Community center to absorption center

A former Falash Mura leader talks about the unique challenges his aliya has presented.

Ethiopian Jews in Gondar (photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
Ethiopian Jews in Gondar
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)

As anyone who has survived the experience can tell you, immigrating to Israel is not only a challenge but often a lesson in humility. Making aliya is not for the faint of heart. All at once, the new arrival is expected to hit the ground running, trying to navigate his way around a culture and a country that are notoriously unlike any other on Earth.

In a land that leads the world in innovative, cutting-edge information technology, the new immigrant finds himself dealing with what often looks a 1940s-style government bureaucracy – with often byzantine rules and regulations – in a language he or she is only now just beginning to learn.

For many would-be new Israelis, perhaps the most debilitating part of the absorption experience is the loss of their previous status. Many immigrants have trouble coping with the fact that whatever they may have been back in the old country has often little or no bearing on what they are likely to do here in Israel.

Who doesn’t know at least one story of, say, a symphony orchestra musician from St. Petersburg who became a security guard in Beersheba, a high school principal in Cape Town who teaches English privately by the hour throughout the Sharon region, or a University of Chicago PhD in T’ang dynasty Chinese ceramic art now chronically unemployed in Tel Aviv.

Imagine, however, the dizzying descent from being the leader of thousands of men, women and children in Ethiopia to becoming a forgotten, isolated and almost totally idle immigrant, languishing at the end of a year in an absorption center in Ra’anana.

Imagine spending more than a decade being almost solely responsible for the lives of some 10,000 people, supervising a staff of over 150, keeping order, dealing with crises, settling disputes, working with aid organizations and the Ethiopian government, building and running a large elementary school, establishing programs in adult education and employment, building a synagogue and running Passover Seders for 6,000 people – and now waking up at the immigrant absorption center each morning wondering how to fill yet another empty day.

Imagine this precipitous fall from power to dependence, and from feelings of importance to irrelevance, and you have understood the life of Getu Zemene, 53, former leader, advocate and protector of thousands of Falash Mura in Ethiopia.

Although now a long-simmering political issue here in Israel, the very existence of these Falash Mura was largely unknown until Operation Solomon in 1991, when over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel in a dramatic 36-hour airplane rescue.

At that time, thousands of descendants of Jews who had converted to Christianity during the 19th century, known as Falash Mura, attempted to board the planes as well. They were prevented from joining the exodus because they were not considered Jews. It was later discovered that around 2,000 of these people had nonetheless succeeded in getting on the airplanes.

An activist aid organization, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) began providing assistance to the people left behind by Operation Solomon, first in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, and later in the provincial town of Gondar. From initially providing food and medical supplies, NACOEJ’s assistance soon expanded to include providing funds for housing the Falash Mura, providing them with instruction in Judaism, and aggressively advocating for their right to come to Israel under the Law of Return.

From Operation Solomon to the present day, the government’s attitude toward the Falash Mura has in turn hardened, softened, stagnated and now warmed to the point that some 200 are being allowed into Israel each month, for “family reunification” with people already here.

From 2000 to the end of 2010, Getu Zemene was the director of NACOEJ’s multiservice residential compound for Falash Mura in Gondar, and thus the leader of a community that at its peak numbered upwards of 10,000 people.

Zemene served the community in this role until the compound was taken over by the Jewish Agency, and he and his family were brought to Israel on January 1, 2011.

I met Zemene exactly one year later at the immigrant absorption center in Ra’anana, where he has spent the past 12 months with his wife, Zenashe, a teacher in Ethiopia and now a house cleaner here in Israel; his son Rubin, 21, a student in the Hebrew University’s preparatory program; and daughters Leah, 18, and Galilah, 13, both students at the Amit school in Ra’anana. We sit out in one of the center’s interior courtyards as this compact, soft-spoken man tells us how he came to be the leader of 10,000 people.

“I WAS born in Dembia, the district around Gondar city,” he says. “When I finished high school, I entered the veterinary course, and I became a veterinarian. After that, I also took a course for meat inspection. I became a meat inspector in Gondar city. After that, I heard that the Jewish people in and around Gondar were starting to be registered. I heard this news, and I went to the place where they were registering, and I was registered like the other people. Gradually, I started to be the leader of the community.”

Asked if he had been gifted with any sort of leadership or managerial skills, Zemene replies, “No. I was a technician. I was treating animals, and I was inspecting meat. But most of the people were not educated, so I began making suggestions to them – we should do this, we should do that.

Things like that. So the people said, if we could have someone like this to help us, that would be great. So they selected me first to be the secretary of the community, and after that I became the chairman of the community in the year 2000.

“At that time, NACOEJ’s office was in Addis Ababa. They were assisting the people in some ways – distributing food, things like that – but they were working with their own staff. As the leader of the community in Gondar, I had contact with them. But as far as the community was concerned, I was the one helping them at that time.

Then, from 2005 to 2010, for six years, I was again elected to be the chairman of the community. At that time, I was running the NACOEJ program, everything. As chairman of the community, I had authorization from the government that we could get money from abroad, from any organization. So I was running NACOEJ-funded activities as leader of the community. I was running everything.

In 2008, NACOEJ itself got permission from the government to work there as an NGO. I simply continued running the program as NACOEJ’s director. This was from 2008 to 2010.”

Throughout those 10 years, Zemene’s responsibilities were immense. So were his achievements. “I created a feeding center for children [up to age] six, as well as for nursing mothers and pregnant women.

This feeding program included managing all personnel as well as logistics such as purchasing and providing two meals a day, six days a week. And six weekday lunches for well over 1,000 children in the school lunch program. And monthly food distribution of flour to all community families.

