The Ethiopian Exodus
Geula Hadray’s story is reminiscent of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.
It was the summer of 1979 and Geula, then eight-years-old, was living in northern Ethiopia with her family, who had always dreamed of moving to Israel. “One day,” she explained, “my parents, together with others from our village, decided to leave every- thing behind and move to Israel.”
With the assistance of the Mossad and Farede Aklum, a prominent Ethiopian Zionist activist, a group of 80 Ethiopians trekked 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) on foot to Sudan. “We left at night,” she recalled. “It was a difficult trip. We took food and water, and by the time we arrived the water and food were finished.”
Ten days later, the group entered Sudan as refugees and waited for two years, until the Mossad was able to arrange plans for their departure.
Today, Geula lives in Kiryat Gat and works in its Hineni Ethiopian Makom community – a Jewish National Fund partner. Makom, a coalition of communities focused on empowering and revitalizing towns and villages in the Negev and Galilee, brings together individuals and groups from all sectors of society to share knowledge, create dialogue amongst diverse populations, and work together to promote society as a whole.
“I remember the events as though they happened yesterday,” said Geula, adding that she feels it even more around this time of year. As Jews around the world sit at their Seder tables this week and retell the Passover story from enslavement to redemption, for members of Geula’s community, the biblical story of the Exodus is mirrored in their own real-life miraculous departure from Ethiopia and deliverance at the Red Sea.
“The Mossad agent came on Shabbat afternoon, and told us to be ready to leave that night,” Geula continued. That night, 150 Ethiopian Jews were loaded onto a truck and concealed underneath a covering. The truck passed through three roadblocks guarded by Sudanese soldiers. At the final roadblock, one of the soldiers pounded Geula’s back through the covering, checking to see what was underneath. Somehow, she remained silent. The group finally arrived at the shores of the Red Sea, where the Israeli Navy awaited. The group used rubber dinghies, which took them to the navy ship that brought them to Eilat three weeks later.
For many in the Ethiopian community, the story of the Exodus reminds them of their journey to the land of Israel. Said Geula: “At the Seder, the older members of the family tell the young generation about their experiences, so that they understand the difficulties and hardships that were endured to reach Israel and Jerusalem.”
Like other communities in the Diaspora, the Jewish community in Ethiopia developed its own Passover customs and practices. Before Passover, they would destroy their clay utensils and make new ones. Members of the community would slaughter a lamb and eat it at the communal meal as a reminder of the biblical Passover sacrifice. During the week of Passover, meat and milk products were not eaten, and the people subsisted on a vegetarian diet consisting of peas, beans, hummus, flax, sesame, and corn. Geula explains that rather than eat left-over portions during the week, new quantities would be prepared each day. Today, while most of these customs are no longer observed by the Ethiopian community in Israel, there are some families who still slaughter and eat the lamb at the festive Passover meal.
The Jewish National Fund Makom Hineni programs help strengthen the identity of the Ethiopian community, both internally and vis-à-vis Israeli society. “In Ethiopia,” Geula explained, “the male elders are highly respected, but when they came to Israel they couldn’t find their place.”
Hineni created the Beta Israel Village, a unique social-educational center which combines agricultural and educational activities to preserve Jewish-Ethiopian heritage and establish it as a sustainable national asset. The elders of the community are each given a small plot of land, where they raise peppers, corn, tomatoes, garlic, and Ethiopian spices, and support their families with dignity. Geula says that by regaining their self-confidence and help provide for their families, they become “givers, not takers.”
Hineni coordinates activities for the community’s youth so they can keep pride in their Ethiopian roots, and runs meetings between parents, children, and grandparents to preserve community traditions and foster understanding. “When I came to Israel as a 10-year- old,” said Geula, “I was told that in order to succeed in Israeli society, I had to cast away my past life in Ethiopia. When a person grows up with no sense of what he is, or was, he can’t succeed in life.”
Hineni also helps integrate the community into Israeli society as a whole. Geula said that unfortunately, much of Israeli society recognizes the Ethiopians largely by their skin color or through negative media portrayals. “It’s important,” she explained, “that society looks at Ethiopian Jewry as Jews who brought a rare and unusual tradition and culture to Israel. If we don’t know our neighbor, we remain in our own bubble; if we accept people as they are with their differences, whether they look different, or have different traditions, we can create a better society.”
During the week of Passover, the Beta Israel village offers a full slate of free activities for the entire family, including guided tours, arts and crafts, Ethiopian dance, learning the story of the Ethiopian aliyah, and a special exhibit commemorating Operation Moses, which brought thousands of Ethiopians to Israel. The activities will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, and from 8 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on Thursday of during the week of Passover.
Today, Geulah Hadray, married with three children, looks back on her Ethiopian exodus, and says, “We Ethiopians had great faith in God, and prayed that God would save us like he saved the Jews in the desert.”
This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.