ETHIOPIA MISSION MARCH 2010
Sydney Palter's Blog-- It’s 9:00am Gondar time in Ethiopia, which is 8 hrs ahead of Toronto time. So I’ve been traveling for 25 hours straight now. My dad and I left Toronto at midnight Saturday night February 27, and landed in Tel Aviv at 7pm Israel time on Sunday. We met the rest of our group of 20 people from all over the United States and Israel at a restaurant in Tel Aviv where we had dinner, and then headed right back to the airport for a midnight flight to Addi
s Ababa, Ethiopia. We got there about 6am, and then had to walk about half a mile with our luggage from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, where we had to do security and check-in for the third time to get on a tiny propeller plane that was totally jammed. Gondar was the third stop for that plane, and it kept going to other small cities after that.
Our guide Gideon has just explained to us that the Gondar clock starts at 0000 hours at sunrise, 1200 hours is sunset, and it goes around to 2400/0000 hours again for sunrise. The calendar has thirteen months: 12 months with 30 days, and then a thirteenth month with five or six days. The first month of the year is September (like in Israel!). And their calendar is eight years different from ours. So to me it’s 9:00am on Monday, March 1, 2010, but the people here think i
t’s 0300 on February 22, 2002.
The first thing we did was a short walking tour of the spice market. There were tons of men and women sitting in front of piles of spices and chilis and peppers that they were selling. Gideon bet us that we couldn’t go 60 seconds without coughing, and no one could – the smell was so strong and it was not just in your nose but your throat too.
Then we went to the NACOEJ (North American Conference of Ethiopian Jewry) compound, which isn’t used as much now as it was up until June 2008 when the last big wave of Ethiopians made aliyah. The compound is where a lot of the processing of the Falush Mura takes place, but it is also used as a synagogue and Hebrew school. It is a giant area with a dirt floor, no walls, and plastic roof. There are many wooden benches, which were all wet because the roof leaked. At the front was a cutout in the wall where two torahs went, with some other Jewish books on a falling down bookshelf right beside it. They told us that yesterday over 4,000 Ethiopians packed into this synagogue for Purim. Anyway, sitting there on the wet benches none of us could imagine how 4,000 people could pack into that space. Along the edge of the covered area, which used to be where they raised chickens, were six areas that served as the classrooms.
What’s really weird about that is that none of those 4,000 Ethiopians who packed in for Purim were actually Jewish! They were what is called Falush Mura. Their ancestors from seven generations ago (they told us in the late 1900’s) were Jewish, but then they got a lot of pressure to convert to Christianity, so they did. Because a lot of Falush Mura were allowed into Israel between 1991 (after all the Jewish Ethiopians were rescued) and 2008, they said that 70% of these Ethiopians have a brother, sister. father, mother or child who have made aliyah, so their families are now split. They also said that EVERY single Ethiopian Falush Mura immigrant to Israel has a brother, sister, mother, father or child left behind in Ethiopia. Anyway, the reason so many of these non-Jewish Ethiopians came to the synagogue for Purim is that some of them are really trying to learn about Judaism and convert back. But the others believe that if they do Jewish things it will give them a better chance of getting selected to go to Israel.
There is a list of 8,700 Ethiopians who can trace their Jewish relative
s back to seven generations ago when the forced conversions happened. So in January of this year they started bringing more of the Falush Mura to Israel. Two planeloads went in January, one in February, and my dad and I had come with a group of 20 other people from the U.S. and Israel, we were the only Canadians, to accompany another 126 people to Israel in two days.
Our next stop was the centre where they check people’s stories to see who can get approved for aliyah. They do a big background check that you really do have Jewish ancestors, and that you have family in Israel that has requested you to come. We asked the Ethiopians at the centre why they wanted to make aliyah, and they said that they wanted to return to the homeland of their people, and that they missed their family and wanted to join them in Israel. Our guide told us that another reason is that life is really bad and hard in Ethiopia, especially for the Falush Mura who even though they are Christian are discriminated against because they used to be Jewish. And they know from their family in Israel that there is much more opportunity for them there.
