The light of the cloudy day does not penetrate through the mud and straw walls of the one-room home in Gondar, Ethiopia, that 17 year old Melkamu shared with his grandmother, until she was taken away from him earlier last month, in order to fulfill a lifelong dream to immigrate to Israel. From the age of six months, this woman had been the only caregiver he had ever known. Melkamu is one of the approximately 7,500 Ethiopian Jews waiting to join their families in Israel.
As Ruth Gruber, the journalist on the 1947 ship Exodus and author of the book “Witness” has said: “Of all the countries in the world, Israel is the only one that sent white men and women into Africa to bring out black men, women and children – not to sell them, but to rescue them.” Yet as I write today, the Ethiopian immigration that has yielded youngsters now grown up with the support of Israel to be doctors, lawyers, and members of the Israeli Knesset, has stalled. And Melkamu along with other potential immigrants – perhaps two thirds of them under the age of 18 – are, at this moment, caught out in the cold.
Melkamu’s four friends sit with him in the darkened room arrayed across the thin mattress where the young man sleeps. He blows on the coals of a tiny tin stove that sits on the dirt floor of his room. He is making us Buna, the dark Ethiopian coffee. Because that is what you do, even when the grief in your heart is so strong, you cannot look up at your guests because the tears would flow.
I am here today as a visitor joined by two Israeli volunteers completing their two month assignment supporting Melkamu and a group of young Jewish leaders who teach Jewish bible studies to younger children. They along with Melkamu were shocked when the promise of Melkamu’s Aliya to Israel was suddenly withdrawn without explanation. Last month, only 15 Ethiopian Jews arrived at Ben Gurion airport. Other flights have yet to be scheduled. So, the shock and pain, as families await word, is very strong.
At Hatikva Synagogue, the corrugated steel-walled compound painted in the blue and white of Israel, I watch a young girl and boy, no more than seven or eight years old, their eyes alight, expound on the weekly Torah portion in both Hebrew and Amharic. I feel awe as I hear the punch of their words, accompanied by a deft flick of the hand and a fierce glint in the eye as they tell of the intended curse of the Jews by the sorcerer Balaam, turn into a blessing. Am I in an orthodox study hall in Jerusalem or a prayer “shtiebel” in Crown Heights Brooklyn? These are different faces, darker than those I would see there, yet the flow of Torah learning is the same, maybe even a touch stronger because the longing for Zion, just a four hour flight away, is very strong when you and your family have waited years to get there. You cannot just buy an economy class ticket on your own, like I can do, even though I was raised completely non-observant and had my own Bar Mitzvah, reading from the Torah, just two years ago. My eyes drop down to the dirt floor of this house of prayer, in shame. As I have heard my Ethiopian Jewish friends say so often, they are Jews, even though their skin is not white.
On my last night in Gondar, there is shooting in the streets. A close soccer match between Amhara and Tigray Ethiopian teams had sparked this and I stay close to my hotel, as advised by the man at the desk. I think of the few sparsely equipped guards who stand holding a few aging guns outside the Jewish Synagogue compound. They’d be no match for any serious attack and Jews have gotten caught in the crossfire before in conflicts they had no part in.
So I catch my plane, a sparkling white Ethiopian Airlines Airbus to Tel Aviv, landing at 4 am with tears of gratitude for the mission that has brought me to two countries in 10 days with the goal to visit young people from both places and explore what will have them thriving to contribute as citizens of the land which spawned our common faith.
I board a bus into the heat of northern Israel to visit Melkamu’s grandmother at the Beit Alfa Absorption Center where new Ethiopian Immigrants are housed as they adjust from the impoverishment of Ethiopia to the new land that will be their permanent home. The Absorption Center is stark and basic, sand-colored houses of two or three rooms that remind me of public housing in the United States. Yet despite its appearance, this place is staffed by onsite social workers, teachers and volunteers. You can almost taste the hope in the air.
My Israeli volunteer friends have asked me to look up a friend of Melkamu from Gondar who made the cut and is now in Beit Alfa. He smiles as he hears the names of his friends whom I have just seen in Gondar. And he leads me across the dry scrub to the new home of Melkamu’s grandmother.
As we approach, I recognize her from the photo Melkamu has sent me. She was beaming, standing next to him in that picture. Today, she sits on a thin ledge of concrete beside her front door. She has heard I was coming. She begins to wail. Melkamu’s friend reaches out his hands and places them on her shoulders, saying, “Mother, mother, do not cry.” I motion to him that this is what she needs. She places a white cloth over her head, like a cloth of mourning, I think. She reaches out to me and we sit together on the ledge.
Inside the house, Melkamu’s friend shows me the new refrigerator, the beds with fresh linen, the injera maker that can be plugged into the wall. But grandmother is still crying. “Mother,” the young man says, “It will be all right.” I ask my guide to take a picture of us so I can send it to Melkamu on the Internet.
Back in Gondar, I know the Internet is spotty. The government had shut it down after a recent coup attempt. It’s now back up. I dread sending this photo to Melkamu. But I get up the courage to do it. Late in the evening I press the “Send” button, wishing with all my heart that I could just press a button to bring these two together and to witness with my own eyes, the joy in their faces to be reunited in the security of the family they created, the one they have always known.
– Neal Brodsky is a Family Therapist based in the USA who recently visited with families and children of Ethiopian descent in Ethiopia and Israel. More on his work in support of Ethiopian Jewry at www.OneJewishFamily.com
– Videos from the trip with some featuring Melkamu on YouTube at One Jewish Family