Smithsonian Museum of African Art Spotlights the Ethiopian Israeli Experience

Written by Rachel Hellman on . Posted in Community News

Thanks to a partnership between Sephardic Heritage INternational DC (SHIN DC) and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, a film celebrating Ethiopian Jewish heritage taught visitors to the museum about this special sector of the Israeli community. The event on Sunday, May 27 took place on the 27th anniversary of Operation Solomon, one of the covert operations to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and was followed by a moderated discussion and festive reception.

Mekonen Abebe, the protaganist of the film, was already performing the tasks of a young sheperd at age six. His father was the leader of their community, but as practicing Jews in Ethiopia the family was persecuted for their faith.

The Beta Israel, more commonly known as Ethiopian Jews, have been in existence for millennia. Most lived in northern and northwestern Ethiopia in the Gondar region. In 1974, the Ethiopian Civil War began and the new regime adopted Communism and total militarization. Anti-religion and anti-Jewish sentiments were widespread. An escape to Sudan was seen as the only option in the mid 1980s when war and famine were rampant.

In 1975, the Israeli government officially recognized the Beta Israel under the Law of Return, which gives all Jews the right to come to Israel, live there and gain citizenship. Most of the Beta Israel were airlifted to Israel in several covert operations from the 1980s to early 90s.

When Abebe was 12 years old, his family made their plans to leave their mud and straw shack and make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel. The night before they were to leave, however, his father died of a heart attack. Abebe, still a child himself, was not only going to have to adjust to a new country, with a new language and total culture shock, but also take care of his family.

Finding a place in this new world was difficult for Abebe. He turned to Hodayot High School, a religious boarding school for challenged teenagers. There he found a dedicated staff to send him in the right direction. After high school, Abebe was drafted into the IDF. His struggles continued until a positive connection with a commander led him down the path to attending officer training school.

Abebe was originally introduced to audiences in a film titled “Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front,” which followed the journey of five Israelis who are drafted into the army. Director Rebecca Shore noted that after nearly every screening of “Beneath the Helmet,” the “audiences had burning questions about Abebe. They connected with him and wanted to know more about where he came from and how the next chapter of his story would unfold.”

“Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew” served as an opportunity to share more of his story.

The film comes to a close when Abebe visits his father’s grave in Ethiopia for the first time since moving to Israel. As his tears flow, he recalls the man who inspired his family’s exodus to Israel, and he places his IDF pin on his father’s tombstone.

The post-screening discussion was moderated by Shlomit Daniel, a member of SHIN DC and the Hebrew Studies department at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS), and Issayas Yona Bogale. Bogale is the son of Yona Bogale, the first leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel.

After the discussion, a DJ spun Ethiopian tunes and traditional Ethiopian coffee and vegan fare from Erta Ale, an Ethiopian restaurant in Wheaton, was served.

Aleessa Jordan, a teenager from New Jersey, was on a weekend trip to DC for her mother’s birthday when they visited the museum and stumbled upon the event.

“We went to Catholic school. We don’t learn about this in our history books,” she said. She plans to research more on the subject when she returns home.

Others attended the event because of their connection to the Ethiopian Jewish community. Alysa Dortort of Rockville, Maryland, was looking for a handyman many years ago when she connected with Shlomi Beyene, a member of the local Ethiopian Jewish community. Shlomi and his wife and children became her family, Dortort said, and she was thrilled to celebrate their heritage at this event.

“Their sense of Jewish identity is so strong and [they have such a] powerful love of being Jewish,” she said.

Shlomi’s brother, Oz Yaaqov, added that the event was a “good opportunity to share.” Many people don’t know about the connection between Ethiopia and Israel, he said.

The museum’s community outreach specialist Gathoni Kamau coordinated the event with SHIN DC. There is great importance to “ties that bring humanity together,” said Kamau. “Our histories are old, but having people who experienced it can validate it for younger generations.”

By Rachel Hellman