Rediscovering values in the village

Together with others from the Ethiopian community, Geula Hadary brings alive the story of the trek to Israel – with the risks of hunger, disease and bandits.

‘Gojo’ huts and plots of land, part of the Atachlit initiative for farmers from the Ethiopian community. (photo credit: BATSHEVA POMERANTZ)
‘Gojo’ huts and plots of land, part of the Atachlit initiative for farmers from the Ethiopian community.
(photo credit: BATSHEVA POMERANTZ)
‘The village where I lived in Ethiopia was pastoral and beautiful, with springs and waterfalls,’ recalls Geula Hadary, who left her village as a six-year-old in 1980. “I had a pleasant childhood. It was disrupted without much preparation when my parents and their children left on the long journey by foot to Sudan – over 1,000 kilometers, with the purpose of going to Israel.
“We were aware of my parents’ intentions to go to Israel, but the timing was kept secret from us, so that the non-Jewish neighbors wouldn’t find out. The Ethiopian government didn’t allow Jews to leave. I recall the strenuous trek as being hour-to-hour survival, not knowing what awaited us. The unwavering faith in God is what kept us going.”
Arriving in Israel in 1982, Hadary’s family lived in Atlit, and moved to Kiryat Gat in 1987. With a professional background in informal education, including programs to empower women, Hadary, mother of three sons, is today the director of tourism at the Beta Israel Village on the outskirts of Kiryat Gat. Together with others from the Ethiopian community, she brings alive the story of the trek to Israel – with the risks of hunger, disease and bandits.
The Beta Israel Village was founded in 2009 by the Hineni nonprofit. The village’s name is based on the traditional term for Ethiopian Jews. With authentic gojo huts, made of mud, the village recently dedicated a visitors center, a hothouse for the herbs used in chou (a spice made up of 14 plants), and a center for producing chou, directed by Hadary.
The approaching Sigd holiday, on 29 Heshvan, will be celebrated in Beta Israel on Thursday, November 16, with members of the community from throughout Israel, spiritual leaders (kessim), and public figures speaking about the day’s significance for the Ethiopian community and also for the Jewish people at large. There will be an artistic program.
In 2008, the Knesset legislated the Sigd Law, declaring 29 Heshvan as a national holiday. Sigd comes 50 days after Yom Kippur, paralleling Shavuot, celebrated 50 days after Passover. Sigd is derived from the Hebrew root sgida, meaning prostration or worship. In Israel, thousands of the Ethiopian community go to Jerusalem, where a central celebration takes place at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade.
Some of them go to the Western Wall.
“In Ethiopia, Jews would gather together on Sigd and climb a high mountain,” relates Hadary. “It is a fast day, with yearning and prayers for Jerusalem. At the end of the day, people would descend the mountain to a festive meal. Today, when explaining Sigd, also to children of Ethiopian descent, I focus on its significance, which includes the importance of prayer, the involvement of the community, and the respect accorded the elderly.”
One of the main purposes of Hineni is to restore the pride of the elders of the Ethiopian immigrants.
“The role of the elders was very significant in Ethiopia,” explains Hadary. “After over 2,000 years of yearning to come to Jerusalem, it was the elders who initiated and planned the long treks to Sudan. But upon arrival in Israel, they were like infants learning everything anew – language, culture and the values of Western society.
Their five-year-old children became their instructors.”
Rabbi Moshe Solomon, founder and director of Hineni, came to Israel at the age of eight, during Operation Moses, after the long trek to Sudan. An officer in the Paratroop Brigade, he is a graduate of the Or Etzion hesder yeshiva, a father of six, and a resident of Kiryat Gat.
Aware of the progress of younger members of the Ethiopian community, he realized that the elders remained behind, with serious consequences. Hineni [“Here I am”] was founded in 1998. In 2005, the first of its communities was founded in Kiryat Gat. Solomon moved from Gush Etzion to Kiryat Gat, setting an example for others to return to neighborhoods where Ethiopian Jews reside to help them restore their pride and connection to their tradition.
Other young families of Ethiopian descent joined him in Kiryat Gat’s gar’in, a mission-driven community. Today, Hineni has gar’inim in Netivot, Ofakim, Ashkelon, Sderot, Kiryat Malachi and Ramle. These communities inspire other members of Ethiopian descent to strengthen their sense of community, which had been strong during the long years of exile.
Together with their children, they volunteer in the neighborhoods, and are a model of communal life.
The village’s start-up social project Atachlit (“agriculture” in Amharic) started in 2009.
“Many elderly people in Kiryat Gat sat at home, leading to frustration and illness,” says Hadary. “In urbanized Israel, they lost their connection to the land. Atachlit connects them to the land. They have a place to go a few days a week to work their plots of land, combining traditional agriculture with modern technology like sprinklers. Their children notice the change, as their parents regain their authority and confidence.”
The farmers give the produce to neighbors or sell it in the community.
About 60 men and women, including some married couples, farm Atachlit’s plots. The crops include pepper, carrots, squash, onions, garlic, corn, coriander and parsley. Some of Atachlit’s farmers relate their exodus story to visitors, or present workshops to groups.
“Beyond the experience of learning about Ethiopian culture, visitors learn through the workshops about the community’s central values,” says Solomon. “These include respect for the elders, hospitality, the centrality of the family, Zionism and Jewish identity. Israeli society can be enriched by the values that the Ethiopian Jews brought with them from Ethiopia, and not only view this as an encounter with folklore.”
The Beta Israel Village also fosters a feeling of solidarity between Israelis and the Ethiopian community. The visitors center has displays of artifacts, as well as videos about Ethiopian culture. Israelis can experience authentic rural Ethiopian lifestyle at Beta Israel.
“In addition to [hearing] stories, visitors have hands-on experience,” says Hadary. “People have heard of the injera flatbread, but here they get to see the variety of the Ethiopian dishes. For example, they learn about the teff, a grain hailing from Ethiopia, which is considered a superfood. It is used at the Wingate Institute for training athletes.”
Among the workshops are construction with mud, which is the most common building method in Ethiopia. It was preferred by the Jews there, since they realized it was temporary – as they dreamed of fulfilling their dreams of Zion.
Participants in the Amharic writing workshop are exposed to its alphabet, and create a door sign. “People think of Amharic as one language, while there are 72 dialects!” says Hadary.
Other workshops include clay pottery for producing household vessels, pita-making on fire created without matches, experiential agriculture, the Ethiopian kitchen with its special ingredients. For older students, there are workshops on identity dilemmas and integrating in Israeli society, and on commitment to the community and the army.
Visitors to the site include Israelis as well as those of Ethiopian descent. The range includes school-age children, youth, pre-army or pre-National Service students who want to strengthen their identity, Birthright groups and pensioners.
The staff speak Hebrew, Amharic, Tigrit and English.
There is a growing trend for those of Ethiopian descent to go on roots trips to Ethiopia, especially those in the 40-something age group, who left as children. Hadary is looking forward to such a trip. In preparation for the trip, they visit Beta Israel.
“Visitors to Beta Israel, whether of Ethiopian descent or Israelis, all get a sense of the interesting lifestyle that was left behind,” concludes Hadary.
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