The human spirit: Eye-opening journey to Ethiopia

A SIGN for a Jewish village in Ethiopia (photo credit: REUTERS)
A SIGN for a Jewish village in Ethiopia
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 ‘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.”
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.