Rescuing Souls | Jewish Journeys

Photo by Zohar Wasserman
Photo by Zohar Wasserman

4:50 AM in the USA. In the middle of the pandemic. I cannot sleep. I put on my silver-striped Ethiopian prayer shawl and rail at God. What do you want of me? My friend, waking up in a dirt-floored room somewhere in Ethiopia did his morning prayers hours ago. Still hungry, he put on the same prayer shawl. My refrigerator, humming quietly is overflowing with food. I feel ashamed. Memories from a year ago, course like silver angels, through my broken heart…

The sun is setting on the side of a highway underpass just outside Tel Aviv, and I am pressing a finely knit blue and white kippah onto the closely shorn head of Josefi, a seven year old Jewish boy of Ethiopian-Sudanese descent as Shabbat ends. This is not just any kippah. Knit by hand, I bought it just days before from the woman who made it and manages the Jewish community mikveh in Gondar, the northern Ethiopian city where hundreds of children wait with their parents to join their families in Israel. Josefi is lucky. He along with his 11 year old sister Racheli and mother were heroically rescued by my friend, Rabbi Aaron (A.Y.) Katsof, who brought them home to Israel. Sitting on a concrete bench, Josefi looks anxiously towards Aaron and back to his mother sitting on the next bench down as we wait for the bus that will take his family north to the Absorption Center. I turn to Racheli who is staring off into space and reach for her hand which is dry and cold, clasping it in both of mine. I see that she is hardly breathing, her tall, lithe body folded and hunched over, making herself small in the face of this transition.

The last 30 hours have been a whirlwind and I, a Jewish family therapist from the United States, have my heart changed forever through connection with this family. Aaron related some of the details of their arduous life journey. The children, separated from their mother at an early age and only recently reunited by Aaron were now suddenly a nuclear family again, yet an unpracticed one. I had volunteered to meet them and contribute a small part of the healing that will need to happen over time in their new country. These children speak mainly Arabic with some Hebrew and limited English. Given that I only speak English, I know that the human contact and therapeutic benefit will need to be communicated through higher level languages of body and spirit…

Thirty hours before

I lug my heavy knapsack and search for Aaron, his wife Rivka and their Sudanese/Ethiopian guests on Banana Beach in Tel Aviv. I walk at the water’s edge, weaving past the pairs of paddleball players smashing balls at each other. As the mud of Ethiopian hillsides washes off my sandals in the surf, I pray that I can find them soon. Aaron texts me that they are near the black flags warning swimmers to look out for high waves and dangerous surf. I stop for a moment to say a shechiyanu, the Jewish prayer of gratitude that we have reached this unique moment in time. And I pray to find my friends before I drop of exhaustion in the heat.

Suddenly, a voice calls out in English. My eyes move up from the sand, to see the source of the call. Waving from a roped-in area adjoining a restaurant is a white man in a bathing suit wearing a cowboy hat.  He stands amid a small cluster of black and white bodies reclining on plastic beach lounge chairs. This must be Aaron, the man I had come to know through texts on WhatsApp as he effected the rescue, bringing the family from Sudan to the mother’s original home in Ethiopia and then on to Zion. My shoulders drop in relief. I too have been rescued.

A dark-skinned woman is buying 10 shekel ice pops for everyone in the chairs. I realize this must be Fiat, the Sudanese/Ethiopian Jewish mother of the kids I’ve come to meet. I think, each pop would cost the equivalent of two days wages in Sudan or Ethiopia. I offer to pay for mine. Our eyes meet for a brief moment and her head shakes once in refusal at my 10 shekel coin. She quickly looks down and away from me. I wonder what I will need to do to build trust. A man. A stranger. Aaron had told me how this woman had been beaten when she ran away to her Jewish mother after giving birth at age 14 to her first child in Sudan. How her daughter Racheli had been forcibly taken from her by male Sudanese family members as a punishment.

We pile into Aaron’s white SUV, Aaron and his wife Rivka in front, and me and Fiat behind in the next row. I scoot a little towards the window on my side to leave Fiat a bit more space.  The kids scramble into the third row, their eyes searching out the back window of the hatch. So quiet, I think. We are headed for Shabbat in the Territories at Esh Kodesh, the hilltop settlement community where Aaron, Rivka and their children live.

I hand the children my last two energy bars brought from the U.S. for my trip to Ethiopia and Israel. Before we take off, Aaron calls his dad, Rabbi Irwin Katsof, now in the USA on WhatsApp Video. Irwin is a Core Energetics practitioner I know, trained in trauma relief. At the same time, I Facetime my wife and co-therapist Judy Gotlieb in the USA. It’s just a crazy “God wink” that we all know each other, and that Aaron and I share this strong commitment to the Jewish community’s return from exile in Ethiopia.  We face the phones to each other, laughing uproariously at the miracles of twenty first century technology that can bring us together over the miles.

