It is a common occurrence. You ask your sister or brother or perhaps your son or daughter who lives a great distance away, how much longer it will take for him or her to arrive. “I am only 30 minutes away,” your loved one responds. So you stop what you are doing, get dressed up nicely and wait in earnest for his or her arrival. 30 minutes pass and pretty soon, an hour passes and your loved one has not yet arrived. You receive a text, “Sorry, stuck in traffic.” No problem, you continue to wait eagerly. Another hour passes, “Sorry, we missed the exit and had to reroute.” You continue to wait in the same chair facing the window. It begins to turn dark outside. The phone rings. “The baby is crying and we left the baby formula at home. We need to turn around. We will come in the morning.” You fall asleep on the chair, hoping to awaken to the sound of a doorbell ringing.
This scenario may sound trivial to us or even amusing, reminding us of a time when we were in the same situation. For the family members of the remaining Jews of Ethiopia who have been waiting in some cases for over 20 years to immigrate to Israel, this is their everyday reality.
Close to 8,000 Jews remain in two thriving communities in Addis Ababa and Gondar, Ethiopia and eagerly wait for the day when the Israeli government will open its doors to them. Their family members in Israel have received countless promises that their children/siblings/parents who were left behind will arrive shortly. “It is just a matter of some time,” they are assured. Meanwhile, a few weeks has turned into a few years which has turned into two decades of painful longing and separation.
I was fortunate enough to spend five weeks in the small city of Gondar and was privileged to see the passion and love for Judaism that pervades all aspects of these fellow Jews’ lives. This is a community of people who cling to every word of Jewish knowledge that they are able to consume and every piece of information about Israel, the Land they have been promised, but of which they can only dream about. The community consists of Ethiopian Jews who returned to Judaism and moved from their villages across the country to Gondar, with the hope that this will only be a temporary stop on the way to the Promised Land.
Unfortunately, life in Gondar is not always forgiving and unlike in the villages where the adults worked in agriculture or as shepherds, in the city, job opportunities are scarce. With lack of work, poverty becomes an inevitable reality. This coupled with almost absolute neglect from the Israeli government has created a plethora of problems for the Jewish communities in Gondar and Addis Ababa.
Despite, or perhaps in spite of the reality that these communities find themselves in, the community members have created a thriving Jewish environment, with similarities to the communities that we find ourselves in. Like every Jewish community, the focal point is the education of the next generation. The youth are both chanichim (participants) and madrichim (guides) in Bnei Akiva, an Israeli youth movement with branches worldwide. As someone who grew up in the Bnei Akiva movement in Australia, seeing madrichim and chanichim on the other side of the world, wearing the same shirts of the movement, singing the same songs and playing the same games, was a remarkable reminder for me of how some differences are so easy to overcome, whilst others remain a stain on otherwise parallel existence. The youth thirst for every ounce of Jewish learning they can obtain, walking around the dilapidated community center with the one notebook they possess and writing down anything and everything they learn.
The parallels with the community I grew up in are uncanny. The older teenage boys who help run the community, the adults parenting all the children (not just their own), the kippah-knitting and the love for and eternal hope to live in Israel. However, unlike most communities in the Diaspora, where self-imposed factors prevent Jews from coming to Israel, the Jews in Ethiopia have no power over their situation. Every day after prayer services, almost like clockwork, the entire community begins to sing Hatikva. The ruckus of babies crying, people chatting and the hazzan chanting, dramatically ends and in its place the room fills with words of hope in Hebrew.
The first time I heard this — the pure and singular voice of a community with little more than the unshattered hope and love for Israel — I began to cry. Tears of frustration, sadness and guilt rolled down my cheeks. Guilt because just one-half year earlier, I was able to make aliyah. Why was I allowed to make aliyah while our fellow Jews in Ethiopia are not?
The last time I heard the chant of Hatikvah before returning to Israel, I shed another tear, but one of hope. A tear of hope, because I now have firsthand knowledge of this community and can share that with the rest of the Jewish people. It is a tear of hope, because of their hope. Israel, bring your people home.