Then we visited the home of some of these people. A family of seven lived in a house made of mud and sticks, with a dirt floor, that was about the size of my bedroom. Their kitchen was just a fire in the middle of the floor. There were two beds for seven people. When they lived in a village in the countryside the dad was a farmer, but everyone has to come to Gondar if they want to go to Israel. And it is hard for him to find work in Gondar, where they had been waiting over six years to get approved to go to Israel. After that we went to the medical clinic partly supported by UJA Federation where these people can go for free medical care. Also where they have to go for a medical check-up and some vaccinations before they are sent to Israel.
Next we got into Jeeps and drove on dirt paths for almost two hours to the village of Ambober. Many Ethiopian Jews used to live in this village before they all made aliyah, and amazingly one of our guides from Israel, Leah, was born there. Her family hiked to Sudan as part of a big group in the 1980’s and then got transported to Israel when she was only three years old. Now she works helping Ethiopian immigrants fit into Israeli society. She speaks Amharic, the language they speak in Ethiopia, a
nd Hebrew, and really good English that she learned at the University of Western Ontario. That’s a long story.
We visited the mud hut synagogue that is still there, even though it isn’t used anymore because all the Jews in Ambober have now made aliyah. And right across the street from the synagogue is a huge school that we visited, which used to be a Jewish day school for over 1,000 Jewish kids. They don’t have paper and pens for all the kids, so they painted a lot of lessons permanently on the outside of the buildings. Like maps, the parts of the body, the periodic table of elements, and many other things. I have full braces on my upper and lower teeth, and all the kids in the school were amazed by that and couldn’t figure out what the shiny stuff in my mouth was about. They kids who did speak a little English were asking me questions to try to figure out what they were. In the end Leah translated that they were made of metal and made my teeth straight. We visited this school for almost an hour, and learned a bit about their way of life.
We got to the hotel at 5 o’clock, which is 1100hrs in Ethiopia time. When Dad and I got to our room the first thing we did was fully remake our beds with our own sheets and blankets that we brought, starting with a plastic sheet to cover the bed, so we wouldn’t be eaten alive by the bed bugs. After that dad decided to go for a crazy run which consisted of him h
eading out going straight down the mountain we were on the top of, and coming back straight up. Everyone thought he was insane (which my family already knows he is) because the hotel was at 7,500’. While he was gone I decided to shower. I got out my toiletry kit then turned on the water and stepped in. Then came the shriek. They had no hot water. At all. After two overnight flights followed by a very long day of site seeing, walking through mud, sand and dirt, there was NO hot water. Being as dirty as I was, showering was not optional, so I got back in and then out. Then in. Then out. And proceeded that way until I was clean. It took a LONG time to shower. We had a traditional African dinner; in case you’re wondering the food’s not that good. Then we were entertained by a man playing a one string thingy with a bow that made a screeching sound, with a woman singing along that sounded more like shrieking. Since Dad and I hadn’t been in a bed for something like fifty hours, we escaped after five minutes and
crashed so hard into our bug-proof beds.
Tuesday we drove for almost five hours on a rough, bumpy, dirt road. It seemed like it was a road for animals, not cars and for sure not buses. Some of the bridges were so narrow we all held our breath as we went across. Our first stop after just a few minutes was in a place called Woloka. We got out of the bus, walked across a small field and an empty river, and on the other side was a Jewish cemetery. It was for a lot of the Jews who died marching from the villages we were heading to today to Gondar. Many more Jews died walking from Gondar to the Sudan where the planes would take them to Israel. Some of the graves were really big with Amharic carved sayings about the person’s life carved into the stone on top, but others were just marked by a pile of rocks with a tree at the head. We said kaddish there for all of the Ethiopian Jews who died on their way to being rescued, and especially for Leah’s younger brother who died on the march to Sudan.
We made a few stops in some of the villages along the way. We were driving up into the Simien mountains, which are very high, over 10,000’. A lot of Jewish Ethiopians used to live in the small villages in these mountains, until they were forced to convert a few hundred years ago. As we got further from Gondar, the villages got smaller and smaller, and had less and less in them. The people we saw in Ethiopia seemed even poorer than the people I saw in Tanzania when I was there with my whole family a year
ago. All the homes were made of sticks covered in mud, with straw for the roof. Dad noticed that there were no brick houses at all, which we saw people saving up to build in Tanzania. No one had electricity or water. All the cooking was done on an open fire, either in the middle of the house, or sometimes in front. Dad also noticed that In Tanzania we saw a lot of people with bicycles, and a few with motorcycles, and some cars. In Ethiopia we saw no cars, no motorcycles, and hardly any bicycles. The only way for people to get around was walking, or if you were rich and had a donkey or a horse on it. The average family in Ethiopia spends about $100 per year, and dad says he thinks they said in Tanzania it was over $1,000 per year.
