Filling in the Gaps / Rebecca Lee, Yahel Social Change Program Participant

During my senior year of college, I took a seminar called “[the] Multiple Voices of Israeli Society.”  We read articles and had discussions about several groups of people including the Ashkenazim, the Mizrahim, and the Palestinians but the Ethiopian Jews in Israel were barely mentioned.   I had heard that there were Jews in Ethiopia but I knew nothing about them and it definitely never occurred to me that they would have the desire to return to Israel. After nine years in Jewish day school, I thought I knew all I needed to know about the history of Jewish people and was therefore shocked to realize that at least one entire group of people had been left out entirely.  It was not until I learned about the Yahel Social Change Program that I learned about Ethiopian Jews in Israel.  I chose to come to Gedera with this program because I wanted to close this gap and living amongst the people seemed like the best way to do it.

When I arrived in Gedera, I knew two things about Ethiopia.  The first was that I loved the food (ask anyone in my family who has been dragged to my favorite restaurant multiple times in a week).  The second was that I was jealous of how inexplicably beautiful the people were. These superficial facts were all I really knew about Ethiopia.  When I learned that there were Jews emigrating from Ethiopia from Israel, I assumed that they fled to Israel or were refugees.  This was by far the biggest misconception I had.

This, in short, is what has stuck with me the most from our education sessions in the past few weeks:

  • Ethiopia is not a desert wasteland.  It is a land full of beautiful landscapes, seventy different languages, and two hundred ethnicities.
  • The Ethiopians in Israel are not here because they needed to flee Ethiopia.  They, like many Jews around the world, have always wanted to return to the Promised Land.  In doing so, they left their homes to embark on a dangerous journey that many did not survive.
  • Ethiopian Jews practice ancient, biblical Judaism because they practiced in isolation where they did not have the Talmud or the Mishnah.

Knowing these facts is important because I feel like I am filling in the gaps in my Jewish education that left out an entire group of Jewish people.  As an Ashkenazi Jew, I was raised with the Holocaust as a central part of my Jewish identity.  I learned later that the Holocaust is not just an Ashkenazi memory but a collective memory of all Jews, even of those from countries that were not directly affected.  I believe the Ethiopian Jewish experience is an important part of Jewish history and I plan to carry this history with me to secure their place in the collective Jewish identity.


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