'Soul-stirring journey'

The true meaning of ‘the People of Israel’

That’s the special thing about feeling Jewish: while there is so much that sets us apart ... there is always something we can find in common, share and bond over.

  • Gary Perlstein on the plane with the olim.
    Gary Perlstein on the plane with the olim.
  • The KH-UIA group in Ethiopia.
    The KH-UIA group in Ethiopia.
  • An Ethiopian man makes a tallit.
    An Ethiopian man makes a tallit.
  • Jewish Ethiopian men at prayer.
    Jewish Ethiopian men at prayer.

It was while standing in Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, surrounded by almost 100 anxious Ethiopian olim who had packed up their life’s belongings to begin a journey that had been longed for, dreamed about and ingrained in the very fibre of their beings, that we first noticed it.

A large silver pot stacked amongst the luggage that had been stuffed with memories of the lives they were about to leave behind. Apparently, no matter where you come from, we plan for our next meal. And the Jews of Ethiopia are no different. Knowing they will arrive in a foreign place where the language, land and people look, feel and sound completely different from what they’ve always known, Keren Hayesod-UIA and The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) allow Ethiopian olim to bring cooking utensils with them on the four-hour flight from Ethiopia to Jerusalem. That way, when they arrive, one thing that is familiar is the way in which their food is cooked.

That’s the special thing about feeling Jewish: while there is so much that sets us apart – the way we dress, how we pray, where our lineage descends from, even the colour of our skin – there is always something we can find in common, share and bond over.

Over the three days that we visited Ethiopia, we knew from the outset that we were embarking on a physically and emotionally exhausting trip to see what life for Ethiopian olim entailed – visiting the villages, learning their culture, speaking to the people and understanding the challenges of making aliyah. What we experienced was a soul-stirring journey into the heart of another land that is so starkly different from what we know, to find a nation that is a part of our own.

From visiting a shule in the local village of Gondar, where men spin their own talleisim and Hebrew is learnt in the make-shift school, to dancing the hora with the young children of families waiting to board the aeroplanes that would take them to their new lives in Israel, to be Jewish is to look in the eye of a stranger and know that they are your family. Their prayers are your prayers. Their history is your history. Their traditions are your traditions. And they all focus on one shared place: Israel.

And for the olim who we met in Ethiopia, some of whom had lost family members in the treacherous trek across Sudan to get to Israel back in the ’80s, some who had left their homes and livelihoods while they waited for the government to grant them papers, who longed to see the family who had gone ahead of them in the aliyah journey, there was no alternative. Plan B does not exist. There is only one place to go, and that place is home.

And while home is the same place for Jews around the world, where you come from does not matter. Whether its war-torn Ukraine, or the rural villages of Gondar or the beaches of Bondi, there is no place a Jew can be that they will not be brought home to Israel; safe, secure and with the resources to begin anew. Because that’s what it means to be Jewish: “to love your fellow as yourself”; to give to strangers as if they are your family. To care about the other like a friend. As we sat on the aeroplane chatting, singing and dancing with these olim whose lives had not only changed, but were about to begin upon our arrival at Ben Gurion airport, we realised the importance of our ancestral and cultural connection, a connection that binds us as a people – the People of Israel.

It was all the reminder that we at UIA, who had accompanied our brothers and sisters on the final part of their journey, needed to stay inspired, committed and motivated to keep doing what we’re doing. It was also a reminder of who we’re doing it for – as we say at UIA – “for the People of Israel”.

Steven Lowy is chairman of the Keren Hayesod-UIA World Board of Trustees. Gary Perlstein is president of UIA NSW.

UIA NSW’s General Division and Young Leadership events featuring former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett are on Sunday, February 26. Bookings: uiaaustralia.org.au
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