Five days after the Idan Raichel concert, on yet another rainy night, I attended a soiree at our friends’ house. It was neither a social gathering nor a fundraiser but an awareness raising event, to meet and greet and hear the story of a man named Getu Zemene, former director of the Jewish community of Gondar, Ethiopia for the North American Conference of Ethiopian Jewry.
Since Philippe couldn’t come, I went alone, walking into the house 15 minutes fashionably late. Men and women—British, Australian, American, Canadian, French, South African—most of whom I knew, stood shoulder to shoulder, drinking hot wine, nibbling on cheese and crackers, mingling. It was easy to spot the guest of honor, the only dark-skinned person in the place. With my camera and pen and paper in hand, I approached him and introduced myself in English, explaining about my blog and asking permission to write about him. His English, it turns out, is better than his Hebrew; he knew about the internet but had no idea what a blog was but shook his head yes, clearly open to any way to spread his word.
Our host summoned us into the living room, where about 30 plastic folding chairs were set up facing a flat-screen TV, and introduced the first speaker, our friend Aarran Levy, who had been sent as one of two British, part of a 15-person European delegation to visit the compound in Gondar in 2006. Aaron showed us 20 photos as he told us the story of the Ethiopian Jewish community, their determination to convert if need be and leave their country, and, finally, how he met Getu, the brain behind the operation.
Originally trained as a veterinarian, Getu later worked as a meat inspector. Until he saw, in Gondar, the need to mobilize the thousands of villagers trying to get their names on a list to immigrate to Israel like he and his family had. These people had no money, no food, no work, no place to live. When Getu started to speak, he told us of a woman who had come in with a baby on her back begging for food. We are starving, she had said, and the baby cried all night in hunger. Getu got up to look at the baby, putting his hand on the tiny body, which was still, dead of hunger, cold, illness. It was a typical story, repeated over and over again, because the people had left their mud huts to come to the city. They needed help, and he knew it.
During a 13-year-period, Getu built a synagogue, Jewish schools, cemetery, feeding centers, adult education workshops, medical clinic and more. Over time, he became the local director of the Jewish Compound where he supervised all the operations in Ethiopia for the 8,700 members of the community. Finally, the Jewish Agency took control of the compound, allowing Getu and his family the opportunity to immigrate to Israel. He, his wife and their three children arrived in January 2011 and have been living in the Raanana absorption center ever since. But the harsh reality is that for the past 12 months, Getu has been unable to find work and his wife, a teacher, cleans houses six days a week to support them.
The reality is the Ethiopian community in Israel is struggling—to assimilate, integrate, learn the language, find good jobs, be accepted. According to Jewish Virtual Library, a division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, “most of the Ethiopian community is living below the poverty line as defined by the Israeli government. People are not starving, although Ethiopian children often come to school without having eaten breakfast and in schools where there is a lunch program, children are very happy to eat whatever simple lunch they are given… A lot of the families with many young children are headed by unemployed men in their late fifties and sixties.” The reality is the government is guilty of not doing enough.
The reality is not as beautiful as Idan Raichel sings it.
The Raanana community is mobilizing to help, organizing meetings in their homes to meet Getu and hear his fascinating story. Through these meetings, they—we—are making a real difference. One person is helping him participate in a Dale Carnegie public speaking course, to learn how to tell his story in a more powerful way. Some invite them for Friday night dinner; others are making meals for the family.
If you or anyone you know might be able to help this man find a job or if you want to invite him to speak at any event, he would be willing, able and grateful. Feel free to comment for others to see or email me directly. Let’s get the conversation going.