Here and there: Our past is our future – discovering roots

Seeing a four-year-old taking care of his two-year-old brother and witnessing a six-year-old looking after the family’s sheep took some time to absorb.

PARTICIPANTS in the 2016 ‘Journey to Identity’ program cover some of the same ground in Ethiopia where their parents began their long and dangerous walk to Sudan. (photo credit: AVI TALALA)
PARTICIPANTS in the 2016 ‘Journey to Identity’ program cover some of the same ground in Ethiopia where their parents began their long and dangerous walk to Sudan.
(photo credit: AVI TALALA)

Having spent my professional life in the United Kingdom as a relationship and educational counselor, the significance that roots play on one’s being has been indelibly endorsed. It came as no surprise to find that the Israeli school curriculum encourages pupils to seek out their roots by speaking with their grandparents.

My husband was of particular interest to our grandchildren. His was a childhood severely marred by the Germans – thrown out of school simply because he was a Jew and finally being miraculously fortunate in exiting Germany just six months before the start of World War II.

Germany, home to his father’s family since the 17th century, was home no longer. Arriving in the UK, unable to speak the language and parted from his parents to live with a non-Jewish farming family in Devon, proved to be a shock.

For many immigrants who arrived in Israel since its rebirth in 1948, life has proved challenging. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, endeavored to remodel the Diaspora Jew into an Israeli, believing that eliminating the traditions of the newcomer would contribute toward his or her integration into society.

Between June 1949 and September 1950, some 49,000 olim arrived from Yemen via what became known as Operation Magic Carpet. The message to the newly arrived immigrant was speak Hebrew; become an Israeli by offloading your customs.

Sadly, the end result proved to be a grave mistake. A loss of pride in one’s heritage contributes toward a loss of self-worth and a distancing between parent and child.

Have we learned from our mistakes? The answer is a resounding no, especially when we look at Ethiopian Israelis, whose suicide rate is four times the rate of native-born Israelis, according to a recent Health Ministry report.

Since the first Ethiopian aliya in 1984, successive governments have sought ways to improve the integration of these olim, but with little success. Fortunately, there are others whose creative concepts bode well for the future.

Two weeks ago I visited the community center in Netanya’s Heftziba neighborhood, whose residents are nearly 100% Ethiopian Israelis. Avi Talala has headed the center for 10 years, overseeing both the social and learning opportunities afforded the local youngsters and their parents.

I sat with him and Nina Zuck, head of projects for ESRA, a volunteer-based NGO working in partnership with the center. How uplifting it was to learn of an enterprise, about to enter its second year, named “Masa – Journey to Identity.”

Last December, 15 youngsters between 15 to 16 years old experienced an eightday roots tour of northern Ethiopia funded by the center, the NGO, and the participants themselves, who worked during the summer vacation to raise their contribution toward the journey.

Talala explained that prior to visiting Ethiopia, participants take an 18-month preparatory course consisting of leadership training, appreciation of heritage and Zionism. Participants have to commit one day a week to the program, which includes meeting with youth groups from Tel Aviv and Beit She’an. Bringing these diverse youngsters together proved most successful, as it encouraged participants to talk about themselves, creating a sense of pride in their identity.

Two major happenings are part of the course. The first is a seminar hosted by the program’s participants, where Ethiopian-Israeli youth come to listen to their hosts speak about their roots and share expectations of their forthcoming sojourn in Ethiopia.

The second event is a three-day “survival camp,” where participants sleep in tents before rising early to climb Masada. Here a link is drawn between the last stand of the Jewish zealots against the Roman army in 73 CE and the plight of Jews in Ethiopia, where, according to Ethiopian tradition, one half of the population was Jewish before Christianity was proclaimed the official religion in the fourth century.

The Jews maintained their independence for more than 1,000 years despite massacres, religious persecution and forced conversions. Last year’s youngsters equated the Masada experience with their parents’ grueling trek from Ethiopia to Sudan, from where they were airlifted to Israel. While their parents survived the trek too many others literally fell by the wayside.

Talala, who led the mission to Ethiopia, noted how traumatic the first three days were for the young participants. It was difficult for them, coming from hi-tech Israel, to witness how the men were tilling the soil with primitive tools. Could this be the way their fathers worked in Ethiopia?

Seeing a four-year-old taking care of his two-year-old brother and witnessing a six-year-old looking after the family’s sheep took some time to absorb. Perhaps the most moving moment was when the participants saw the place from where their parents began their long, arduous and dangerous walk to Sudan. This was the moment when they proudly displayed the Israeli flag and sang “Hatikva.”

Avi introduced me to Yehuda, 18, who is about to enter the Israel Air Force. Yehuda had been a participant in the 2016 Journey to Identity and shared the deeply moving experience of meeting his Ethiopian-based half-brother and half-sister for the first time.

I asked Yehuda what were the overriding feelings with which he returned home. His response: “The trip opened doors for me – I now know who and what I am – I feel proud and can fully appreciate the life here as against what my parents had to contend with in Ethiopia.”

Adi, 16, is the eldest of four sisters and will be participating in the forthcoming 2017 Journey to Identity. I wondered whether her self-assurance was a result of her leadership course or whether this was inbred – perhaps a bit of both.

When I asked why she wanted to visit Ethiopia, she replied, “I want to identify with and be part of my parent’s childhood and their history. My parents don’t have time to share their past. My father came here with his mother in 1984 via Operation Moses. He was 14 years old. My mother came with Operation Solomon in 1991. She was just 15. I was born here, but want to discover my roots.”

This young woman will return to Israel not only imbued with the significance of discovering her roots, but with the ability to pass on her meaningful experience to others.

Yehuda and Adi are two very different personalities, but share a strong desire in understanding their roots and taking pride in their identities, especially being Israeli. Their newfound discovery of their past will create a better future, not only for them as individuals, but for our beloved State of Israel.  

The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.