Jewish, Jewish, Everywhere, & not a drop to drink
Thursday, September 11, 2003

A Boston-Ethiopia Love Story
Two lives, and two worlds, converge in the holy land.

By Rabbi Shraga Simmons

1981. Akiva Lebowitz is cracking a calculus equation at the elite Phillips-Andover Prep School near Boston, as the sound of classmates playing lacrosse drifts through the open window. This is where the likes of George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, Jr. (and for that matter, Oliver Wendell Holmes) spent their high school days.

Meanwhile, half a world away, a young girl named Rachel Darar is walking barefoot across the desert. Rachel's family -- parents, four siblings, and elderly grandmother -- have left their Ethiopian village, hoping to fulfill a 2,000-year-old dream of returning to the Land of Israel. The decision is fraught with risks; those caught trying to leave Ethiopia are imprisoned and tortured. Yet those who remain face a constant threat of war, famine, and horrendous health conditions that will claim 1.3 million Ethiopian lives over 20 years.

Rachel and her family are headed for Sudan, where rumor says they can be airlifted to Israel.

They are traveling in a group of five families -- walking by day, camping at night. The desert heat is excruciating, and thieves threaten along the way. Before leaving the village, Rachel's father sold everything they owned -- a flock of sheep and some rudimentary furnishings. He sewed the money into the children's clothes, and keeps a few coins in his pocket -- so when the thieves come, he can quickly give up the money and spare the rest.

One of Rachel's relatives didn't give up his money. The young girl watched as the thieves beat him brutally.

Rachel's family has a donkey, which carries the flour from which they bake flatbread. Though they are to take turns riding the donkey, Rachel's grandmother is paralyzed and needs to ride continuously. The grandmother feels she is a burden, and tells the others, "Leave me here and you go on." Halfway through the journey, she dies. The family buries her en route and plants a tree to mark the gravesite.

Of the 12,000 Jews that leave Ethiopia in the early 1980s, the harsh six-month trek to Sudan would claim 4,000 lives.

Once in Sudan, Rachel and her family live a clandestine existence, blending in with the Sudanese locals, awaiting word of the airlift. If they are discovered to be Jews, they'll be arrested, deported or killed.

After two years, word finally arrives. In the middle of the night, completely without Sudanese approval, Rachel and her family sneak out to a field and board an Israeli transport plane. Their 2,000-year exile has finally ended.


Meanwhile, back in Boston, Akiva Lebowitz is on the fast track. He graduates Boston Univ. School of Law, serves as an assistant district attorney, and then enters private practice as a defense attorney. For Akiva, the 1990s are a decade of building a lucrative and prestigious career. But a big part of the picture is missing: Akiva has no wife.

September 2000. Akiva is on a two-week vacation to visit family in Israel. While at a restaurant in Jerusalem, an old friend introduces Akiva to a coworker, Rachel. Later, Akiva finds that he can't stop thinking about her. His flight back to America is in a few days, so he has to move quickly. The next day he goes back to the restaurant and asks Rachel to meet him at 8:00 p.m. for a date.

That evening, Akiva arrives at the designated place and time. Rachel isn't there, so he waits until 9 o'clock. 10 o'clock. 11 o'clock. But she doesn't show up.

Akiva is upset. But he can't stop thinking about her. Two days later, he goes back to the restaurant to confront her: "Why didn't you show up?"

"What do you mean?!" Rachel says. "I waited until 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, 11 o'clock -- but you didn't show up!"

Apparently Akiva's broken Hebrew led to a miscommunication. Rachel had shown up the next night. At this point Akiva has only 48 hours left in Israel, so he says: "I'm waiting right here until you get off work, and then we'll have our date."

The date goes well. Very well. They both sense this could become serious. Akiva flies back to Boston. They correspond, Akiva visits again, and they decide to get married.

Rachel and Akiva never give thought to their different skin color. Judaism has taught them to look beyond the surface. But how would their parents' react? After all, interracial marriage is still uncommon, especially those with such vastly different cultural backgrounds.

Akiva meets Rachel's parents at their home in Kiryat Gat. Rachel's parents acknowledge the obvious and give their blessing: Rachel and Akiva make a great couple.

Next hurdle: Akiva's parents. Though they come from an open-minded, New England culture, they naturally have some concerns. Will Rachel and Akiva be subject to ridicule and prejudice? How will their future children adjust? Will the cultural barrier prove insurmountable?

Akiva's mother visits Israel and arranges to meet Rachel. They spend an hour together. Immediately after, Akiva's mother calls him to say: "Rachel is a beautiful, wonderful woman. You'll make a great couple."

The power of love, it appears, dissolved the more "pragmatic" concerns.


Rachel and Akiva are married in Jerusalem. An Ethiopian wedding band shares the stage with an Ashkenazi rock band. There is a great spirit of unity, two corners of the long Jewish exile bonding together in the Holy City.

