Ethiopian Jews visit Minnesota allies

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Four Ethiopian Jews from Hadera, Israel, accompanied by two officials were in Minnesota during the Thanksgiving holiday to show gratitude to their partners — the Minneapolis Jewish Federation — for assisting their settlement in Israel.

Speaking in Hebrew through an interpreter, Abeba Adrgall, Zehava Zamena, Erez Masala and Mordechai Mevrat told this reporter at the Spring Hill Hotels in St. Louis Park that they came to Minnesota to thank the Jewish Federation for helping them fulfill their long-term dream of integration into Israeli society.

Under the banner of PACT (Parents and Children Together), a unique partnership has been forged between the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the city of Hadera in which over 740 Ethiopian Israeli children and parents have benefited from PACT and PACT Plus programs. The goal has been to open doors of opportunity and offer an equal chance of success for Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

The delegation of two women and two men of Ethiopian Jewish descent was accompanied by two Israeli officials, Abi Ofsten and Yehuda Zusman. They told this reporter that in the assimilation process of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, emphasis is placed on providing quality education and language skills and assisting in career development.

Proper grooming is done from early childhood: “From pre-school to 10th grade, we have compulsory education, followed by high school and college education accompanied by military training.” They said that at daycare centers, kids are helped with promoting a sense of balance, stimulating curiosity, and refining gross and fine motor skills, as well as developing hand-eye coordination. From age three to six, children are taught reading skills followed by science enrichment programs where Hebrew literacy with culturally sensitive literacy enrichment is emphasized.

Under a program called Operation Solomon 1, in the 1990s Ethiopian Jews left their country to join other Jews in the Promised Land — Israel. They traveled with very few earthly possessions and with different levels of educational background and little or no knowledge of Hebrew. The PACT / HADERA partnership, now entering its sixth year, has tremendously assisted the newcomers to join the mainstream of the broader Jewish community in Israel.

Explaining the history of Jews in Ethiopia, the visiting team said there were two legends. One claims that they were one of the “lost tribes” that left Egypt through the Sudan and traveled along the Nile to settle in Ethiopia.

The other legend claims that the beautiful Queen of Sheba from Ethiopia set out on a mission to visit King Solomon of Israel in the year 1000 BC. She had a relationship with the king, and when she returned to Ethiopia she was pregnant with Solomon’s son, Menelik 1, who became the first emperor of Ethiopia.

The last king of that dynasty was Haile Sellasie (Lion of Judah), who reigned from 1930 to 1974, when he was overthrown by a military dictatorship led by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Mengistu, who tried to introduce communism to Ethiopia, was overthrown by a counter-coup that brought Meles Zenawi, a Tigrinya soldier, to power. Mengistu now lives in exile in Zimbabwe. Ethiopia today has three major tribes — the Oromo, Tigrinya and Amharic — representing the major languages spoken by the approximately 60 million people of that country.

Ethiopia is an ancient civilization linked to the Greco-Roman world by the Nile River system, with ties of kinship to Indo-Persian-Arab races. Ancient Ethiopian Jews (Falashas) had always entertained the dream of someday linking up with other Jews in Israel, which became a Jewish state in 1948.

Speaking about tensions between Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East, the visiting Ethiopian Jews recognized that Jerusalem was a holy city to Muslims, Christians and Jews. They affirmed that the three faiths should live in peace, but “due to terrorism, it is a shame that we have not yet found common ground.”

Commenting on how Israel has managed to convert desert country into arable land, they replied, “It has been done through hard work, faith and wisdom.”

Asked if they would have opted to relocate to the U.S.A. instead of Israel with all its tribulations, they gave an emphatic and categorical answer: “Our dreams and optimism for the future lie with Israel. Jews belong to only one country — Israel. We have no desire to go anywhere else.”

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