After seventeen hours in a cramped plane I finally arrived in Gondar Ethiopia. My trip was a smorgasbord of emotions, a sprinkle of joy with a large helping of sorrow. There were happy times, sad times, and some moments when I didn’t know exactly how I felt. Much of my trip was spent observing and interacting with the Jewish community in Gondar.
Visiting the destitute Jewish community made a tremendous impression on me; I was overwhelmed by sadness, counterbalanced by joy when I saw parents smiling when their child received medical care. I hadn’t realized before the trip how fortunate I was to have my own bed and blanket. Yet despite the contrast in lifestyles, when I prayed with community Shacharit – the morning prayer – there was a tremendous feeling of unity; we were one community, one heart, one soul.
But the smiles were only on some of the parents’ faces, those who had children who were in fact receiving medical care or supplemental nutrition. SSEJ, a small American organization, only had sufficient funds to help children 0 – 5. There was no money to pay for care for older children. It was heartbreaking. Aren’t all children entitled to proper medical care. The children suffered from a wide range of diseases unheard of in the United States, including malaria and typhoid.
And what about food? Shouldn’t all children have the right to be free from hunger? Parents whose kids qualified for the supplemental nutrition program – the children had to be significantly malnourished – were ecstatic when told their children were eligible. Their smiles ran from ear to ear. They were happy and grateful to have the special mini miracle. I cannot imagine the feeling of those parents whose children were not eligible for the program.
Housing conditions were atrocious. We visited three houses each one much smaller than a school bus. The houses were small mud huts with no plumbing at all. The lucky ones shared an outhouse, really a shed made out of plastic tarp, over fifty yards distant. Those fortunate enough to have a bed, shared it with three people. These beds were smaller than twin sized beds and were made out very rough material, not at all similar to our beds. It was rare for them to have blankets or pillows. These simple daily privileges are one of many I am extremely fortunate to have. Realizing others did not have these minimal comforts made me grateful for what I previously took for granted and conscious of how unfair life could be.
Sabbath services were extraordinarily meaningful. The community did not have enough siddurim, Jewish prayer books. To enable congregants to follow the prayers, the chazzan, the leader in the praying, would sing a portion out loud. Then, everyone would repeat what he said in one voice, creating a feeling of simplicity, beauty, and unity. Community members pressed together both because of the shortage of space and to better hear the chazzan.
The prayer area was in the center. Just like the rest of the compound, it is made of cheap materials. The roof is composed of dirty plastic and cheap metal, and the walls are made of mud and sticks. The floor is made of cracked, stained concrete and dirt; when it rained, the dirt became mud which made it very unpleasant to pray. The awful conditions of the synagogue showed me that it is not the building that makes prayers beautiful, but the sincerity and warmth of the congregation.
I was happy to see parents smile, when their children received their needed medicine; I was humbled when I saw how people lived uncomplainingly in terrible conditions, I felt unreasonably privileged. And when I prayed with a Jewish community that retained hope despite their desperate situation, I felt proud to be a Jew and determined to do whatever I could to help them.
My trip was a unique, once in a lifetime experience. It made me realize how lucky am, how fortunate, how privileged. But as I look back I realize that I learned other lessons that should guide me, should guide all of us, whether we live in Africa, Europe, or the United States. There is always a lot to be sad about, a lot to be depressed about. But even when you are overwhelmed by darkness, you cannot give in to despair; you must continue to search for light.