120 hours in Ethiopia: From Jewish miracle workers to Shabbat in Gondar

TWO BOYS before morning services at the Hatikva Synagogue in Gondar. In the back, the famous text reads: ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill].’
(photo credit: CARMEL MADASHAHI)

When we travel, we’re often just passing through.

We jump from city to city, from site to site, taking surface views with no depth or perception: cars rushing by on crowded highways, foreign scents and sounds, colors unfamiliar to our Westernized eyes, monuments built by conquerors years ago; our senses are overwhelmed.

But we often take in these sights at a distance. There is no safer place than behind the safety of our tour bus windows as we watch cities roll out in front of us like scenes in a movie.

Through it all, we miss an essential aspect of travel: human contact and connection. In these cities beyond our lookout windows are people with unique stories living lives completely different from our own. Personal experience has taught me that through conversation and interactions with people we meet, sharing stories colored by our different worlds, is where one can truly look past the mind’s deep-rooted external facades and envelope a culture foreign to us.

It was with this mindset that I decided to discover Ethiopia.

Having the good fortune to be on a gap-year in Israel through my program, Aardvark Israel, which offers occasional trips across the world to places such as Europe and China, an opportunity presented itself by way of a five-day trip to Ethiopia. This was not a chance I was about to pass up. In addition to the typical tourist sights, our trip would focus on the Ethiopian Jewish narrative and the communities who had yet to immigrate to Israel.

With a pulsing excitement to explore a new country, our group of 30 students from across the world took over the small Ethiopian Airlines plane, which landed in the bustling capital of Addis Ababa. After hauling 30 pieces of luggage onto the roof of our minivan, we took our seats and opened our windows to the warm African sun as Teddy Afro’s bubbly song “Ethiopia” blasted over the radio.

Our first stop was not to a museum or an ancient castle, but to the humble home of Dr. Rick Hodes, medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Ethiopia Spine and Heart project, and the only spinal specialist in a city of three million people.

Driving down the roads away from the city center, we arrived at a brightly colored gated house with a mezuzah on the doorpost. If you had simply driven down this road, you would have never assumed who lived within. The house was just another ordinary building in the neighborhood, not a distinct landmark or destination. Yet houses never portray who lives within, and we were soon to learn who resided in this house.

As we waited for Hodes to return home from his day at the clinic, we got an opportunity to meet both his former and current patients, as well as their families. The doctor’s warm and generous nature was evident even before we met the man himself, expressed by all those of varying ages who came in and out of the home, praising him and the miraculous impact he has had on their lives.

I had a chance to speak to Mengistu, a nine-year-old boy who had already undergone multiple surgeries. Due to tuberculosis of the spine, Mengistu had been in such poor condition that at first it was impossible for him to walk into Dr. Hodes’s office. Today, he walks, runs and plays soccer with the rest of the boys in the streets. Through broken English, he pointed at my camera and asked me to take a picture of him, smiling and standing proudly, sharing with me that one day he would be “a doctor just like Dr. Rick.”

After a quick game of soccer in the street, we all congregated into the intimate living room, surrounded by a seemingly infinite number of books ranging in topic from medicine to Judaism, to hear Hodes’s story. He stood in front of us and told us of growing up in a Jewish family in Syosset, Long Island, then moving to Middlebury College in Vermont with a major in geography, and a hitchhiking trip to Alaska, where he lived for seven years.

“I DIDN’T KNOW what I was going to do with my life.”

After a period of uncertainty, Hodes explained his life-altering decision with a simple statement: “I thought about my life and decided I should become a doctor in a place where I was really needed.”

Fast forward through pre-med at the University of Alaska, medical school in Rochester, New York, and a focus on internal medicine at John Hopkins University. Hodes had set off on a path to accomplish everything he set his mind to.

In 1985, after 12 years of medical school, he spent one year teaching internal medicine in Ethiopia while on a Fulbright Fellowship. That soon turned into two-and-a-half years, beginning a long relationship of making the country his homefront in the battle against conditions too long ignored.

A few years later, he was hired by the JDC to take charge of the health of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel as part of Operation Solomon, the covert Israeli military operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel that took place from May 24-25, 1991.

Since then, Hodes has been the doctor for the last 75,000 immigrants to Israel, nearly 1% of Israel’s current population.

