Ethiopia: A stop on the journey home

Photo: Essence Slomianski

My grandfather always told me you can tell a lot about someone from the shoes they’re wearing, but what if they’re wearing no shoes at all? This question never crossed my mind before; it was a given that everybody had shoes. Then I went to Ethiopia. The city of Gondar was my wakeup call, the place that made me realize that the shoes I deemed a natural right were nothing less than a luxury. 

Photo: Essence Slomianski

As my group from Aardvark Israel drove through the muddy streets, I saw what I now understand to be everyday life in Gondar. Children no older than 14 herded sheep, beating them with sticks when they wouldn’t listen. Seven-year-olds wandered along on their own, asking every white person they saw for “genizebi,” money in Amharic. Mothers with their babies tied to their backs carried cartons of water on their shoulders. Children chased the van of visiting tourists with souvenirs to sell. 

My trip to Gondar was mainly to visit and learn about the Jewish community there. The third day of our trip was Saturday, for me, Shabbat. My group and I headed to the Jewish village for morning prayers. Their synagogue was painted with stripes of blue and white and built of tin with a partial roof. The first thing I saw handwritten with paint on the wall were the Hebrew words, translated to mean, “If I forget Jerusalem, I’ll forget my right hand.”

As I entered through the women’s side, my skirt dragging on the muddy outside floor, rows of beautiful women covered in white headscarves came into sight. I made my way to the back and seated myself beside three little 10-year-old girls. All were sitting and joining the prayer with the utmost concentration. It was a very different scene than what I’m used to at my own synagogue, where the little kids are taken out of the actual prayer services in order to not disrupt. At the end of the service, they concluded their prayers with Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem. As I stood, my body covered in chills from their euphonious singing, I saw the pain in their eyes, the desire to come to Israel is their lifeblood. 

Photo: Essence Slomianski

After prayers, we spoke with the community members. One of the little girls turned to me and in Hebrew said, “do you speak Hebrew?” I was shocked, I thought there would be no way for us to communicate. We spoke for a few minutes and as I turned to leave the synagogue, all I could think was that despite living thousands of miles apart in two different worlds, we were able to communicate with the language of our people. I was touched to realize that this little girl and I were connected, yet it was my first time meeting her. 

After we left, the Ethipoeans asked one of the volunteers who we were. She explained my group was made up of young adults from around the world who come to Israel for a year and visited Ethiopia as part of the program. They all looked at each other in confusion and without hesitation said, “you mean they don’t stay and make Aliyah?!” They couldn’t comprehend that we would leave Israel after a year. For them, making Aliyah is the only dream they have. If you asked any of them what their biggest wish is, even the ones with no shoes on, it’s obvious to them that it’s coming to Israel.

We returned to the synagogue later that day to play and sing with the kids. Before doing so, one of the Israeli volunteers told us about the struggles of the Ethiopian Jewish community. Many kids are afraid to say they’re Jewish outside of the village or wear their kippahs because they’ll be threatened or beat up. School is only half a day, and the other half is spent in the synagogue learning Hebrew and about Israel so that when these Ethiopian Jews get the opportunity to move to Israel, they will be prepared to integrate themselves into society there.

Photo: Essence Slomianski

My group also spoke to a young 17-year-old boy who is part of the Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva in Gondar. The young man’s grandmother was approved for Aliyah and she left for Israel, leaving her grandson alone with no family in Gondar since she was his only blood relative. He, along with the rest of the community, have family in Israel and are awaiting their approval to be reunited. 

I was always grateful to have the opportunity to come to Israel for my gap year. However, after my trip to Ethiopia, my entire definition of grateful changed. I am no longer just grateful to live in this amazing country, I am overcome with a sense of obligation to experience Israel as much as possible. More importantly, however, I’m determined to be a voice for the thousands of Jews waiting for the opportunity when they can finally sing Hatikvah in their homeland. 

Essence Slomianski is a student studying in Israel for a gap year and then continuing on to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. She was born in Hawaii but raised in Miami, Florida. She loves the sun and beach, and her favorite meal is always brunch.