The late afternoon light is blanching the Samarian hills a light amber, our bodies bouncing as we hit gravelly dirt heading up the hill to the settlement. A message on my phone says: “Welcome to the Palestinian Territories.” The first dwellings at the periphery look like they’ve been modified from shipping containers. Others approach the level of suburban homes you might see in the USA, many with a patchwork, under-construction feel. Aaron turns to me and says, “we can’t get mortgages here so everything gets built as people can afford it.“ He points to the next hillside settlement. “They’ve gotten approved as official. We’re waiting.”

The car pulls to a stop in front of Aaron and Rivka’s place and we pile out of the car. Neighbor’s kids are playing on a patch of AstroTurf in front of the house next door. They run to greet us. Two Katsof sons emerge from the front screen door, take Josefi in tow and disappear inside as a teenage daughter, Nava hugs her mom, dad and Fiat. Aaron has told me that he brings the new Ethiopian/Sudanese members of his family for Shabbat as often as possible. With tears in my eyes, I think back to the video Aaron sent me as Fiat, Racheli, Josefi and Aaron landed at Ben Gurion Airport after Fiat’s family aliya was approved by the Israeli government. They are all singing a song from the 2010 album “Last Train to Paris”

“I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday”

I gingerly make my way between toys which carpet the floor of the living room and trail into the adjoining kid’s playroom, sitting my tired bones down in an arm chair. In the center of the living room is a purple “aerial silk” which trails from a round hole in the wood-paneled ceiling down onto the floor. Nava is a dancer knowledgeable in aerial acrobatics and she has taught Fiat’s kids how to use it. Racheli climbs up the silk and inverts her body upside down, her head three feet above the hard tile floor. As a body-centered therapist at home I’m used to positioning piles of pillows to catch kids who like to jump off the foam cube in my office. Instinctually I move into position. Racheli looks so graceful up there. Even though I’m afraid she could break her neck, I’ll need to relax if I hope to be of any use.

Racheli, teased by other kids of Ethiopian descent at the absorption center, perhaps because of her dark, part-Sudanese skin, had struck back using her fists. While therapy was to begin soon for mom, the kids might need to wait for therapeutic services that would address possible trauma linked to the long separation from their mom in Sudan. So, I had offered to step in, if only for a day with the kids.

The window of opportunity opens when Aaron’s son Israel instructs his Amazon Alexa to “play dance music.” Everyone begins moving in rhythm led by Racheli and Nava. Racheli seems to light up with movement. The kid who just a few moments ago would not make eye contact with me, the strange adult who didn’t speak Hebrew, was suddenly willing to show me the right moves. I had just spent part of a morning earlier in the week, dancing with Ethiopian kids at their summer program run by the British-based organization Meketa in the Ethiopian city of Gondar. These kids had shown me their “Eskista moves” from the traditional Ethiopian dance known for its emphasis on intense shoulder and chest movement. I only wish some of the highly strung young people in my Manhattan and Connecticut practices could learn to dance Ethiopian-style.

My dance therapy and Core Energetics colleagues know the value of movement in healing trauma and even though Shabbat is fast approaching, I see that this is a chance for the kids to build “safe contact” and trust with adults in a family setting. Racheli and her brother had miraculously landed in the welcoming embrace of Aaron’s family. What better place for an extended therapy session?

And so, we begin a series of mirrored dance moves. Racheli leading the way with me following and then reversing the process with me leading. From time to time, Racheli glances at her mother as if to check whether what she’s doing is permissible. Given a smile from mom, she jumps back into the dance fray.

From the therapy perspective, this is exactly what toddlers do as they check in with a parent in the midst of exploring their environment. It builds what psychotherapists call “secure attachment.” I guess Racheli and Josefi may not have been able to enjoy much security as youngsters separated from their mom. In our dance we are performing a symbolic enactment of secure attachment, something I hope that future therapists will work on in the context of family therapy. Others in the room look on and then join us. First the kids in the room and then the hesitant adults. We are all dancing, led by Racheli. Wow, I think, a real future leader. One who wouldn’t need to rely on fisticuffs, as a new playfulness and power spring forth from the secure ground of a new family life in Israel.

Back in the USA. In the middle of a pandemic, I text a colleague in Israel. “We must go from strength to strength in these trying times.” 8,000 souls remain. Today, hungry in Ethiopia. Tomorrow, perhaps safe in the land of our forefathers. As the day dawns, golden sunlight streams through the tendrils of new spring grass.

About the Author
Neal H. Brodsky is a family therapist licensed in New York and Connecticut and one of 12 therapists around the world who contributed a chapter to the book "Deep Play: Exploring Depth in Psychotherapy With Children." Trained in Marriage & Family Therapy at Fairfield University, he also holds a Master's Degree in public administration from what is now the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. He serves English-speaking clients online and is affiliated with the recently launched Israel Center for Self-Transformation.
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