“I was also ultimately responsible for building and running the elementary school for over 1,000 schoolchildren. I am proud to tell you that within its first year of operation the school was ranked second highest in curriculum and academic achievement among the 75 governmental, nongovernmental and private schools in Ethiopia.

In other schools, students might have computers in their homes, television in their homes, radio in their homes. Our students didn’t even have enough beds to sleep in, let alone computers and television. Even so, our school came second highest.”

Zemene’s activities also extended into the religious sphere. “Because religious and cultural matters were very important to the community, I organized a synagogue that could hold up to 7,000 people at one time. Included in this facility were a mikve [ritual bath] and Jewish adult education classes for the young people.

I was also able to establish and coordinate a matza-baking factory where we baked around 300,000 matzot for Passover each year, as a part of our communal Seder, with 6,000 people [participating] each night.

“I also created an employment program enabling hundreds of heads of households – men and women – to earn money making traditional handicrafts, including ironworking and weaving projects. We provided tools for people seeking outside labor. We had over 150 people to implement all of these programs. Sometimes it was very hard to manage all these programs, but thank God, I did it.”

Zemene was particularly focused on NACOEJ’s goal of bringing the community closer to halachic Jewish religious observance, keeping out wouldbe migrants to Israel with no demonstrable connection to Judaism, and protecting the people in Gondar from Christian missionary activity.

This sometimes made him a controversial figure and object of resentment, particularly among two rival aid agencies in the area – one catering to people who could not prove Jewish ancestry, and the other backed by a messianic evangelical organization called Jewish Voice Ministries International.

Zemene’s whirlwind life as a leader lasted until 2010, when the Jewish Agency took over the compound from NACOEJ, and from Zemene. The Jewish Agency began to administer all of the compound’s services and activities, and Zemene – who had been waiting years to be approved for immigration – was abruptly brought to Israel with his family and lodged in the Ra’anana absorption center. Not surprisingly, the change in his circumstances was emotionally cataclysmic.

“Since I was a leader of the community, I could understand what the new immigrant faces,” he says. “I knew before I got here that it would be difficult. Now, I have to get a job. I’ve been getting money from the government for one year. But starting today, I will not get anything from the government. I must also leave the absorption center.”

Zemene has sought employment for much of the past year, so far without success. While his children, he says, are now fluent in Hebrew, his facility in the language remains a work in progress.

“But I am proud of my Hebrew after 365 days here. I can understand. I can speak. It’s okay.”

And while he understands that adjustment and frustration are often the lot of the new immigrant in Israel,Zemene has had difficulty coping with feelings that he has been abandoned and forgotten. He says, “So far nobody from the government or NACOEJ hasrecognized my experience or contacted me. I am really sorry about that.

Because, you know, anyone who has done a job like this should not be forgotten, certainly not by NACOEJ or by anybody. I don’t have any connection even with NACOEJ now.”

Zemene’s feelings of abandonment have been exacerbated by isolation. Throughout the past year here, the Zemenes have been and remain the absorption center’s only Ethiopian family, in a city with very few Ethiopians in general. The kinds of support groups that other new immigrants have traditionally found among their countrymen or speakers of their language have simply not been readily available to this lone family from Gondar. Still, Zemene remains glad that he came here.

“Israel is the place for us,” he says repeatedly, with conviction. “I am hopeful.”

Others in Ra’anana are doing more than hope. Joy Rothenberg has made Zemene a cause célèbre. An international human rights lawyer who specializes in Holocaust litigation and “tracking down Nazi war criminals,” Rothenberg made aliya from Cincinnati and lives in Ra’anana with her husband and three children.

“I’m trying my best,” she says. “The first thing I’m doing is arranging for him to work as a speaker in various homes, in front of various groups. In this way, he gets greater exposure. Secondly, I and several others have been sponsoring him for a Dale Carnegie course, which helps him improve his self-confidence. He goes through intensive training to enable him to present his story better.

This helps people get a better understanding of him and some of the myriad problems associated with the Ethiopian Jewish absorption. I also had people working on making him a résumé, which I have passed around to everybody I know. Finally I also worked with some people to arrange having meals sent to his house once a week. Our next step is to help him find a suitable job, to get him back on his feet, and restore his dignity.”

Asked why she has become so deeply involved with Zemene, Rothenberg replies, “I have no professional or personal interest in this. I was just deeply moved by his situation. It’s just caring about another Jew.”

As for why she and her group are caring about this Jew in particular, when thousands of new immigrants go through similarly difficult times at the beginning of their lives in Israel, Rothenberg explains, “He’s clearly different from anybody else. I don’t think that anyone has ever fallen so far, so quickly. He was the leader of 10,000 people, and he comes here and nobody knows him. When you meet him and speak to him sometimes you get the sense that he is desperate.

Think what it must be like to be a black man walking around Ra’anana, humiliated that your wife – who used to be a teacher – is working six days a week cleaning houses. It hurts to see anybody in that state, especially a Jew that came to this country to be Jewish in a Jewish country. And I’m lucky enough to have a network of really great friends, right here in Ra’anana, who want to help me help him.”

Rothenberg invites anyone who wants more information about Zemene or has information about a possible job to contact her by e-mail at

Meanwhile, Zemene draws on his memories for strength, and satisfaction from his accomplishments. “For all those years, I had the historical opportunity to lead the community in fulfilling their dreams of reaching the Land of Israel,” he says as we prepare to leave. As we shake hands and part company, we ask him if he is doing anything interesting or special to pass the time, aside from looking for a job and a new place to live. Zemene smiles and says, “I have started to write a book.”