A few days after the wedding, the couple flies back to Boston, where Akiva is to continue his legal practice. Rachel's culture shock is immediate and enormous. She is plunked into the midst of what strikes her as crass materialism -- with no friends and no support group. Materially, it's a long way from the Ethiopian village. And spirituality, it feels even farther from the holy land.

On top of this, Akiva is working 65 hours a week, at home for little more than dinner and Shabbat.

Rachel feels disconnected and alone. She tries spending time at Akiva's office, in an effort to connect with that world of his. But the experience leaves her even more alienated; Akiva's work environment is spiced with the criminals he's been hired to represent.

Akiva senses Rachel's displeasure, but is too tied up professionally to give due attention. He tries to buy her happiness -- trips, vacation home, jewelry. But it isn't what she wants or needs.

A new baby diverts Rachel's attention... temporarily. She cannot envision a future for her family revolving around American commercialism and criminal clients. After two years of patience and tears, Rachel turns to Akiva and says, "I didn't walk six months through the desert for this. We have to go back to Israel."

The reality hits Akiva like a ton of bricks. He has put everything into building his legal practice, and now, if he wants to save his marriage, he'll have to give it all up. He loves his wife, and knows she is right. Akiva struggles for weeks. The decision, though difficult, is clear. In March 2002, Rachel and Akiva pack their bags and move to Jerusalem.

Now it's Akiva's turn for a difficult adjustment. He explains: "I was fully committed to being in Israel for my wife. But I was highly self-actualized as an attorney, and the existential question nagged at me: Had I 'thrown it all away,' so to speak? And who am I now?"

In the process of self-examination, Akiva discovers something about life: "Everyone needs to earn a living, to meet the basic needs and support one's family. But beyond that, by dedicating one's entire life to work, to the exclusion of all else -- as I did -- then work becomes the definition of self. In other words, you are a slave to your work."

Akiva now realizes it doesn't have to be that way. "Striking a balance is a much healthier, saner, complete way of life. I was so immersed in career, that it takes a while to pull out and get clarity. But I'm getting there."

Together in Israel, Rachel and Akiva have found their happy medium. Akiva has resumed his Judaic studies, and works as the programming director of an orphanage in Jerusalem.

"My work at the orphanage certainly pays less, but in many ways it's a lateral move, where I apply a lot of the talents and energies I used in being a successful attorney," says Akiva. "In criminal defense, I was the only thing saving the defendant from a worst-case scenario, consigned to a lifetime of hardship. These kids at the orphanage are from troubled homes, often forcibly removed by the state. I'm their advocate, keeping them from slipping into life's worst-case scenario.

"And in a deeper sense, it's more satisfying to be defending innocent kids in Israel, than to be defending accused criminals in America."

While Akiva's adjustment is not yet complete ("Little things bother me, like not being able to turn on the radio and understand the news."), in the greater scheme of things, he recognizes God's guiding hand in bringing him together with Rachel, and back to Israel where they are raising their two children with a lot of warmth and love. Israel is where the disparate worlds of Boston and Ethiopia converge in a shared Jewish destiny. He says: "In my heart, I know this is where we're meant to be."


Many ask the question: How and when did Jews get to Ethiopia in the fist place?

During the First Temple period, around 700 BCE, the Jewish kingdom in Israel split into two, threatening the spiritual life of the nation. Some Jews from the tribe of Dan decided to escape the resulting corruption and fled to Africa, where they would spend the next 2,000 years in virtual isolation from the rest of world Jewry. Calling themselves Beta Israel, the House of Israel, Ethiopian Jewry would eventually reach half a million strong.

In Ethiopia, the Jews spoke Tigri, an Ethiopian dialect. They studied a holy text called Orit, consisting of the Five Books of Moses and the prophets. But they knew nothing of the later rabbinic injunctions codified in the Talmud; they were unaware of the holidays of Chanukah and Purim; they never heard of Maimonides, and never saw a copy of the Code of Jewish Law. (Today in Israel, they have adopted these laws and practices.)

The separation was so complete that Beta Israel thought they were the only remaining Jews in the world.

In the meantime, they developed a unique set of customs, like the wintertime Siged festival, signifying the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and including prayers for the return to Jerusalem. (It is still celebrated today, with the Ethiopian community gathering in Jerusalem.)

But for the Jews, life in Ethiopia was not always easy. Native Ethiopians called them Falashas -- the alien invaders. In the 4th century, Christian missionaries forced the Jews to withdraw to the mountainous region of Gondar, further sealing their isolation from world Jewry. Things remained relatively quiet until the 17th century, when Christians conquered the region and Jews were sold as slaves, forced to baptize, and denied the right to own land. Jewish books were burned and the practice of Judaism was outlawed. The Ethiopian Jews had to struggle mightily to hold onto their traditions.

Then in 1974, the situation turned urgent. A coup d'etat resulted in the installation of Colonel Mengistu as a Marxist dictator. During this time, an estimated 23,500 Jews were killed. Mengistu then instated a policy of "villagization," where Jewish farmers were forced to relocate to state-run cooperatives, thereby breaking apart their traditional communal structure. By the early 1980s, Ethiopia had instituted an official policy of anti-Semitism: forbidding the practice of Judaism and the teaching of Hebrew. Forced conscription at age 12 took many Jewish boys away from their families, and other Jews were imprisoned on false charges of being "Zionist spies."

