An Ethiopian Jew’s Journey

By Hannah Lee

I met Barak Avraham, known as Malaku in his native Amharic, during his 2-week tour of the United States on behalf of AMIT, which supports a network of 108 schools and programs in 29 cities in Israel. Avraham’s personal story is a marvelous case study of how AMIT schools turn around individual lives and whole towns. His trek began at age 9 when he walked, with his mother and four siblings, for three weeks from their village of Abu Zava to the city of Gondar in Ethiopia. Sleeping outdoors at night, they were at the peril of anti-Semites, who recognized them as Jews and strangers. (His non-Jewish father, already divorced, stayed at home.)

Back in their village, his maternal family dreamed of going to Jerusalem, a place like Paradise where people wear white garments and they do not have to work. After waiting eight months, they were accepted for flight aboard the covert Operation Solomon, which airlifted over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in a 36-hour mission in May, 1991. Before boarding, Avraham’s mother buried their remaining Ethiopian money, birr, because she thought they would not need money in the Promised Land.

Avraham’s memories of his childhood in Ethiopa included Pesach, when they eagerly anticipated the gift of matzot delivered by shluchim (emissaries), homemade soccer balls fashioned from old socks and electrical wire, and a world without television or cars, just as life was lived 200 years before. The transition from a traditional society to a modern one was especially hard for the elders, such as his grandparents who arrived later. His family spent a year in an absorption center, merkaz klita, learning to adjust to Israeli ways, including eating with forks and knives. Ethiopian foods, such as teff and injera, are eaten with the right hand.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood and with a single mother, Avraham lost his way when he was in his “foolish teen years,” tipesh esrei, when he was expelled from one school after another. No one wanted him any longer. This was a painful period for his mother, who cried in shame and sadness. “I decided that I was going to change. That if my mother was going to cry because of me, it would be with pride, not from sorrow.” On the advice of a friend attending school at the AMIT Kfar Blatt Youth Village in Petach Tikva, he wrote a letter of appeal to the director, Amiran Cohen. A visionary educator, Cohen had him sign a pledge of changes he would make in his life.

Cohen, who became a special friend, and the support network of surrogate parents, teachers, and social workers helped Avraham focus his intelligence. He had always been told that he had “much potential.” Upon passing the bagrut, matriculation exams, he was accepted into an elite intelligence unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and served with distinction as an outstanding soldier. His mother cried with pride and joy at this completion ceremony.

The IDF taught him discipline and it broadened Avraham’s horizons. He listened as his army mates of different backgrounds from all over the country shared their dreams for the future. He knew then he had to get an education, which was assisted by an IMPACT scholarship from the Friends of the IDF. He was the valedictorian and the top Ethiopian student graduating with a degree in government diplomacy from The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Later, when he earned a master’s in public service, also from the IDC, he gave a speech before an audience of 4,000 and his mother cried again from joy.

Now 30, Avraham is an entrepreneur and founder of an Internet start-up company and manager of a teen community house in Petach Tikva. He is also coordinator of a new program at the AMIT Rambam Elementary School in Netanya. Rambam was a failing school. The Ministry of Education appealed to AMIT to rescue this school, and AMIT now plans to designate it a magnet school, an innovative model that brings together in one school the top-achieving students with the most needy ones. Avraham’s program includes football (soccer to Americans), mentoring, and parent support. Coming from the same poor neighborhood and background, Avraham gives the children confidence that they, too, can succeed.

Avraham’s newest dream is to join the Knesset in the next election. A Social Democrat, he parts ways with the older Ethiopians who tend to vote Likud, although “it’s capitalist,” and they’re poor but they vote for the country’s security needs. His mother, for one, cannot bear to hear anything bad against Israel. (The Yesh Atid party, which won 19 seats in January, has two Ethiopians in its cabinet.) Barak Avraham’s future was paved by the caring leaders and staff of the AMIT schools.

A Soldier Speaks of His IDF Unit

By Hannah Lee

There’s nothing like an eyewitness to convey the visceral and emotional impact of overseas news. So, I’d looked forward to the parlor meeting held at a private residence on the Main Line on Tuesday. Their son, Akiva (a pseudonym to protect his identity), was the featured speaker and he showed computer images of his work with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Their goal for the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) was to outfit his unit, 80-member strong, with fleece jackets, Camelback water bottles, and Leatherman tools.

Akiva made aliyah (moved to Israel) in August of 2011 after he graduated from Cornell with a degree in engineering. He entered the Israel Defense Force in November. After a 8-month training period and a course as a medic, he was assigned to a combat engineering unit, whose responsibility is to search for mines.  His unit worked along the Syrian border, which he said was the most mined border worldwide after the border between North and South Korea. During last month’s attacks by Hamas, his unit was re-deployed to Gaza.

