Completing the Journey Mission to Ethiopia
Gordon Hecker is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program in Columbus 2000. He currently serves as Campaign Chair for Columbus Jewish Federation and is on the Executive Committee of Jewish Federations of North America. When not engrossed in Jewish lay leadership, he is the Sr. VP of Corporate Marketing at Nationwide Insurance. Gordon can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org
The flight lasted just four and a half hours and, for me, it was just another plane ride. But for the 105 Ethiopian olim, this flight from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv was more like being transported by a time machine. Last week, Larry Kadis (Wexner Heritage Cleveland Alum) and I participated in this remarkable most recent return of our people to Zion.
Our Jewish narrative is filled with stories of our longing to return to the promised land. The last week of March, 60 North Americans traveled to Ethiopia to get a very personal education about the plight of the 8,700 Falash Mura who desperately want to emigrate to Israel. We went to their villages and witnessed horrific scenes of poverty and living conditions beyond our imaginations. Conversely we met Israeli and American heroes who are devoting their lives to assisting our Ethiopian brethren. We were awed by their dedication and relentlessness in the face of such despair.
Fortunately, we were not there just to learn about the situation, but to actually participate in the latest exodus. We got to play our own small part when we met with the olim at the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa and presented them with the new wardrobes that they could wear to the airport. On the afternoon of their departure, I had the honor of addressing the olim (it was simultaneously translated into Amharic so they could understand). I explained that all Jews, no matter where they are from, are all brothers and sisters and hence we look out for each other. I sang the first verse of Lechi Lach by Debbie Friedman (of blessed memory).
“Lechi lach to a land that I will show you
Lech li-cha to a place you do not know
Lechi lach on your journey I will bless you
And you shall be a blessing, you shall be a blessing
You shall be a blessing lechi lach”
While the Falash Mura did not know that song, they joined in when we sang Am Yisrael Chai and then we left for the airport.
When we arrived at the departure lounge, we witnessed the wonder in the children’s faces when they saw an airplane for the first time. And then we sat with them on that plane and showed them how to use seat belts, head phones and even the bathroom. At one point, I pulled out my iPad and the 12 year old girl next to me began to type out her name in English and then in Hebrew. She and I worked on math problems using just sign language and soon we had a whole crowd of kids gathered in the aisle taking their turns doing math. Given the lack of decent school facilities, I was amazed at how much they knew.
The most moving moment for all of us though had to be the arrival in Israel. The North Americans exited the plane first. Then we watched as the Ethiopians one by one came down the stairs, stood on Israeli soil for the first time, knelt down and kissed the tarmac.
While it is easy to feel like our mission is now accomplished, for those 105 Olim, their integration into the 21st century is only just beginning. This modern day exodus truly has transported them to a brand new world full of opportunities but the challenge of taking a time machine 2,000 years into the future is daunting.
To participate in a mission like this, just weeks before we celebrate Pesach and our own liberation from oppression and arrival in Zion was a wake up call. It made me realize more than ever just how fortunate I am to have been born in North America and raised in a strong Jewish community. More than anything though, it reaffirmed for me just how vital the state of Israel and the Law of Return are to the Jewish people.