFER The writer is the Is­rael di­rec­tor of pub­lic re­la­tions at Hadas­sah, the Women’s Zion­ist Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­ica. Her lat­est book is A Daugh­ter of Many Mothers.

‘Hatikva” got to him. or most of the tour of Ethiopia, Haim Teruneh, 18, was the life of the party. The sabra from Ramle could get his class­mates singing on the bus no mat­ter how sleepy they were. He was the first up at the folk­lore show, lead­ing the danc­ing called Eskista, rolling his shoul­der blades and tilt­ing his chest in Ethiopian style. But his throat went dry when he was among those stand­ing in the wooden hut in Ethiopia with the con­gre­ga­tion singing Is­rael’s na­tional an­them.

“And I don’t even go to sy­n­a­gogue most Shab­ba­tot in Is­rael,” says Teruneh. “I didn’t re­al­ize I’d be so moved. That’s the mo­ment when the whole jour­ney to Ethiopia came to­gether for me.”

Teruneh and a dozen other 12th graders from Hadas­sah-Neurim, a res­i­den­tial youth vil­lage on the sea­side north Ne­tanya re­cently re­turned from an eight­day trip to Ethiopia. Teruneh grew up in a mod­est pub­lic-hous­ing bloc in Ramle, with his Ethiopian-born par­ents and seven sib­lings. He’s No. 4 Four, and the only mem­ber of his fam­ily to have re­turned to his par­ents’ land of birth since they left nearly two decades ago. His Amharic is sketchy. “I un­der­stand bet­ter than I speak,” he says.

The usu­ally out­go­ing Teruneh is soft-spo­ken and thought­ful speak­ing about the trip. He’d never re­ally thought about vis­it­ing Ethiopia un­til the op­por­tu­nity came up. Andi Kron and Charles Thorn, a re­tired cou­ple from the Na­tional Laboratory in Los Alamo, New Mex­ico (where the atomic bomb was made) vol­un­teer to live in the youth vil­lage for three months ev­ery year and tu­tor the stu­dents in English. They came to the con­clu­sion that it was be im­por­tant for the teens to visit Ethiopia be­fore they go to the army to pull to­gether the dis­parate parts of their iden­ti­ties.

“It’s par­al­lel to what we hear about Holo­caust sur­vivors not talk­ing to their chil­dren or in pub­lic in Is­rael about what they ex­pe­ri­enced,” says Kron, a car­tog­ra­pher.

Teruneh was pleased to be among those of his class­mates who were cho­sen. Fly­ing abroad, go­ing on a trip with his friends would be fun, but not without a mea­sure of anx­i­ety. How would he re­act to an en­counter with the coun­try with which he is al­ways iden­ti­fied but about which he knows so lit­tle ?

The Ethiopian sy­n­a­gogue the group vis­ited is used by Falash Mura, who claim fam­ily con­nec­tions to de­scen­dants of Jews who con­verted to Chris­tian­ity gen­er­a­tions ago and now want to re­turn to Ju­daism. They haven’t been ac­cepted for aliya by Is­rael.

“The chil­dren were ex­cited to touch us be­cause we had been in Jerusalem. I met all those peo­ple who yearn to move to Is­rael but who can’t come,” says Teruneh. “And I have al­ways taken liv­ing in Is­rael for granted.”

Teruneh and his best friend Dorel Levi came to Hadas­sah-Neurim in ninth grade, when they both de­cided to leave their lo­cal school and ma­tric­u­late in a set­ting with more struc­ture. They were at­tracted to the ad­vanced soc­cer train­ing, too. Levi, whose par­ents are from Kur­dis­tan and Libya, was also was cho­sen for the trip. Only half of the stu­dents have an Ethiopian back­ground.

“It’s im­por­tant for all of our stu­dents to ap­pre­ci­ate the her­itage of Ethiopian Jewry,” says Hadas­sah-Neurim di­rec­tor Natan Bi­ton. “This isn’t ‘the Ethiopi­ans’ trip’ but a mis­sion to bring back first-per­son tes­ti­mony by the stu­dents of all back­grounds.”

