The long hard journey of the new shaliach
On a daily basis, he tells the SA Jewish Report, people try and communicate with him in a vernacular language and find it hard to believe he is not Zulu. “Yes, being in South Africa now could be a little difficult,” he says.
But then Abebe, 44, is not one to shy away from tough paths, having made a massive journey at a nine-year-old from Ethiopia to Israel. This journey looms large over his life. It took him from “a small village far from all civilisation without electricity and running water” to the place of his family’s dreams.
And having recently arrived in South Africa as a shaliach, is his way of giving back to the country and the people that brought him “home”.
“I believe that our obligation is to let our people abroad know that Israel is waiting for them but they are also not less important where they are,” he says.
His life’s journey to date began in “an olden times village” in Ethiopia where he was a “shepherd boy”.
“To describe my village, consider the Book of Genesis. G-d created the heavens and the earth and my village. From then, G-d didn’t return to my village… even my village was too far for G-d.”
He said while he didn’t know anything about Israel back then, his family knew about and dreamt of going to Jerusalem. “My dad does not know how to read or write, but he always prayed in the direction of Jerusalem.
“My parents hardly had anything, but they always had hope, that one day we will get to Jerusalem, and that everything we didn’t have we would have. Like a house, nationality and mostly that we will get to Jerusalem.”
Before 1974, Ethiopian Jews were not accepted by Israeli leaders as Jews; that year Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel between 1973 and 1983) declared them to be from the Dan tribe and therefore 100 per cent Jewish. And in 1978, Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Begin sent agents to Ethiopia to see if the Jews there even wanted to make aliya and, said Abebe, “found that we were all ready to go right away”. And so, preparation for Operation Moses began.
Abebe’s dad got word about it and started selling the few sheep and cows he owned and emptying their home so they would be ready to leave as soon as they could. “My father didn’t tell us anything, he was afraid we would tell our neighbours.”
It was a little after midnight on Rosh Hashanah in 1983 when Abebe’s father woke him and his three brothers to gather them for their journey to Jerusalem. They gathered with their whole village, horses and donkeys. “I remember the tears and excitement. I clearly remember my father’s eyes tearing from excitement in fulfilling a lifelong dream of ‘next year in Jerusalem’.
“I didn’t have shoes, underwear or new pants. I was a boy who ran barefoot, with a snotty nose and a few clothes on my body. And so we started our journey to Israel. barefoot, minimal clothing, but with hope.
The journey was long and they were totally ill-prepared. They walked to Sudan as they weren’t able to be flown out of Ethiopia because there were no diplomatic ties between Israel and Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian Jews landed up walking around 800 kilometres. Many people died en route from illness, being attacked by wild animal, but they wouldn’t give up and believed “it was all worth it”, said Abebe.
In Sudan, they were put in a tented refugee camp, where they ate porridge, bread and rice every day. “My whole family stayed in one small tent, in the unbearable Sudanese heat. We were left there for one year.
“My mother and brother got sick and people started passing away from malaria and different diseases. The Sudanese didn’t allow us to bury the dead, so everyone was forced to bury their dead under trees, behind rocks and behind the mountains in the camp. We unfortunately buried my aunt, who left two little children behind.
One third of the Ethiopian Jews who left their homes died in Sudan, but they still believed it was worth it.
“The first white person I saw was in Sudan. I thought he was probably sick, not that I don’t think they are sick today. I asked myself how he woke up in the morning and scratched off his skin. The white man was a Mossad agent who was disguised as a doctor. After many years he is still a good friend of mine.
A year after arriving in Sudan, they were airlifted on Israeli Airforce planes to Israel. It was my first flight ever and I was in shock. I thought to myself how such a big thing could fly like a bird?
“After a while we landed at an Air Force base in Israel. Lots of soldiers came to us with stretchers, some with drips. We were so weak and in need of medical treatment. From there, they took us to a military base in Ashkelon. There for the first time in our lives we saw a fridge, we saw gas to use for cooking. We wondered what we do with this all? We had never used such things, we were in total shock.”
Abebe said although they were given a house with a number of rooms, his father wouldn’t let them go into the other rooms because he couldn’t imagine living in more than one room. They were then taken to Arad – not Jerusalem – and put in an Absorbtion Centre apartment on the sixth floor. That was when the shock set in, says Abebe.
He and his brother were sent to boarding school, leaving their parents in Arad. “They sent me to a yeshiva. I wasn’t successful and after they kicked me out, I was sent to a religious school next to Haifa where I matriculated,” he says.
Abebe started working on the military radio station Galay Tzahal. “From then onwards, I haven’t stopped writing,” he says. For the last 15 years, Abebe made a name for himself as a journalist on Yedioth Aharonoth newspaper.
He since married Aviva, an Ethiopian-Jewish nurse who was only six when she did the Operation Moses journey. They have three Israeli children.
“Over the years, we both felt we wanted to give back like the different Israelis gave to us. That is one of the reasons we offered our services as shlichim to South Africa. We believe that giving is also receiving, if we can give a little to the Jewish community in our small way, then that’s what we will do.
“We knew from the start it would be hard to be travelling again in another country where there are different people – some good and some not so good, but that is life.”
Abebe has experienced so much and believe he has much to offer in his new position. Besides, he says, he needed a rest from his work as a journalist, telling the stories of the tougher side of Israeli life.