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Back to Africa: shlicha’s journey comes full circle in Cape Town

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Exactly 30 years ago, emissaries from the Jewish Agency came to Ethiopia to tell Batya Shmueli’s family that “the way to Jerusalem is open”. Soon after, at the age of 11, she made aliyah as part of Operation Solomon. Now, she has returned to the continent of her birth as a shaliach (emissary) of the Jewish Agency, closing the circle.

She and her husband, Hed Shmueli, and their three children arrived in Cape Town as shlichim the week before Pesach. She has taken on the role of aliyah and community shlicha while he is working as head of Israel education at United Herzlia Schools. With roots in Ethiopia, Romania, and Iraq, they bring the diversity of Israeli society to the southern tip of Africa.

“We always felt we would do shlichut in America or Canada,” says Shmueli. “But when we met Cape Town community leaders Esta Levitas and Julie Berman, we immediately connected and knew this was the community for us.”

It hasn’t been a simple journey. “When we were told we could come to Israel, my father was 81 years old. Every Jew in Ethiopia had waited for this moment. It was the first time I saw my father cry,” Shmueli recalls. The family had lived a difficult life, needing to hide their Jewish identity and battle for survival. While the flight was a moment of joy, adapting to life in Israel wasn’t easy.

“We lived in a caravan near a small town in the Galilee. After living there for three years, I attended boarding school. It was a tremendous culture shock,” she says. Wanting to blend in and be accepted, she threw off her family’s religious values and tried to become a secular teenager. “I even made my hair blonde!” she laughs. She learned Hebrew quickly, and tried to distance herself from her parents and her past.

But after school, she finally started to embrace her history and identity as an Ethiopian Jew. She found out that it was members of the Israeli Navy along with Mossad who had come to Sudan to help Ethiopian Jews come to Israel, and became inspired to join the navy during her army service to “close the circle”. Eventually, she served in the Israeli Navy with an elite naval commando unit.

“My father passed away before he could see me in uniform. So many people helped me in my journey in Israel. This was my opportunity to serve and give back,” she says.

It was in the navy that she met Hed whose family came to Israel from Iraq and Romania. He also had a connection to Africa. “After tragically losing his father, who was only 51 years old, he decided to take himself on a journey to discover the world. Being an artist and sculptor, he spent time as a volunteer arts project leader in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and learning traditional East-African wood carving in Kenya,” says Shmueli.

“After returning to Israel, the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs sponsored an artists’ mission to Dakar, Senegal. Hed was involved in co-ordinating and leading a group of Israeli artists sent as cultural representatives to Senegal for Israel’s 60th birthday celebrations.”

She also travelled after the army, spending a year in Los Angeles. It was there than she began to regret turning away from her identity and vowed “to return to my roots and culture”.

“I cried a lot that year, thinking about the pain and loss that my parents’ generation felt,” Shmueli says. “I wanted to go back to Israel and explain who we are as Ethiopian Jews. I wanted to be the voice of my parents.”

Returning to Israel, she realised she couldn’t “wait to be invited” to share her story, she had to just start doing it. She began to address audiences, sharing Ethiopian Jewish customs, culture, and cooking. She also got her Bachelor of Arts from Haifa University, where she studied teaching and the history of the Jewish people. She later received her Master’s degree in the history of Israel and Jewish law.

She then developed a programme that taught students about leadership and responsibility. In 2009, she returned to Ethiopia with the Israeli foreign ministry to teach village women about entrepreneurship. For the past 11 years, she has been fundraising for new immigrant populations.

When deciding where to raise their family, the Shmuelis chose to settle in the beautiful artists’ village of Ein Hod. It was a very secular community, however, so they decided to bring their passion for Judaism into the fold by commissioning a Sefer Torah for the village. It was made in the name of their late fathers, who had taught them to hold onto their Jewish heritage no matter what. “One thousand people came to the hachnasat [welcoming] Torah event,” recalls Shmueli. “There were Israelis from every sector of society.”

Eighteen years ago, they also opened their home to travellers hiking the Israel National Trail from the south to the north of Israel. Calling it “Avraham’s Tent”, they hosted more than 20 000 travellers.

The Shmuelis bring all of this passion and purpose with them to their shlichut in Cape Town. Their determination has seen them through delay in arrival as a result of the pandemic. In addition, their three children battled with being uprooted and being under lockdown.

“Israel is a country of children, and there is so much freedom for kids. So they have struggled, but we feel this is the best gift we can give them,” says Shmueli. “We are showing them that they belong to the Jewish people, and to bring that opportunity for connection to others.”

They believe they are in the right place at the right time. “After 20 minutes of talking to Esta and Julie, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is the correct place for us’. It’s a unique community with a unique history. This isn’t just about a new job, it’s something much deeper. We feel it’s the time to support the Jewish community.”

They have spent the past few months immersing themselves in the community and its organisations. “It’s so unique. It’s not every day that you see a community where all the Jewish children go to the same school and where there is so much support for everyone who needs it,” she says.

Just like she was given so many opportunities when she started her new life in Israel, she wants to create awareness about the possibilities that Israel provides, especially for the younger generation. She wants to help the youth feel proud of their heritage and connection with Israel.

“I want to be a bridge between Israel and South Africa,” she says. “We live our shlichut day and night, and are here for the community at any time. And we are here to learn from you too.”

They plan to meet people from all walks of life, sharing the diversity of their family and Israeli society. “We won’t apologise for who we are … we stand strong,” says Shmueli. At the same time, she encourages questions, discussion, and debate.

“The Ethiopian Jewish community never gave up on their dream of going to Jerusalem,” she says. Being part of the generation that got to go back to Israel means that she sees her shlichut as a continuation of that journey. “To be back in Africa as Israelis for the Jewish community – I thank G-d for showing us the way.”

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Devora Even-Tov

    Oct 15, 2021 at 12:40 pm

    Kol Hakavod to your beautiful family for making this great committment.
    You are based in Cape Town , they are lucky to have you.
    If you are ever in Johannesburg you are welcome in our community.
    Best of luck nad to your beautiful children

  2. Jonathan holmes

    Oct 29, 2021 at 2:33 am

    I’m really moved by your unselfish sacrifices and contribution to the Jewish community.l know it cannot be easy but your determination has open in me a well spring of optimism to dare to dream.

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