Still, for the Ethiopian stu­dents, the mis­sion is an in­tense en­counter with iden­tity.

“When we landed, I looked around and here I was for the first time in a coun­try where I should have looked like every­one else, in­stead of stand­ing out as an ‘Ethiopian,’” says Asher Molo, from Beit Shemesh. Molo came to Is­rael as a baby in his mother’s arms.

“I was im­me­di­ately aware that I looked like a tourist in stylish T-shirts, jeans and brand-name sneak­ers. My grand­fa­ther was a kes, a re­li­gious leader, but I knew lit­tle about our back­ground.”

The mis­sion be­gan in Ad­dis Ababa, a city with an in­ter­na­tional air­port, malls and mu­se­ums. Their ho­tel had Wi-Fi. But soon they were in ru­ral Ethiopia. Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, just 27% of Ethiopi­ans have ac­cess to elec­tric­ity. As the Is­raeli teens hiked to the Blue Nile Falls in Bahir Dar, com­ing the other way were small chil­dren, each car­ry­ing a cloth school­bag hold­ing a sin­gle book. A third of chil­dren in ru­ral Ethiopia fin­ish el­e­men­tary school. Only 4% com­plete high school.

“I guess I al­ways thought my par­ents were ex­ag­ger­at­ing when then spoke of how dif­fi­cult life was in Ethiopia,” Teruneh says.

Yana Lo­makovskyy was as­tounded by see­ing the way most Ethiopi­ans coped with so lit­tle. She and the other teens from the for­mer Soviet Union on the trip thought the mis­sion would be in­ter­est­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing, but they didn’t re­al­ize how deeply it would af­fect them, she says.

“I live in Pe­tah Tikva with a school down the block, but I was al­ways tru­ant. I wan­dered off, and didn’t bother to go to school. That’s why I switched for high school to a youth vil­lage, where a coun­selor is im­me­di­ately on your case if you aren’t in school. In Ethiopia, I saw those lit­tle kids walk­ing with cloth school bags over one shoul­der walk­ing miles to go to school. I felt ashamed of how spoiled I was, and so for­tu­nate to live in Is­rael.”

For her, the most mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was be­ing with her Ethiopian-born class­mate Sara for her re­union with Sara’s un­cle.

“Sara and I are very close,” says Lo­makovskyy. “She con­fided in me how ner­vous she was about meet­ing her un­cle whom she last saw when she was five. We had seen so much poverty – chil­dren run­ning af­ter us ask­ing for a pen­cil. Then her un­cle came in dressed in a suit, so per­son­able and friendly. They couldn’t stop talk­ing. I couldn’t stop cry­ing with joy.”

Donors Kron and Thorn, who went on the trip with the stu­dents, were de­lighted with the ca­ma­raderie among the teens as they en­coun­tered Ethiopia. Says Thorn, a physi­cist, “I could see the kids ma­tur­ing be­fore my eyes. They won’t be the same. As they grad­u­ate and join the IDF they’ll have a stronger sense of self.”

Molo says the trip did clar­ify iden­tity is­sues for him. “Ethiopia, I re­al­ized, was part of the Dis­per­sion, a tem­po­rary res­i­dence. I’m Is­raeli and my fu­ture is only in Is­rael.”

Singing “Hatikva,” es­pe­cially in the sea­son of Re­mem­brance Day and In­de­pen­dence Day, meant a lot more to Teruneh. “I’ll al­ways think of those men, women and chil­dren yearning to come to here, and my own an­ces­tors’ yearning for Eretz Zion and es­pe­cially Yerusha­layim,” he says.

Like most teens, es­pe­cially those who board away from home, he doesn’t like to think of him­self as miss­ing his par­ents. “But I was over­joyed to see them wait­ing for me at Ben Gu­rion air­port,” says Teruneh. “I felt so much closer to them.”

Af­ter the hugs and kisses, he had a re­quest. The group opted for only vege­tar­ian, kosher food in Ethiopia. Af­ter hug­ging his fam­ily hello, he asked to make a stop be­fore go­ing home. The teen wanted a shwarma.

Smiles Teruneh, “There’s no place like home.”

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