It was during that time when Hodes was drawn to volunteering at Mother Teresa’s mission, home for the helpless and hopeless, taking care of anybody who entered. At one point, two boys walked in: one six years old with a 90-degree angle in his back, and the other a 12-year-old with a 120-degree angle. The boys could barely look up ,due to tuberculosis of the spine.

“These are abandoned orphans who don’t have parents, living in a room for sick kids [who] are not offered for adoption. It’s sort of the bottom of the world, and I wanted to help them because I knew that if I couldn’t get them surgery, they would become paralyzed.”

After many attempts to find a doctor who would operate on both boys, nobody was willing to step up and help. With a wry smile, Hodes explained his idea: “I could adopt them, add them to my American health insurance, and get them surgery in the United States.”

Yet adoption was not a simple task. “On one hand, they could get surgery and that could change their lives. On the other hand, we would have to spend the rest of our lives together. Did I want that much responsibility, did I want this much permanence?”

With a devout connection to God and Judaism, Hodes shared his dilemma with the universe, explaining, “I looked up and I said to the Almighty, ‘What do you want me to do?’

“A few days later, it’s as if I got a fax to my brain and there was an answer: ‘I’m offering you a chance to help these boys, don’t say no.’”

With ease and not an inch of doubt in his mind, he openly accepted the task.

To get them the surgery they needed, Hodes adopted the boys, added them to his health insurance and brought them to Dallas for medical care at Texas Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital. Both surgeries were successful, and today, the first of the two boys is in pharmacy school in Atlanta, Georgia, while the other is a business entrepreneur and tour guide. Both can now walk and stand straight.

Yet the cases and kids kept coming.

“Another kid came along, and he had a bad back, so I adopted him, added him to my insurance and got him surgery in Texas. But multiple adoptions is probably not the answer to spinal deformities, so I needed to come up with a better solution.”

THROUGH A CHANCE meeting in 2006, Hodes met Dr. Oheneba Boachie-Adjei, who leads the Foundation of Orthopedics and Complex Spine, a nonprofit organization that offers complex medical procedures to the poor across Africa. Since then, they have worked together, with Hodes sending his patients to Boachie-Adjei for traction and surgery. While they started off with approximately 20 patients a year, they now receive 400-500 patients a year, with people from all over the world arriving by any means possible.

“I have the largest collection of the worst spinal deformities in the world, and I’m trying to help them all,” Hodes said.

One by one, he called up his patients and told their individual stories. We all sat in that living room, our mouths agape with wonder, as we stared at one man who made the active decision to affect so many. The children around him gazed at their doctor with love and affection as they shared with us their own dreams, many wanting to become doctors themselves.

Rather than living a lavish life in America, Hodes has dedicated his life to the numerous less fortunate in Ethiopia. With five adopted Ethiopian children and endless other patients, he continues to work every day to further the quality of life for others.

Through it all, his dedication to God is evident. When he misses a flight, it allows a chance encounter with someone who needs his help. When he oversleeps and arrives late to morning prayer, he encounters a surgeon who can help his patients. Nothing is simply by chance.

“The Jewish people were asked by God to be examples to the world of three things: honesty, morality and kindness. That’s what it means to be a good Jew.”

Hodes emulates that with every step.

The evening ended as we contemplated our own aspirations amid the face of true selflessness and success.

THE NEXT day led us away from the capital and into the northern city of Gondar.

After a communal meal of injera, a flat, moist sourdough bread with a tangy flavor topped with various colorful stews, we began the drive to the Simien Mountains National Park.

Paved roads transitioned to a rocky terrain as our vans bounced through rural villages. It seemed as if we had entered a different world from our urban and industrialized cities thousands of miles away. Children wrapped in brightly colored scarves rode on donkeys, as women and men hauled water back to their homes from their nearest well or stream.

The national park greeted us with panoramic views of flat-topped mountains dropping into sheer cliffs. We drove through hairpin turns that bent along peaks and fertile valleys that were home to gelada baboons.

That Friday night, we celebrated Shabbat together with a meal set amid the beautiful Ethiopian landscape. We planned on an early Shacharit service the following morning at the HaTikva Synagogue in Gondar.

