A Day with the Jews in Ethiopia

The facts and figures are astounding. In just a few walled acres in a slum neighborhood in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1100 preschool children are fed in four hours every weekday. Adult Education (in Hebrew and Jewish Studies) in eight shifts per day serves 1600 in a week. Some 2700 school-age children are educated and fed every day, five days a week. Simple but nutritious meals have been developed costing 17 cents each ($53 per child per year). And 850 adults (mostly heads of households) are hired as paid employees, 700 of them in embroidery work. On a slow day, when the weather is threatening, morning Shabbat services may be attended by “only” 2500 adults and 500 children and youths.

This magic is performed by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), and the chief magician is Andy Goldman, their Country Director for Ethiopia. Goldman also oversees a similar compound in Gondar, serving 2300 school kids and 1300 preschoolers, but our rushed visit in February was limited to Addis, and this will be the focus of our report.

About 7500 Jews live in Addis, many within an hour’s walk of the NACOEJ compound, which was set up in 1990 as a holding place for Jews waiting to leave Ethiopia imminently for reunification with family members in Israel. A year later, the historic Operation Solomon airlifted over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel within 36 hours. Although NACOEJ hastily closed the compound, thinking the need was over, it soon became apparent that it needed to be reopened and expanded to accommodate thousands who had been left behind.

According to Goldman, all those now served by the compound are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Right of Return, having at least one Jewish grandparent. Many have much closer relatives in Israel — parents or children. Most of the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish community) left in Ethiopia are considered “Feles Mura,” whose parents or grandparents converted to Christianity under severe pressure in the past. Most claim to have never become believing Christians, and virtually all are now faithfully practicing Orthodox Judaism. Under supervision of Rabbi Menachem Waldman, of the Chief Rabbi of Israel’s Committee on Ethiopian Jewry, a return-to-Judaism program is preparing the “Feles Mura” for formal conversion in Israel.

Daily, Shabbat and Festival services are attended eagerly and in huge numbers. The large sanctuary seats men and women separately. On Shabbat the crowd overflows to the outside, and separate services are held for the hundreds of youth participating. Services are led by volunteers from the community who have been trained in Rabbi Waldman’s program. Services are the same as – and different from – those one finds in America. The chanting is sometimes done with congregational responses word by word, producing a surreal echo effect that is enchanting. The women, all dressed in the white traditional dress with head coverings, quietly murmur certain responses of their own and use special hand motions.

When Goldman took the job of running the Addis compound 12 years ago, he thought it would be a very temporary position. Formerly a professional photographer, he claims to have had “no qualifications except willingness to do the work.” But the compound has continually expanded, his tenure has been long, and his organizational skills have proven to be awesome.

Andy’s 2700 school-age children attend classes from first grade through junior high in very basic classrooms with benches (no desks), but the compound school is accredited by the Addis Board of Education and its students consistently score high in city-wide tests and are admitted to the best city high schools. The curriculum includes the regular course of study for all Addis schoolchildren, plus Hebrew and Judaic Studies. Unlike other local schools, the compound school operates year-round, with the summer session devoted solely to a Jewish curriculum. Goldman recently convinced the local university to add a teacher-training program on the compound, which should benefit his classes.

The adult education program operates all day, every weekday, in eight 55-minute shifts. Each shift is carried on in four rooms, and each room contains 40 students. Goldman says the shifts before and after davening times (shacharit and mincha) are the most popular. Sunday morning adult education is also available to the 1600 participating adults.

Food, Glorious Food

A few years ago, when it was noticed that children could not perform well in school because they were starving (fainting was not uncommon), a feeding program started. Goldman researched existing programs, consulted with nutritionists, and conferred with community representatives about their tastes and purchasing possibilities. He says UN personnel have been impressed by the quality and variety the compound provides.

The preschool feeding program serves children from age six months to six years; each child must be accompanied by a parent at each meal. The program has been extended to include pregnant and nursing women. Each child receives a meal that may include many of the following selections: ground carrots, avocado, chopped eggs made with iodized salt and oil, collard greens, beans, potatoes, fafa (a 12-grain porridge), oranges and bananas. The tykes receive one-half ounce of each food to start and can have seconds and thirds if they desire. Pregnant or nursing women receive a roll, fafa, and two ounces each of beans, carrots and eggs. The compound measures waste to evaluate the food and the feeding process. Goldman says he has noticed “visible improvement” in the appearance of the young ones since the feeding program started. He likes to show visitors an old picture of a child and compare it to the way the child looks now.

School students, who attend classes in either a morning or an afternoon shift, also have their meal in shifts. Early-shift students receive the meal as breakfast, afternoon students as lunch. The shifts change every two weeks. Either way, this is usually the only meal the child receives that day. These meals include a hard-boiled egg, a small potato, carrots, beans cooked with oil and iodized salt, rolls, and oranges. An optional slice of cheese has been added, thanks to a generous donor in Los Angeles. Most are not familiar with cheese, so only about 50 percent so far take advantage of this excellent source of calcium.