As a Chayal Boded (Lone Soldier), Akiva is assigned to a religious kibbutz for his time off (others are given stipends for group apartments) and he gets four weeks of vacation for visits home with his family. His engineering degree is not essential to his duties, but his father pointed out that the family insisted that Akiva completes his college education before making aliyah. His medic training was simpler than that for an EMT in the United States, as the focus is on treatment for shock. The first step is in stabilizing the injured soldier for removal from the combat zones.

In its inaugural year, the Pennsylvania and Southern NJ chapter of the Friends of IDF had a busy year. Among their fundraising projects, they built a gym, refurbished a club, supported veterans in their post-IDF studies, donated a Torah scroll to an IDF base, adopted a battalion, sponsored summer camp in the United States for B’nai Mitzvah and soldiers from bereaved families, and sponsored flights home for Lone Soldiers. All donations to FIDF are fully tax-deductible. All purchases are pre-approved by the IDF.

Film Chat: Follow Me

By Hannah Lee

Anyone who’s been disappointed by the 1977 movie, Raid on Entebbe, will be captivated by the new documentary, Follow Me, which gives an account of the life and tragic early death of Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu, the commander of the rescue mission and the elder brother of Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel.

It’s a profile in courage and leadership, with the filmmakers having gotten unprecedented access to Yoni’s letters, both published and unpublished, family photos, and home movies. There are also interviews with former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, the soldiers under Yoni’s command in the elite Sayeret Maktal (commonly known as “The Unit”), and even his ex-wife Tirza “Tutti,” who had never before agreed to speak about her relationship with Yoni.

Fierce patriots, the Netanyahus spent some years in the United States — in our fair city — while their father, Ben-Zion, pursued scholarship at Dropsie College, now known as the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania. The father was professor of Hebrew language and literature, and later, chairman of the department (1957-1966) and professor of medieval Jewish history and Hebrew literature. As a 16-year-old, Yoni arrived to attend Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, PA (where he was a classmate of Baseball Hall of Fame member Reggie Jackson). This is the reason Bibi Netanyahu speaks colloquial English with a Philly accent. In his letters, Yoni wrote about his discomfort with the expansiveness of homes in the United States and the carefree lives of his classmates, who cared only for cars and girls.

The Israel depicted in the documentary is the one we grew up with and our children are taught about in school — an ideal world with pioneers who fought for a dusty land and who wished only to be allowed to live in peace. The Netanyahu brothers came of age in a young nation that was subject to struggles for survival — in the epic wars of 1967 and 1973.

After his military service, Yoni returned to the U.S. to study at Harvard on scholarship, but he was troubled by the existential crises of his country and he returned to Eretz Yisrael as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Yoni was a leader who inspired his men by working alongside them. He never sent them to do anything he would not do himself.

Yoni Netanyahu is immortalized for leading the counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by commandos of the IDF at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on July 4, 1976. On June 27th, an Air France plane with 248 passengers was hijacked by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the German Revolutionary Cells, and flown to Entebbe, near Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The passengers were sorted by ethnicity and country of origin– Jews and Israelis from the other passengers. That afternoon, 47 non-Israeli hostages were released. The next day, 101 more non-Israeli hostages were allowed to leave. More than 100 Israeli and Jewish passengers (along with the non-Jewish pilot, Captain Michel Bacos, who refused to leave his passengers) remained as hostages and were threatened with death.

The IDF acted on intelligence provided by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. Israeli leaders decided on a covert rescue mission, while publicly agreeing to a release of military prisoners. The operation took place at night. Israeli transport planes carried 100 commandos over 2,500 miles to Uganda for the rescue operation. The operation lasted 90 minutes. They rescued 102 hostages. Five Israeli commandos were wounded and only one, their commander, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed. (According to Wikipedia, all the hijackers, three hostages, and 45 Ugandan soldiers were killed; 30 Soviet-built MiG-17s and MiG-21s of Uganda’s air force were destroyed. Twenty-four hours later, a fourth Israeli hostage was killed by Ugandan army officers at a nearby hospital.)  The rescue mission, named Operation Thunderbolt, is now sometimes referred to as Operation Jonathan.

Like King David, Yoni Netanyahu was a courageous military leader and a sensitive poet. Yoni’s letters as voiced in the film make me mourn for the man he was. Yoni, we hardly knew you!

Jonathan Gruber is the writer, director, and producer and Ari Daniel Pinchot is also director and producer. Follow Me is being distributed independently and it’s making its rounds of film festivals. It’s being shown in the greater Philly area exclusively at the Bala Cinema in Bala Cynwyd. At press time, it’s not known if the engagement will be extended beyond Thursday, August 2nd.