We finally got to the Simien Lodge where we were staying for one night. It is the highest hotel/lodge in Africa at 10,700’ high. We went for a four hour hike in the afternoon in the Simien National Park, which is amazing. The mountains are so high, with so many cliffs with almost a 4,000’ sheer drop. I’m afraid of heights, and dad kept wanting to have pictures taken of the two of us at the edge of every cliff, which was freaking me out.
Then we came across a troop of about 100 baboons. Or it seemed more like they came across us. Because so few people ever go where we were - probably because no one can take the five hour bumpy ride on the dirt road – the baboons were totally comfortable with the 20 of us. They would come within maybe one to two metres of us. We watched them feed, and play, and do some other stuff I probably shouldn’t write about, for almost an hour. Then we had to hike back to the lodge, only to realize we had walked downhill the whole way out, so had to climb up the whole way back. I have asthma, and fortunately I brought my puffer, because I needed it the air was so thin. Of course my maniac father had to go for another run after we got back. The people who didn’t think he was insane after his run at 7,500’ the day before were fully convinced today. We had another traditional African meal, even worse than the one last night. The heat and light came from a big fire place in the middle of the room, which made us all stink of smoke. Because there was no electricity at this lodge, we had to entertain ourselves by telling stories and jokes. Then we looked at the really bright stars. By 9pm everyone had gone to their huts to sleep in their bug-proofed beds. At this place you could actually see the bugs crawling on the bed. The good news is that each hut had a solar hot water heater, so we had a blazing hot shower. I’m pretty sure I used all their hot water considering I hadn’t had a hot shower in 3 days. Best shower of my life.
Our wake-up knock on Wednesday was at 4:30am, and our bus started back down the bum
py dirt path before 6am. Downhill and without stops it only took us a little over three hours to get back to Gondar. We visited the only remaining Christian church of the 45 churches that existed before the Sudanese invaded about 300 years ago. We learned some very interesting things about Christianity in Ethiopia, which has a lot of Jewish influences. All of the images in the Church of Christian figures were painted as Africans! Jesus and his disciples and the Virgin Mary and the angels and the devil all had dark skin and curly hair! Of course when you think about it that makes perfect sense, because most of the Africans had never seen a white person 300 years ago. But some other interesting things are that Ethiopian christians all get circumcised, they celebrate a Sabbath like our Shabbat, and they believe in the Old Testament equally with the New Testament, unlike most Christians who believe in the New Testament more. The reason there is so much Jewish stuff in Ethiopian Christianity is because apparently Jews have been living in Ethiopia since before the beginning of Christianity, and they used to be very powerful.
The next place we visited was the castle in Gondar, which used to be the capital of Ethiopia. In the castle we saw lots of magen davids, because the King who built the castle was Jewish, and liked to tell everyone he was directly descended from King Solomon. One of the theories about how Jews ended up in Ethiopia is that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a son who ended up being the ruler of Assyria, which is what Ethiopia used to be called. It also used to be called Cush, which is also referred to in the bible as one of the places Jews went to after the destruction of the First Temple. We learned that Ethiopians believe they are descended from t
he Queen of Sheba, and have very good feelings towards Jews and Israel because of King Solomon.
We had some time to walk around downtown Gondar before going to the airport. There really isn’t much to say, because there really wasn’t much there. Although they were having auditions for “Ethiopian Idol” – I wish we’d gone in to see that, but we didn’t have time.
Then we flew from Gondar back to Addis Ababa, and went to the Israeli Embassy. It had huge gardens with all kinds of beautiful trees and flowers. It also had all kinds of classrooms where the Ethiopians get taught all of the things they need to know about moving from a mud hut with a fire for cooking and no water and no electricity to Israel. They have to learn how a gas stove works. And that they must NOT put it out by throwing a bucket of water on it. And what a fridge is for. And how to use diapers on their babies and not just let them poo everywhere. And that they have to watch out for their kids, and not just let them go running around the city like they let them run around the countryside. And so many other things you and I would never think you had to teach someone. After visiting many of the classrooms, we met with the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia. He said that Israel has really good relations with Ethiopia, different from every other country in Africa. Israeli’s help the Ethiopians with a lot of things, especially farming in the desert. After the embassy we drove up the road in front of the embassy to where all the Jews waiting to make aliyah tonight have been living for about two weeks since they were driven in a bus down from Gondar. The bus ride takes two whole days. The 126 people we were going to be flying to Israel with tonight were crammed into only 5 small hous
es. We didn’t get to go in, but we gave them regular clothes to wear to Israel, and also suitcases to pack their stuff in.
