Torah and Tikkun Olam
“I have had the zchut (merit) to live in the state of Israel, to serve it and to aid others in its name.”
As 21-year-old Daniella Meltz approached her final days of IDF service and contemplated hanging up her army uniform in exchange for civilian garb, she felt a burning urge to do something different.
While many of her friends opted to trek through India or sip cocktails on a beach in Thailand, Daniella – whose parents made aliya from the US and Canada before she was born and raised her in Modi’in – chose a different path. She remembered that prior to her IDF service, while building her spiritual world in OTS’s Hadas – Claudia Cohen Torah/Army School at Midreshet Lindenbaum, her counselor had described how she had volunteered with Jewish children in Ethiopia, and what a meaningful experience it had been. On a whim, Daniella texted her former counselor for information and submitted the relevant applications.
A few short weeks later, the very day after her military release papers were signed, Daniella, joined three other Israeli young adults and a program coordinator on a plane headed to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
The Jewish community in Addis Ababa is comprised of approximately 8,000 men, women, and children. The Israeli government officially stopped bringing organized groups from Ethiopia in 1991, creating an absurd situation where people whose sole purpose in life is to make aliya and build a home in the Jewish state live in limbo, not knowing if they will ever be granted permission to join their family members who already live in Israel, or if their dreams will ever come to fruition.
For five weeks, Daniella and the other Israeli staff members organized a summer day camp for some 150 of the children from the community incorporating Israeli themes, songs, dance, Torah classes, and Hebrew lessons into the daily schedule. “Every day started with full prayer services in the synagogue, followed by everyone singing Am Yisrael Chai (the Jewish nation lives) and a Ddvar Torah (short Torah lesson) delivered by one of the local teenagers” Daniella relates. “There was so much singing, dancing, games, and happiness all around throughout the day. I’ve never seen such eagerness to learn Hebrew or about Israel. Even during our afternoon break, two ten year old girls would approach me on a daily basis and ask me to help them improve their Hebrew vocabulary and broaden their knowledge of Israeli and Jewish songs.
“Each day had a Jewish or Israeli theme that set the tone for the day, which would end at 5:30 PM with Mincha followed by Ma’ariv (afternoon and evening prayer services, respectively),” continues Daniella. “Filling the children’s day with meaningful activities is so important, when school is out many of them end up just roaming the streets and getting into trouble, so it was so rewarding to know that we were truly helping them on a daily basis.”
Daniella cannot speak highly enough of the members of this special community. “They are the purest people I have ever met,” she attests. “Their lives are not rich with possessions or material belongings, but they are so full of happiness, faith, and optimism that I was constantly deeply moved and inspired. When they invite you to their houses for a meal or an afternoon, they go above and beyond until you truly feel like a queen or king. The lack of financial resources almost makes no difference when you are showered with so much affection and unconditional love. I learned so much about simplicity and rejoicing in what you have as opposed to constantly striving to accumulate more and more belongings. They want nothing more than to come to Israel and be part of the Zionist dream that has been instilled in them for generations, despite the fact that they are not naïve and they know that there will still be hardships.”
Daniella recounts that the Jewish teenagers in Addis Ababa are truly the backbone of the community, walking around with notebooks and eagerly jotting down every new Hebrew word that they hear. “These youth have weekly meetings where they brainstorm initiatives that will improve their quality of life and benefit the community. While we were there, they decided to dedicate a Sunday to cleaning the local Jewish cemetery. Each one of us grabbed a broom and got to work. The day ended with singing Hatikva and flying the Israeli flag.”
Tisha B’Av (the fast day on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, marking the destruction of both the first and second temples) was without a doubt the pinnacle of the experience. “Living in Israel,” says Daniella, “we can’t truly grasp the emptiness and despair that come from the destruction, nor do we fully comprehend the yearning for Zion. In Ethiopia, however, the Jewish community lives that loss and feels the pain every single day. On Tisha B’Av e sang Jerusalem songs with the teenagers there and came as close as we ever will be to identifying with our ancestors in the diaspora, praying for the day that g-d will lead them back to the promised land. Im eshkachech Yerushalayim (if I forget the O Jerusalem) is not just a saying for them; it is their entire way of life. They are still suffering from the outcomes of the destruction.”
One of the community’s prominent leaders is a 19-year-old young man who recently returned from a six month study and leadership program at OTS’s Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva. “It is impossible to miss the fact that his Hebrew and knowledge of Jewish subjects are several cuts above the rest, and he describes his time at the yeshiva with immense longing and admiration for the rabbis who taught him and the friends he made,” Daniella shares.
Another member of the community is also studying now at Machanaim, and will return to the community as another leader who can help raise spirits and expand knowledge.
“This experience has changed me so much,” declares Daniella. “It has made me re-examine my priorities in life and rethink what I previously knew about simplicity, happiness, wealth, and faith. I am so inspired by this amazing community and pray day and night that they will not only be able to return to the Jewish homeland, but also that they will have an easy and pleasant acclimation here. There is so little awareness to their situation, and it doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s priority list to do something about it. I have had the zchut (merit) to live in the state of Israel, to serve it and to aid others in its name. I have also had the zchut to embark on this journey to Ethiopia, which has given me tools that I intend to use to make a difference. Especially now, during the Hebrew month of Elul, I encourage others to spread awareness and work to make a difference, because as our sages teach us, saving one Jewish soul is comparable to sustaining the entire world.”
Photos: Oshri Vald