I stood outside your blue and white synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia, for the first time a little over a month ago, hoping to contribute to your community and teach you about Israel. In a land so foreign and different from anything I have ever experienced, I looked up at the Hebrew sign reading “The Hatikvah (Hope) Synagogue of the Jewish Community of Gondar” and immediately knew that I had arrived at a special place.
I was so touched by the warm welcome your children gave me. The first time I walked into your synagogue, I was greeted by a group of youngsters that ran towards me and shook my hand one by one. You did not leave my side from that moment.
You showed me what hope is. Some of you have been waiting for 20 years for the Israeli government to approve your aliyah. My journey from America to Israel took place in a matter of days with the signing of a few papers. You have sisters, fathers, daughters and spouses in Israel, yet you are in a distant land, dreaming every day to reunite with your family in the promised land. Though somehow, “od lo avda tikvateinu,” your hope is not yet lost. Your chanting of “Am Yisrael Chai” and the “Hatikvah” national anthem after prayer services each day gave these songs new meaning for me.
What beautiful children you all are. You arrived each morning with the same torn outfit you wore the day before and the day before that, with dirt-covered flip-flops and perhaps a light zip-up on the cool, rainy mornings. Yet I did not hear you complain. You always wore a smile and expressed such happiness. Your faces lit up when I handed you Shabbat Shalom greeting cards that I brought from Israel. I did not tell you but I was so moved when I learned that some of you hung the cards up on the walls of your one-room houses.
And Shabbat in your community had such passion and fervor. I felt uplifted as we sang together your Shabbat songs that weave Jewish tradition with Ethiopian culture in a beautiful way. I listened intently to the chazzan recite the blessings over Kiddush and challah and watched the young ones eagerly await their piece of bread. Some of you would sneak in another roll and wrap it in your clothing in order to bring home to a hungry sibling, while I would look on from the side smiling over the compassion you showed towards others.
Each morning you arrived clenching the one pen and notebook you were handed at the beginning of the summer. Every word I wrote on the board, you repeated after me and wrote in your notebooks. On rainy days, you would hide the notebook in your shirt or dress, lest it get damaged by the rain. After class, I would explain something to one of you and then turn around to find seven others hovering over my shoulder, eager to learn one more word of Hebrew.
I admire the special Ethiopian teen counselors who led the camp together with us volunteers from Israel. You are examples for the younger children. During our last week together, you showed us your verdant land as we hiked together in the mountains. I shall not forget the excitement on your faces when you saw the vans waiting outside the synagogue to pick you up. You sang and cheered the whole ride.
As sunset was approaching ahead of our last Shabbat together, we sat together chanting the same Hebrew songs I grew up with. We locked arms as we shouted “hinei mah tov umah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.” Indeed how goodly it is when our brothers and sisters sit together. You talked about meeting me again in Israel. When will that day come?
I had decided to travel to Gondar, Ethiopia, because I was hoping to contribute to your community and teach you about Israel. However, after one month with each of you, I return to my comfortable apartment in eretz Tzion v’Yerushalayim and think back to your smiling faces with a new perspective on life in the promised land.
Raised in New Jersey and living in Israel for the past seven years, Alisa Bodner has been involved with various initiatives in Israel and abroad to empower underserved Jewish populations. She is riding a high from her latest experience, volunteering with the Jewish community of Gondar, Ethiopia, and is currently exploring new opportunities in the Jewish world. For further information on the subject, she can be reached at [email protected].
By Alisa Bodner