MEMBERS OF the Falash Mura Jewish Ethiopian community attend a prayer service at the HaTikvah Synagogue in Gondar, northern Ethiopia, last September.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I am 13 years old and live in St. Louis, Missouri. Ten days ago I celebrated my bar mitzva in Gondar, Ethiopia.
I met many Ethiopian Jews both in Gondar and in Addis Ababa who are hoping to make aliya to Israel. Years ago they left their village homes hoping to immigrate to Israel in the near future.
But the government of Israel denied their request. They have continued to wait in Gondar and Addis Ababa praying that the government of Israel will change its mind.
On Shabbat, I read my bar mitzva parsha, Parshat Balak, before more than 1,000 people. They had walked many miles in the rainy season to hear the Torah read. I was honored that they came but at the same time I felt humbled by their devotion to Judaism. I wouldn’t have walked to shul in rainstorms that heavy and I live less than a mile away.
I’ve been told that this was the first bar mitzva celebration in Gondar. The kids my age were very eager to talk to me and my cousin Gabrielle Sasson, who was celebrating her bat mitzva. They wanted to learn as much as possible about Israel. Of course I learned far more from them than they learned from me.
People have been arguing about this community for many years and everyone is certainly entitled to an opinion. But opinions should be based on facts, and many of the people opposing the community’s aliya have been mislead. Let me share with them and with you some of the things I learned firsthand.
Many Ethiopian Jews living in Gondar and Addis Ababa have mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters living in Israel whom they have not seen for many years, in some case, decades.
Life is very hard for them and it is hard to observe the mitzvot there. But they continue to do their best despite the difficulties and despite the fact that they receive very little help from Jews in the rest of the world.
Most Jews in Gondar are very poor and do not have access to adequate medical care. Six weeks ago, a pediatrician was hired to examine the youngest children (the money came from my bar mitzva gifts and from donations by family and family friends.) When my family arrived in Ethiopia we visited the pediatric clinic, where the pediatrician told us that more than half of the kids under the age of five were seriously malnourished. Others had serious conditions like typhoid, typhus and malaria. He told us that 17 of the children he examined would have died but for the care given by the clinic.
I can’t stop thinking think about the kids who attended my bar mitzva, laughing and sharing candy with me. They who were not covered by the medical program because there was not enough money. I don’t understand why the American Jewish community is unwilling to help them. These kids were just like me. In their Bnei Akiva groups they learned about the parsha, ran around, joked and laughed. But unlike me, when they got sick, they could not afford a doctor. When they were hungry, they remained hungry because their parents were too poor to buy them food.
I came to know two boys particularly well. Their parents had died a few years ago, while waiting for aliya. The kids, orphans, were stuck in Gondar with no one to take care of them. They do have grandparents in Israel, who are anxious to help. But the government of Israel will not let the kids move to Israel. The kids invited me to their home. It is a small one-room mud hut which they share with seven other people. There are only two beds and two blankets. The hut has no windows; a break in the mud wall serves as the door. The hut had no plumbing or water. The bathroom is a mud outhouse 50 yards away.
Though their lives were hard, the boys went to synagogue every morning. On the wall of their house which faces Jerusalem, they drew on it many symbols of Israel and the Jewish People including a Magen David, a synagogue and a map of Israel. We davened together and got along well, even though we do not speak the same language.
Despite the hardships, the entire community felt privileged to be Jewish. They were intensely committed to God in a way I’ve not seen in the United States.
They smiled even though they lived in terrible conditions. Even after all of the hard years, after all of the disappointments, they still dreamed of aliya. They sang “Hatikva” like it was a prayer. They sang “Am Yisrael Chai” with passion.
Somehow the long wait has only made their faith stronger.
There may be a reason why people don’t want to help the adults of this community.
I don’t know. But there can be no excuse for not feeding hungry children.The author is 13 years old and attends the Epstein Hebrew Academy in St. Louis. He visited the Jewish communities of Gondar and Addis Ababa over a 10-day period earlier this month.