Aug 12, 2013

YAD Leader Returns from Ethiopia Mission to Cap Historic Journey

Beylanesh Zevadia grew up in a mud hut in Ambover, a small Jewish village in Ethiopia, and made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel in 1984 when she was 17. Her father was a rabbi who insisted she walk the long distance to school every day. And today she serves as Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia.

Two local Jewish young adult leaders were with Zevadia a few weeks ago when, for the first time in nearly 30 years, she returned to her childhood village. They followed behind when a barefoot former neighbor who recognized her led them over mud paths to the very hut where Zevadia was raised. Afterward, they joined the ambassador for dinner at Israel’s Embassy in Addis Ababa.

Bryan Drowos of Boca Raton and Lisa Seymour of Palm Beach Gardens were among 43 people from across North America on an historic mission of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Both Drowos, a Financial Advisor and Seymour, an elementary school librarian, serve on JFNA’s National Young Leadership Cabinet and hold leadership roles at The Jewish Federations of South Palm Beach County and Palm Beach County, respectively.

Called “Completing the Journey,” this final mission capped an amazing three-decade campaign by Jewish Federations, the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to resettle 90,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Mission participants indeed completed the journey from Ethiopia to Israel alongside 58 olim (immigrants to Israel).

“We were there as tourists, witnesses and participants,” said Drowos. “As tourists, we traveled where few people ever see, learning the remarkable 2,500+ year history of the Jewish people in this region. As witnesses, we saw firsthand the amazing work done with dollars raised by the Jewish Federation, its partner agencies and the state of Israel to sustain these people and afford them the ability to lead a Jewish life.”

In Ethiopia, the group visited the Federation-supported institutions that played a most central role throughout the Ethiopian aliyah, including a school, a health clinic, food assistance and community centers in Gondar, where Jews from Ethiopia have waited for the word that it is their time to go to Israel.

“We saw in person how our local generosity has been helping the Ethiopian Jews prepare for life in their new home in Israel,” said Seymour. “It was amazing to see how poor, rural, people, many of them illiterate, have been able leave their mud huts with thatched roofs, outdoor cooking and no utilities. In Gondar, they’ve been learning to read and write, speak Hebrew and use cell phones. They’ve gotten health care and learned about nutrition, along with many other things needed for their new lives. We can’t prepare them 100% for life in Israel, but we can make a great difference toward their transition.”

“We also attended a service at a synagogue,” continued Seymour. “Recognizing the same prayers, tallitot, kippot and tefillin (prayer shawls, head coverings and phylacteries) from our own Jewish practices, we realized how Jews are Jews wherever we are.”

Drowos and Seymour also walked toward the Sudan with the mission, starting off on a route émigrés had followed by foot toward Israel, toward freedom to practice Judaism, toward a better life.

The mission left Addis Ababa alongside 58 Ethiopian Jews as they made their journey to Israel, arriving in the pre-dawn hours to Ben-Gurion Airport.

“As participants, we not only journeyed to Tel Aviv with the olim, but walked hand in hand with them as they fulfilled a lifelong dream of setting foot on Israeli soil, kissing the holy ground and tearfully reuniting with their family members already in Israel,” said Drowos.

In Israel, the group visited an immigrant absorption center in Ashkelon, where they met new Ethiopian olim, listened to their stories and learned about the Federation-funded human services that help them successfully integrate into Israeli society.

“The name of this mission, Completing the Journey, is really a bit of a misnomer,” said Drowos. “While the physical journey from Ethiopia has concluded for these olim, they are only at the very beginning of a brand new life with a new language, a new culture. Once in Israel, they need our help more than ever to make the difficult transition. Their success will be the State of Israel’s success, and our success as well.”

View a brief and powerful narrated photo story by Bryan Drowos.

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