In addition to the feeding programs, another food program enables needy families and each family with a school-age child to take home 3.3 pounds of dried beans and tef grain for Shabbat. And the community makes Shabbat wine from raisins in 20-liter batches.

Goldman says the food programs cost $10,000 per month.

Sanitation measures are surprisingly rigorous. A slew of paid employees (hired from the community) keeps all surfaces spotless, and no perishable food is stored more than 24 hours. In the storeroom that holds beans and grain, a fan operates continuously to keep away insects. To assure careful and clean food preparation, employees are required to eat from a random batch selected by a manager!

Goldman had faucets installed so the children could learn to wash their hands before eating. Since water is expensive — city residents pay for it by the bucket — he soon found that a considerable amount of bathing was going on at the faucets and installed more.

Anxious to replace scarce wood as a cooking fuel, Goldman convinced an airline pilot with engineering skills to design a safe and effective kerosene stove.

The Privilege of Working

NACOEJ decided to institute an employment program to offer pay and dignity — rather than welfare payments — to Ethiopian Jews in Addis. An embroidery project was the result since embroidery is a traditional skill of Ethiopian Jews, both male and female. Goldman points out that this was also a natural choice since many Jewish leaders who had been in prison — for the crime of teaching Hebrew — had gotten a lot of practice doing embroidery there! Seven hundred heads of households hand-embroider pillow covers, challah covers, matzah covers and tallit bags, which NACOEJ sells for money to fund the program. The embroidery work is intricate (about 40,000 stitches go into every product) and colorful, and comes in at least two dozen charming folk designs depicting biblical stories or festival themes — designed for the American market. We learned a little-known fact: Andy Goldman is the artist behind all the designs.

When daily services are not going on, it is impressive to see the large sanctuary filled with embroidery workers. The fastest, most expert workers can complete one item in five days, while the slowest might take 22 days. Either way, the worker is limited to producing one product per month, 12 per year, because the market is large enough for greater numbers of embroideries. Goldman would like to see a major market expansion so that these workers can earn more, and so that another embroidery project can commence in Gondar.

The striking covers and bags are available for a $100 contribution to NACOEJ, $70 of which is tax- deductible. Donors interested in choosing from all the designs can see color illustrations in NACOEJ’s web site or by requesting their brochure (contact information below).

The Addis compound also offers after-school activities for students. There is an orchestra, a singing group, and a circus. Circus Ethiopia is one of Goldman’s pet projects, since it has been popular at European performances and has been adopted by the Ethiopian government to use in schools all over Ethiopia. Goldman conceived the idea in 1990, secured private funding, and convinced a Canadian circus buff to teach the children circus skills such as juggling, balancing and tumbling. As visitors to the compound can attest, the results are impressive.

Goldman took us on a tour of some Jewish homes near the compound (no one lives on the compound). We saw mud hovels, cow dung drying outside for fuel, a woman with TB who can’t keep her medicine down because she has no food, and Hebrew signs on interior walls. The tour reminded us what a paradise NACOEJ has created in the compound. The NACOEJ brochure refers to it as an “oasis.” Whatever it is, it certainly deserves our support.

When we asked Goldman what we could do to help, he said, “Push the feeding program, a real bargain — only $53 feeds a child for a year!” Of course, there are other opportunities for those who can afford more. A $100 contribution brings the donor a cherished embroidery. A $10,000 donation will allow Goldman to feed the community in the Addis compound for a month. Also, contributions in any amount are needed for special meals for the sick and elderly, blankets and warm clothes, and supplies for science classes. In-kind donations of tefillin, prayer books and basic Hebrew primers for children are also welcomed.

NACOEJ is still looking forward to the day when the compounds in Ethiopia are no longer needed. A promise was made recently by Israel’s Interior Ministry (in response to a petition in the High Court) to process in a timely manner requests from the Feles Mora seeking to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return or family reunification. The promise was to let the families know within four months the current status of their requests. So far, this information has been hard to come by. Most of the people in the Addis compound today have been there, waiting, for four or five years.

Andy Goldman spends about every other month in Addis Ababa and the rest of the time at the small Washington, DC, office of NACOEJ (headquarters are in New York). His Addis office, at the time of our visit, contained a computer, a huge heap of donated clothing (which we had carried from America), donations of school supplies, and cheeses hanging from the ceiling to age. For now, the Jews in Ethiopia are his life, wherever he is staying.

About half of NACOEJ’s funding goes to Ethiopia programs. The other half benefits Ethiopian Jews in Israel with such programs as after-school enrichment classes, assistance for college students, high school sponsorships, and bar/bat mitzvah twinnng. But that’s another story.

Send checks and/or in-kind donations to:

132 Nassau Street, Suite 412
New York, NY 10038

For information, call 212 233 5200, fax 212 233 2543, or email nacoej @ nacoej.org. Check their web site at www.nacoej.org.