Afterwards Dad and I had to go to the Canadian Consulate, because he realized that our passports fell out of his backpack in Gondar. I won’t bore you with the long story about our passports, but the bad part of it is that we couldn’t fly on the plane to Israel with the Ethiopians. After dinner we went back to the Israeli embassy where they were all gathered to say goodbye to all the friends and family they were leaving behind. And we went with them to the airport and saw them leave with the rest of our group. But dad and I ended up flying to Istanbul, Turkey, and then to Tel Aviv. Dad and I were both really sad that we couldn’t be with the Ethiopians when they landed in Israel. Our friends who flew with them said that not one Ethiopian said a single word the entire time, but that no one seemed scared at all even though it was their first time on a plane. They said the best part about the flight was when the new immigrants saw their families who were waiting f
or them at the airport when they came out. Many of them hadn’t seen their family in over 10 years, and they don’t have any phones to even talk.
Our flight from Addis Ababa to Istanbul was delayed an hour, so when we landed in Istanbul we had to RACE full speed through the airport to try to make our flight to Israel. We were both so worried we were going to miss the flight, and were so happy when we made it we didn’t even care that we knew there was no way our luggage would make it. We got off the plane from Addis at 7:25am and made the 7:40am flight to Tel Aviv, including running almost a mile through the airport! I’ve never run faster in my life.
As soon as we got to Israel we hooked right back up with our group who were on their way to meet back up with the olim at the Kiryat Gam absorption center, where they will live for the first year or two and get more help learning to live in Israel. Our first stop was on a very small farm a few minutes from the absorption centre. On this farm some of the older Ethiopian men who have been in Israel for many years have their own small piece of land that they farm on. The reason is that the Ethiopian men have the hardest time adjusting to living in Israel. In Ethiopia they are the boss of the house and make the money by farming. But in Israel it is really hard for them to get a job. Usually the mother can find some kind of work so she makes the money. And the kids go to school and learn to speak Hebrew well and then go to the army and can get a job. So it is really hard for the dads. So that is why they started this program where they first get given a small piece of land to farm. After a while they have to pay a small amount for the watering system and the seeds. We had a picnic lunch with about 10 of the farmers. And we went around the table with everyone explaining how they got their name. One of the Ethiopian’s new Hebrew name was Moshe, because he was the Ethiopian organizer of Operation Moses.
After lunch we went to the absorption centre where five of the families that just came from Ethiopia were living. They try to put the new immigrants very near where their family that are already in Israel are living. So there were so many people coming over to visit the olim. All the Ethiopians who had been in Israel for a while wanted to hear about how their friends and family still back in Ethiopia were doing, because remember they don’t have phones to talk to them. We saw the very small one room apartments they get given. We visited some of the classes where they continue to teach them how to live in the modern world. And the classrooms where they were teaching the kids. They try to send the kids to regular school right away, and give them special help to catch them up. They said they can catch the littl
e kids up in six months, and the kids in grade 3 and up in a year. One class we visited was for the group of olim who came two weeks ago. These little kids were already counting to ten in Hebrew.
Before dinner we played soccer with the kids. Their soccer field was really the paved parking lot behind the absorption area. Of course there are no cars in the parking lot because no one can afford them. But the lot is tilted like a ski hill. Fortunately we got the uphill side! We had dinner at the absorption center. It was a gourmet dinner cooked by Ethiopian chefs, who had gone through a special training program so they could get jobs. Dad actually knew the woman who donated the money for the chef training program because she had done a philanthropy training program with him (Gil: Melissa Goldrich, who did the Max Fisher Flight Program with Elisa and me).