We dressed in our modest Shabbat clothing that morning and walked down the cobbled streets to meet the Jewish community. The sounds of cars rattled past in the distance as children from the community ran around dressed in white, undisturbed.
We eventually passed through a gate in a corrugated metal wall, painted with vertical blue and white stripes, under the watchful eye of a rifle-toting guard.

Past the plastic-laminated “house rules” in English and Amharic (“no electronic devices, long skirts required for ladies”), we entered a small courtyard where young children sat. Their shy expressions broke into ravishing smiles as we made eye contact and they sang, “Hinei ma tov u’ma na-im shevet achim gam ya-chad” (Behold, how good and how pleasing it is for brothers to sit together in unity). Words that I have sung for years with my friends and family had now become a warm message of welcome into the community.

THE BLUE and white stripes continued along the inside of the sanctuary. We walked through the compound and came upon rows of black female faces framed in white, woven cotton “netela” shawls that wrap heads and upper bodies, silhouetting them against the darkness. We found places to sit among the women on simple metal benches. They sat and rose together, a sea of rippling white, every few moments, calling out “Amen,” their chants punctuating the male cantor’s voice from the other side of the mehitzah (partition).

As the prayers alternated between Amharic and Hebrew, I found myself searching for the familiar words and tunes. Every syllable sounded different, yet prayers such as Shema Yisrael and L’cha Dodi were the same. I joined the rising voices, pride swelling up inside me.

As I sat on metal benches, with my feet on a dusty floor, surrounded by a familiar melody that was taught to me as a child, I looked to the people around me who I had just met moments ago and saw the threads of life’s tapestry binding us together. It was a connection to my religion that I had never experienced.

This was not a synagogue in Europe, large and dazzling with stained glass and gold. Nor was it the synagogue in my local community, seating hundreds on plush fabric seats. Yet this place, resembling more of an agricultural shed than a holy sanctuary, was where I felt God the most.

With meager means, barely getting by day to day, the Jewish community of Gondar radiated joy.

After the prayer concluded, “Hatikvah” was sung. Chills spread across my body, emotions overwhelming me, as I felt tears stream down my face.

It was a moment I will not soon forget.

The children came up to us after services, eyes filled with wonder, as we told them that we were currently living in Israel; a land they have only dreamed of. Their eyes only grew as we explained that we were living in Jerusalem.

The story of Ethiopia’s rediscovered “Beta Israel” Jewish community is by now familiar. The 1980s and ‘90s airlift operations brought some 23,000 of these descendants of the “lost tribe of Dan” to Israel. What is less known is that approximately 8,000 Jews remain in Ethiopia, primarily in Gondar and Addis. This Orthodox community spoke Hebrew fluently and has been taught the history of Israel, all in preparation for a smooth transition upon arrival.

The majority have family members living in Israel. Yet the community is split, as many only dream of making aliyah one day.
Even as their packed luggage continues to gather dust, they told us with the utmost faith, “It is forbidden to give up hope.”
It was on the flight back home when I truly felt everything come full circle.

It’s easy to plug in your headphones and drown out the incessant airplane buzz, the whining children, and simply attempt to forget that you’re sitting in the sardine-like rows of economy class. For the majority of the flight, I had done just that. I was exhausted after those long five days, yet had the energy in the last hour before we landed back in Israel to have a conversation with the man sitting next to me.

It began with a simple question, asking if I could help him change his SIM card. He then expressed curiosity about how my Hebrew was so fluent and about the group I was traveling with. In turn, I learned that his name was Molah. Originally from Ethiopia, he is now a father of two who lives in Petah Tikva.

Though his Hebrew was heavily cloaked with an Amharic accent, we exchanged stories of our time in Ethiopia. My trip was rather brief in comparison to his month-and-a-half visit to his brother, who is still trying to make aliyah. As the conversation progressed, I discovered that Molah had been born and raised in Gondar and had been a part of the Beta Israel compound that I had the chance to visit.

I shared with him my powerful experience as he smiled with familiarity of the scene I painted for him.

Sitting by my side was a success story; another man who built his way up and made a community for himself.
The hour flew by as we landed safely back home and clapped with joy (as all Israelis do) when we touched ground. Molah then turned to me with a smile and said, “Baruch Hashem, we are back home.”

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