Two Ethiopian Israelis share their amazing stories with us at Bristol synagogue

Dekel Akela and Shlomit Zinba are touring the UK from IDC Herzilya where they are both students. We invited them to Bristol’s Progressive synagogue on Saturday to share their stories with the congregation.

Shlomit began by describing her parents’ difficult journey from Ethiopia on foot to Sudan in the early 80s. They were a young couple, only 16 and 17 with a very young daughter, fleeing the hostility of the new communist regime after hearing a rumor that Israel was taking Ethiopian Jews in. It took them four months of trekking through the blistering heat of the desert, having given everything they had managed to bring along to the various highwaymen who hassled them along the way, to reach a refugee camp in Sudan. Shlomit’s mother gave birth again after they arrived in the camp, where they stayed for eight months. Her father learnt arabic and managed to get some work in shaping steel.

After being flown to Israel in secret, they were taught Hebrew and given a home after a stay in another refugee camp. The adjustment was hard though, as they had no experience of modern appliances – they did not even have electricity or running water in their village in Ethiopia – and Israel itself was still new to the concept of this long-lost member of the Jewish family. However, they overcame the obstacles enough to have good lives as Israeli citizens. Shlomit’s father joined the IDF and became a career soldier – his knowledge of Arabic helped with his – now he is a tank engineer. Her mother now translates for new arrivals from Ethiopia – something which was unavailable when she arrived herself.

Shlomit herself was born in Israel, but was exempted from military conscription for medical reasons. However, she wanted to serve her country so she volunteered anyway, and served in a unit which assisted with the rescue of Ethiopian Jews, which felt to her as if she had gone full circle – she was doing for other Ethiopian families what other Israelis had done for her family. She is now studying communications at IDC Herzilya and also helps other Ethiopian Israelis get the full scholarships they are entitled to – this applies to any Ethiopian Jew who made aliyah after 1980 or the children of a couple who both qualify. They are also entitled to stay in an absorption center for two years and up to 3000 shekels to put toward a mortgage.

Dekel told us of his father’s solo journey to Israel in the late 70s to escape the terrible fate which befell many of his friends – that of being forced into fighting on the front lines of the civil war while they were only children – which most did not return from. Dekel’s father was able to get a scholarship in Addis Ababa which put him in a better position to escape Ethiopia; he procured a fake passport and flew to Kenya, and from there to Israel. He found it very difficult in Israel to start with; he had no language in common with anyone else, had no family or anyone else to be with, and most Israelis knew nothing of the Ethiopian Jews at that time, as the rescue operations hadn’t happened yet. He adapted though and volunteered with the IDF, and he now does woodwork for the military industry.

Dekel is the product of what he calls an unusual union – an Ethiopian and an Iranian Jew. His mother arrived in Israel from Iran at a very young age, and their marriage is indeed uncommon in Israel. He

spoke of his own military service which began with a paratrooper brigade and continued with counterterrorism work. He served for five and half years and reached the rank of captain. After his service, he joined the Jewish Agency and volunteered in Ethiopia helping people prepare for aliyah; like his father and Shlomit’s parents, they knew no Hebrew and nothing of Israeli culture or modern life. He is now studying business administration at IDC Herzilya.

Shlomit and Dekel are both in agreement that it is the second generation of immigrant families which really ‘makes it’ in the new country – themselves in this case. It is great that Israel helps families to settle in and so give their children the tools and opportunities they need to be successful.

They both described their experiences of visiting their parents’ hometowns in Ethiopia, and how they were given warm welcomes, especially Dekel’s father who was recognized by the locals even after so many years. They also gave us a flavor of the rich traditions among Ethiopian Jewish families and some insight into their way of life. They were both informative and moving, and also added touches of humor throughout.

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