It was sad saying goodbye to the Ethiopians we had just spent such an emotional 24 hours with. And to the other people we had been traveling with. There was one other girl on the trip, Izzy, from Denver, who was 14, and we got along great and I hope to visit her in Denver some day, hopefully on a ski trip to Vail (dad this is for you). Although I must admit that after six days away with only two nights in a bed and one hot shower I am really looking forward to getting home to my own bug-free bed and shower.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t really want to go on this trip. I didn’t know what is was but my dad said one of us had to go and because both my siblings are in high school couldn’t go, it was left to me. The whole time before the trip, until basically the first day when I yelled at him so he would listen and finally explain, I didn’t know what is was which I why I didn’t really want to go. When I asked my family and told some of my friends they all told me it would be amazing and talked me into it. Now I am really, really glad I did go though. I learned so much. Even though I saw it with my own eyes I still can’t even imagine what it would be like to move from a mud hut in a small village to a small room in Gondar to sit around and wait for years to get approved to come to Israel. And then to come to a country where I don’t speak the language, or even know how to get water (because they are used to carrying water from a well or stream, not turning on a tap).
It was amazing to see how completely happy all the Ethiopians we met were. Even the people living in the villages in the countryside with nothing but their hut and some clothes and the food from their farm seemed totally happy. I guess if you don’t know about iPods and blackberries and computers and the internet you don’t know what you’re missing so you
don’t feel bad about it. I actually thought about how complicated it would be to explain to the Ethiopian kids what facebook is. First I would have to explain electricity, then computers, then the internet, and then facebook.
And I know that the lesson for me is that I don’t really need all that stuff to be happy, even though I think I do. I hope I can remember that lesson as I grow up. The last thing is I really want to thank my dad for giving me this amazing experience.
Dad's Addendum--I could not be prouder of Syd (age 12), for her insights into Ethiopia, for how she conducted herself on the trip, and most importantly for the wonderful young Jewish woman she has become. For full disclosure, she wrote about half of this blog (with some limited editing by me), and the other half are her thoughts and comments written down by me. I’m not sure whether I hope you can tell which is which or not?!
There is not a lot to add about the substance of our experience – Syd covered that pretty thoroughly. However I do want to comment on the
challenging situation related to Ethiopian immigration to Israel. Essentially all of the Jewish Ethiopians (the Falashas) were brought to Israel well before the year 2000. Many Falush Mura were also brought to Israel in the 1990’s and 2000’s. And this has resulted in the splitting apart of nuclear families. As Syd noted, essentially 100% of the Falush Mura in Israel have immediate family back in Ethiopia, who desperately want to be reunited in Israel. And reunifying brothers and sisters and parents and children is the “right” thing to do.
But it is not simple. It requires a lot of work to prepare Ethiopians for the dramatic transition to the modern world, and even more effort and money to support them in Israel. And the Falush Mura are not Jewish and hence automatically entitled to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Although they do have Jewish ancestors, and most of them do convert and become observant Jews. But the challenges of integrating Ethiopians into Israeli society are substantial, and to date success has not consistently been achieved, with negative ramifications both for the Ethiopians, and Israeli society. Nonetheless, the true and pure humanitarianism demonstrated by everyone involved in this initiative, especially including the State of Israel and the North American Jewish Community which has funded this work makes me proud to be a Jew.
I don’t know if it’s ‘proper’ to have a favourite verse from the Bible, but mine is Deuteronomy 4:5, where Moses says to the children of Israel regarding the system of laws and rules and faith that G-d has given them: “Observe them faithfully for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other people
s who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’” The collective contributions, efforts, and sacrifices of the global Jewish community, and especially Israel, to reunite these Ethiopians with their families and give them and their children the chance for a better future, sets a tremendous humanitarian example to the world, and makes me proud to be a Jew. It is a true example of “doing the right thing.”
Finally, while this was a physically challenging trip, largely because we had only two nights in a bed (and I use the term loosely) over the course of six days and nights of travel, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Ethiopia I highly recommend it. It is a wonderful country. The people are extremely warm, welcoming, and happy. I have had the good fortune to travel throughout much of Asia, as well as India and other parts of Africa. Ethiopia is unlike any of them: it is a dramatically poorer country, but we never experienced the begging and “hasslin
g” I have experienced elsewhere. It is unique and beautiful and interesting. Words really can’t do it full justice. Just go – you’ll see. Although be forewarned – if you’re an email/internet addict like me, you will have to learn to quit cold turkey: most places we didn’t even have cell service, never mind internet.