Ethiopian-American Tourists in Israel

My wife Melke Mengiste and I were able to achieve the dreams of our forefathers and mothers — visiting the Holy City of Jerusalem — in the third week of November. My grandfather and Melke’s father wished to be buried in Jerusalem; we are lucky to be able to visit the Promised Land alive. We visited the old and new Jerusalem and we were thrilled to be able to see the center of historical, political and religious gravity of the old world. The layers of the buildings — built, destroyed and rebuilt and then destroyed so many times by the various invaders were mirrors of the lives of the Jews — the unbelievable perseverance, persistence, hope and survival. We found the Holocaust museums a jarring reminder of the harsh realities. We also visited Masada and the Dead Sea. Our tour guides were knowledgeable, helpful and humorous.

In general, we were impressed with the giant economic strides Israel has made in a half century, converting the semi-desert land into an economic miracle and building the superior military power in the region. This was accomplished with only one natural resource — human talent — and was achieved despite constant attacks by its belligerent neighbors. Developing countries have a lot to learn from the experience of Israel.

The highlight of our trip was our visit to the Ethiopian synagogue in Yod. That was made possible with the great efforts of Diane Zeller, who now resides in Jerusalem, the assistance of Martin Kessel, and the willingness and kindness of his daughter, Dalit Avrahamoff, who took her time to arrange and take us to the Ethiopian synagogue.

During our stay in Israel we had talks with many Ethiopian Jews from various walks of life, including the owners of the Ethio-Israel restaurant where we had dinner the first night we arrived in Jerusalem, thanks to Diane. We have talked to military officers, security guards, hotel employees, accountants, and engineers. Many say they have difficulty mastering the Hebrew language. Others say even those who graduated from college cannot get productive jobs because they lack the networking. Few say if one works hard there is always a window of opportunity. Asked about racism, they say it is a reality everywhere, including in the United States. Those few who have succeeded say the focus should be on hard work.

But our visit to the synagogue was inspiring and educational. Kes Yemanu Temeyet and I had a lovely discussion. Kes Yemanu spoke of the experiences of the Jews in Ethiopia with the emphasis on the 19th century. During the time of Emperor Theodoros, whose mother was rumored to be Jewish, the Ethiopian Jews expected something helpful, but for various political reasons it did not happen. So in 1863 the Ethiopian Jews started their journey to Jerusalem, hoping to cross the Red Sea as Moses did over 30 centuries before. On their way, they perished due to hostile environment and disease.

Emperor Yohannes, who was a religious fanatic, succeeded Theodoros. He gave an edict that everyone was to be converted to Coptic Christianity or face death and/or physical torture. This resulted in the maiming of thousands of Jews. However, a great number of Jews remained adamant and expressed their willingness to die rather than to convert. Surprised by their defiance and determination to boldly choose death, Emperor Yohannes asked the leaders why they preferred death to accepting the Bible. Their spokesperson replied that, “We the Jews believe in the Orit (original and old) Bible, what you call the Old Testament, which you Christians believe in and on which you based the New Testament. We are truly the firm believers in the Bible and we should not be treated as pagans.” The Emperor listened and responded, “If there were judges you could win.” But the forceful conversion and brutal death continued.

The Kes said, “When God willed, we came here and have our synagogue built in the design of the synagogue we have had at Ambo Ber in Ethiopia.” He said it took them longer to build the synagogue according to the Ethiopian traditional way. At last, that was done and he was happy and grateful. The synagogue is a symbol of recognition and a link to the past.

He also talked about the challenge the Ethiopian Jews face. The old generation is uneducated and has difficulties adjusting to the new environment. The young ones are in a tug of war between the Ethiopian tradition and the metropolitan culture they have to cope with. He believes the young people need guidance and assistance. They cannot get assistance from their parents and yet have to compete with those young people whose parents tutor and guide them. That has created a challenge, he said. But he is hopeful that things will change over time. He said the government is trying to mitigate the pain of the transition in every way possible, though in a small way. Kes Yemanu is very grateful for all the material and moral support given to the synagogue by many individuals and institutions/organizations.

The Almaz Project, which started in 1993, trains and employs Ethiopian Jewish women in modern sewing techniques to produce a variety of items, including Judaica, tablecloths, wall hangings, and clothing. The project is housed in the synagogue and has outlets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It was uplifting to see the women being given a chance to work outside the home and earn income. The project needs more help in marketing the products at home and abroad.

At the end of the trip we were given the Jewish Bible translated into the Amharic language. We are grateful to Isiayas Chane, who welcomed us and kindly briefed us about the synagogue, and at the end he gave us the Amharic Bible, which is being distributed freely.

We wish we could have stayed longer to learn more.