This is the story of an individual who perhaps is symbolic of the whole Ethiopian immigrant experience and certainly represents the coming generation of leadership for that community. His full name is Zeru Andualem Mekonnen, Zeru being his grandfather's name and Mekonnen his father's.
Andualem is 21 years of age and has been in Israel since December 2004. During this time he has attended the KEDMA program at Nitzana, become fluent in Hebrew, received his high school diploma, become the leader of the present group of Ethiopian newcomers and shortly will enter the army. By the way, he is able to read the New York Times on line in English as well as speak with reasonable fluency. This is all the more remarkable when you realize that just a few years ago he was living on a farm in Ethiopia.
Andualem was born in the village of Sankra where his father owned a farm in which the family grew food crops and coffee beans. This was his life up until the age of 11, when the family decided that they would immigrate to Israel. For Ethiopians it is not a simple matter.
First of all they move to a camp in the city of Gondar where they stay and just wait for a possible chance to make aliyah (immigration to Israel). This is complicated because the Israeli government wants to make sure that people applying to come to Israel have a Jewish connection. The Israeli government has compiled a long list of families and their Jewish heritage and it takes a long time to check out the linkage between any one person and their Jewish background, especially as the Jews of Ethiopia were cut off from Rabbinic Judaism for centuries and have evolved their own practices and customs. Even when the rabbinic authorities are assured that an individual comes from Jewish roots and has Jewish parents, that individual must undergo a formal conversion process in Israel. This is to remove any doubt as to the authenticity of their religious status.
The people living in the camp such as the one in Gondar came under control of "Joint" - an agency of the Jewish people involved in refugee relief since before World War I. After living in the camp from 1999 to 2004 Andualem and his parents, brother and sister were granted an opening to come to Israel. Obviously, life in the camp was not easy and for Andualem, there was little opportunity for school and almost no opportunity for anyone to work except manual labor on construction projects.
Finally the time to move arrived and the family went by bus from Gondar to Addis Abba, a two day journey. At Addis Abba they boarded a plane and four hours later landed in Israel.
What were his reactions when he arrived in Israel? The first thing that he noticed was that there were Jews who were not covering their head. On the flight, he had a vision of the Holy Land where everyone was religious and every one prayed all the time. This was not to be the reality. His next reaction was a mixture of joy, sadness and disappointment. Joy, because after so much time he had finally arrived. A little sadness because he realized that he had left his old life completely behind and all of the familiar faces and friends he had in his native land.
From the airport the family was taken to Kibbutz Telilim which is in the Negev. When he woke up the next morning and looked around the kibbutz he was surprised to see fields of crops, agricultural equipment and a cow shed. At first he was somewhat disappointed because he thought that he had come so far only to be sent back to the farm from which the family had left five years earlier.
He remained on the kibbutz for 18 months, working and getting used to being in Israel. From the kibbutz he was sent to the KEDMA program at Nitzana to begin his formal education in Hebrew and other subjects to prepare him for life in Israel. After finishing this program, he moved to Sapir College where he studied for his high school degree. This took him an additional two and a half years. At the completion of his studies he returned to Nitzana as the in house guide, youth leader and shepherd of the present KEDMA group of 50 students - 35 boys and 15 girls - all between the ages of 18-22 years old.
What does this work involve? As you can imagine, any group of youth will present some challenges to adult leadership, but if you add the additional problems of acclimation, learning a new language and separation from family, it becomes a 24/7 job. The students are good kids but they are kids and have all the hormonal energies, emotional flights and enthusiasm of people their age anywhere in the world. Andualem is sort of a father figure, disciplinarian and social worker all tied up in one, but remember he is only a few years older than the majority of the group that he leads.
The new immigrants' needs are great and they range from the normal teen desire to have everything done for them, their way and right now, to family issues that tear at the foundations of their young lives. For example, the day that I sat with Andualem, there were two brothers who wanted to go home because their father had been arrested for domestic abuse. The brothers felt that they needed to be home to help their mother but Andualem had to convince them to stay and finish the program with only a month left. A wide range of issues never cease to present themselves among 50 students.
What are his plans? After the completion of the course, Andualem will begin his military service, a basic rite of passage in Israel for every 18 year old male and female. He hopes to become an officer but has not decided which branch of the military he wants to work in. He has however expressed an interest in engineering. After the army he wants to visit the United States. When we discussed this, his major concern was that he would be able to obtain kosher food and find places that were Shomer Shabbat. Incidentally, Andualem is the prayer leader for the group, leads services, reads from the Torah and introduces topics on Jewish heritage and practice.
I want to leave this description of this remarkable young man with the following observation. Andualem is certainly a talented and capable young man with the intellectual ability to go far in life but the most telling characteristic I would say is his good heart. He cares deeply about the young people and is doing his best to be a guide, teacher and role model for them. I think everyone would agree that in most cases he has succeeded.
I will leave you with this thought, as Americans many of us have taken for granted the fact that we are able to make aliyah - not so when you are coming "Out of Africa." Andualem has been a good example of how it is possible to overcome the odds that we may face when trying to return to our promised homeland.