TEL AVIV, ISRAEL, March 31, 2011, 3 a.m. (yes, 3 a.m.) – I’ve heard the stories and seen the films. “2,000 Years in 4 Hours” was the phrase that always stuck with me when learning of the plight of Ethiopian Jews making aliyah from the deserts of Africa to modern Israeli society.
But I never had the chance to see it actually happen. Until the early morning hours of March 31.
We weren’t sure it was going to take place. Flights are occasionally delayed or postponed. But around11 p.m., we knew it was on.
We were going to greet 100 new immigrants from Addis Ababa. Israelplans to bring in another 8,000 olim over the next three years – two groups of about 100 per month.
In the meantime, we had the honor of speaking with Leah Biteolin, who emigrated from Ethiopia with her family in 1984, when she was just two years old. The subject of the film, “Leah,” she and her family left their home inEthiopiaand walked across theSudanto a refugee camp, where they survived unbearable conditions for six months.
“It was a journey my family had to make to complete their dream,” she said.
Finally, around2:30 a.m., they came out from the processing area, many into the arms of waiting relatives. The scene was as emotional as anyone can imagine – 100 of our brothers and sisters arriving in their Promised Land, all of their belongings stacked on an airport cart. Some mothers had their babies on their backs as they proceeded out of the airport. Some wore traditional clothing; others sported more modern styles. All wore smiles as wide as the opportunities that await them.
There will be major adjustments. As one article on the JFNA web site points out: “Moving from one culture to another is never easy, but when Jews from Ethiopia make aliyah, the adjustment is enormous. Not only because the country of some 68 million is 90% agrarian (without a tractor to be seen anywhere and where children work in the fields as human scarecrows). Not only because most of the country doesn’t have electricity or multi-storied buildings. Not only because the capital city of Addis Ababa, where three million people live, doesn’t have street signs. Not only because they have to adjust their internal clocks for both the hour and the year change.”
They boarded two buses for another ride toward modernity. Seeing them after traveling “2,000 years in four hours,” I finally had a chance to be part of it.