It was during this time that Rachel and her family made the decision to leave. A few years later, in 1984, the secretive Operation Moses was held during a 6-week period. Those who were strong enough to make the trek to Sudan were airlifted out; 7,000 Jews were brought to Israel, before news leaks and pressure from Arab governments stopped the exodus. Approximately 4,000 more died en route; a memorial at the southern entrance to Jerusalem stands in their honor.

In 1991, as the dictator Mengistu was forced to flee Ethiopia, the State of Israel took advantage of the chaos. El Al jumbo jets -- their seats removed to maximize capacity -- flew 34 planeloads in a 36-hour whirlwind dubbed Operation Solomon, bringing 14,000 more Jews home to Israel.


When Rachel and her family arrived in the early 1980s, they were sent to an absorption center in Kiryat Gat; other groups of Ethiopians settled in development towns like Afula and Arad.

Adapting to daily life proved difficult. Ethiopians were transitioning from primitive villages -- with no electricity or running water -- to a modern, industrialized nation. They didn't speak Hebrew, and even their religious customs were different. To facilitate absorption, everyone attended Hebrew ulpan, Ethiopian synagogues were built, and -- for daily life -- an Israeli guide was assigned to each family, to visit their apartment and show them how to use the radio, stove, etc.

And then there was the thorny issue of the Ethiopians' "Jewish status." On one hand, the respected 16th century Torah sage, the Radbaz, had declared Beta Israel to be Jewish, descendants of the tribe of Dan. Yet because they had been isolated for so many centuries, basic laws of status -- such as marriage and divorce -- did not conform to contemporary Jewish norms. The decision was thus made to require all Ethiopians to undergo a "symbolic conversion," which would essentially allow them to start with a clean slate.

The decision was not without controversy. "I remember as a young girl going to the mikveh," Rachel explains. "Many Ethiopians were upset: 'They're doubting me?!' But I said, 'I'll just go along with it. God knows who's Jewish and who's not'."

Now, 20 years later, Ethiopians have by and large "mainstreamed" into the Israeli melting pot -- excelling in the work force, serving in the army, and often marrying outside of their community. Israelis have a positive image of Ethiopian Jews, with none of the negative stereotypes about blacks that typify Western society. Their integration promises to increase; a recent poll showed that 90 percent of Ethiopian parents had no objection to their children "marrying out" of the community.

Ironically, it is in the spiritual realm that Ethiopian immigrants have had the most trouble adjusting. Back in Ethiopia, the community was tightly knit and everyone was religiously observant. Yet with their arrival in Israel, it became more difficult for parents to guide and influence their "new world" children. While many -- like Rachel -- strengthened their connection to Torah and mitzvot, many other Ethiopian youth have drifted toward secularization.

The good news is that Beta Israel has a new generation of mainstream rabbis who are fluent in Hebrew, scholars in Torah, and familiar with Israeli society. But it took an entire generation to develop these leaders, and much was lost in the transition. Such is the tragic irony: After preserving their religious-cultural purity for millennia, the spiritual heritage of many Ethiopian youth has dissipated in a culture of Nike and MTV -- here in the Holy Land.

Finally, the story of Ethiopian immigration is not yet complete; there is the sticky point of the Falash Mura. In the late 19th century, when Christian missionary activity intensified in Ethiopia, large numbers of Jews converted. Some did so against their will; others did so as an economic opportunity to legally own land. Today, most of their descendants have never practiced Judaism, and are not considered by Beta Israel as part of their community. During Operation Solomon, many Falash Mura tried to board the Israeli planes and were turned away. Among the group were practicing Christians who simply saw Israel as a ticket out of Ethiopia.

Today, thousands of Falash Mura still hope to make aliyah. As a compromise, the Israeli government has brought a few thousand Falash Mura to Israel on the basis of family reunification. Thousands more remain in Ethiopia, awaiting a resolution.

Still, the ingathering of Ethiopian Jewry must be regarded as one of the great miracles of our time. For those who tenaciously clung to their Judaism over the centuries, their reward today is a thriving Ethiopian community in Israel numbering 60,000. And even Rachel's grandmother, who died on the way to Sudan, has made it back, too. Family members journeyed back to the desert and found the tree marking her gravesite. They exhumed her body and brought it to Israel for reburial. An eternal resting place, in the eternal land of the Jews.

In honor of
Daniel Steiner (Daniel ben Bluma)

Author Biography:
Rabbi Shraga Simmons spent his childhood trekking through snow in Buffalo, New York. He has worked in the fields of journalism and public relations, and is now the Co-editor of Aish.com in Jerusalem.

This article can also be read at: http://www.aish.com/spirituality/odysseys/A_Boston-Ethiopia_Love_Story.asp

Copyright © 1995 - 2003 Aish.com - http://www.aish.com
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