I pulled my rubber-duck-yellow poncho over my head and trudged through the dirt of the open sewage and trash in the shantytown, trying to breathe through my mouth. I was in Ethiopia with my mother and a mission from United Jewish Communities (UJC) and I could smell the people's desperation for a new life in the holy place of Jerusalem.
My eyes were opened so wide by seeing what is going on in Ethiopia that they almost ripped. I saw Ethiopian Jews living a life that no one should ever have to bear, Jewish or not, with disease, lack of food and obvious poverty.
Most of the more than 20,000 Ethiopian Jews left in Ethiopia today are Falash Mura, people whose families were converted to Christianity about 100 years ago, but who still identify as Jews. The Israeli government for years has been wavering on whether they are real Jews and should be brought to Israel, even though most have family there. Today there are about 85,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, including about 20,000 who were born there.
Starting in the 1970s, thousands of Ethiopian Jews walked from their villages through the Sudan, hoping to find a way to Jerusalem. Some of them died along the way from sickness and exhaustion. More than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984, but still thousands of the community were left with just bubbles of hope back in Gondar. There were 3,000 Falash Mura among the 15,000 Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1990, but the Israeli government sent the Falash Mura back to compounds in Addis Ababa because they weren't considered "real Jews."
I wonder how any country, especially Israel, which has suffered so much, can turn away children who could turn out to be doctors, teachers and the world's next best politicians, and send them not back to their villages in Gondar but to compounds covered in the gray blanket of rain clouds in Addis Ababa, where they don't have any of their belongings or money to survive.
Falash Mura who are still in the compounds of Addis Ababa or their villages in Gondar are waiting to see what's over the rainbow -- and that place is Israel. My group went to one of the compounds in Addis Ababa, where we saw the clinics and met the main doctor, Rick Hodes, who inspired and motivated me more than anyone or anything. He has spent more than 20 years helping the sick and needy in Ethiopia.
I thought that doing a four-day mission should make me a good person, but he has devoted his whole career and life to helping, including adopting 12 children himself -- and only one fully healthy. He studied at Johns Hopkins and could have lived a well-off life in America. But instead, he chose the path of living in Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Jews, where he could be their doctor, a friend and a part of their lives.
In Addis Ababa, we went to see some one-room, square huts that housed five people. I stepped into an old woman's hut and saw the dilapidated, stained walls with no light, straw mattresses and the few reed-woven goods that were the fiber of her life. But what really caught my eye was one picture frame crammed with five or six little shots of family members that had made it to Israel.
The old woman sitting on the coarse, straw mattress said that she had been told that she could go to Israel because she has family there. She left all of her belongings in Gondar and went to live with nothing in Addis Ababa. She has been waiting for nine years. I asked the translator to ask her who had told her to go to Israel. The old woman said in Amharic, "God."
An early one-hour flight to Gondar took us to one of the places where families are interviewed to determine if they are eligible to go to Israel. As I was looking around the room, my mom pointed to a little box filled with passport photos. The box, coincidentally, had the word "lucky" in bold red printed on the side. Those passport photos were of the lucky Falash Mura, those chosen to go Israel, as they believe God intended for them.
The last day, before we went back to Israel with about 50 new immigrant Falash Mura, we stopped at the Israeli Embassy and passed by crowded rooms with classes on how to flush toilets, use refrigerators and what the plane is going to be like.
When the UJC group met at the Addis Ababa airport for our 2:30 a.m. flight, we saw all of the Ethiopian families in their finest white dresses and the little boys in gray suits they had picked up at the embassy. One member of our group brought a Polaroid camera and gave the families pictures of themselves on the day their hopes became reality.
Once we were settled on the plane, these families were reserved and quiet. If they had any fear it was bottled inside. The wheels levitated into the clouds, and only a few of the children giggled, and maybe one baby cried.
When we landed, all of the UJC members walked nonchalantly out of the exit. But as we watched, the Falash Mura came out of the plane -- the women modestly enveloped in their white scarves -- and when each of them reached the tarmac, they kissed the ground, almost throwing themselves to the pavement. They had gone over the rainbow. They had reached Israel.
Sophia Kay is 15 and attends The Archer School for Girls.
To learn more about Ethiopian Jews, visit the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry's website.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; Deadline for the Ocotber issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.