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On Jerusalem Day, Ethiopian Jews remember those who never reached the Promised Land

Now in the U.S., an Ethiopian Jewish mom recalls her journey as an 8-year-old to Israel

The Hebrew date 28 Iyar — corresponding this year to the evening of May 18 and the following day – is celebrated in Israel as Jerusalem Day, commemorating the reunification of the city after the Six-Day War. Since 2003, it has also been observed as a day of remembrance for Ethiopian Jews who died on their journey to Israel, mostly in Sudan. As described by the Ethiopian Jewish Heritage Center, it symbolizes “the yearning of those who perished to reach the Promised Land that so many had dreamed of for thousands of years,” 

The mass immigration of Jews from villages in the area of Gundar, Ethiopia, took place from 1980 to 1984, with 4,000 perishing in refugee camps or along the route, and others suffering atrocities from robbers and bandits. One who witnessed those horrors as an 8-year-old and survived is Michal Avera Samuel. 

Now 42, married and a mother of two, Samuel lives with her family in Columbus, Ohio, where she works remotely for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Shalom Curriculum Project and is also affiliated with the global Jewish think tank, Be’chol Lashon. She told her story to Forward Editor-at-Large Robin Washington.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Michal Avera Samuel: I lived in a village near Ambover, in central Ethiopia. As a child I was told one day we will go to Jerusalem, the Holy Land. At the age of 8, in 1983, my parents decided for us to go. We didn’t really say goodbye to our friends. Our family prepared dried food for others and took some flour and donkey and horses and we started walking. I have eight siblings and only seven of us were on the journey with my parents. Two stayed behind and came to Israel in 1991 in Operation Solomon. As children, we didn’t ask about it. We knew that it was for Jerusalem. We didn’t ask, we didn’t complain. 

Our journey to Sudan was about six weeks. We had a guide leading us. We saw many people who died along the way and they were covered with weeds or leaves. People were hurried and scared during the journey, so they couldn’t do the ceremony and bury the people. I lost my cousin, Tegavu Desely Melako, of blessed memory.

Robin Washington: You were 8 years old when you started. How long did it take to complete the journey?

We were in a refugee camp for a year. Then the Jewish Agency and the Mossad created a list of people from the Ethiopian community. They would go around with the old people and ask which village you are from, and began making a list of who is a Jew who is not. We were on the list. 

It took a year until our turn. One night, they told us to get up and start walking in the desert. We walked a little bit, and we saw big trucks waiting for us. They pushed everybody into the trucks and after a while, we were in a big plane. 

Washington: You had never flown before, I take it.

Samuel: No, and after a while someone said in a microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are in Jerusalem.” I remember my father — he was old and very tall, and skinny after a year in Sudan — I remember seeing him falling to the ground and kissing the land and saying, “Now, this is the time that I dreamt about with my ancestors and I have brought my children to the Promised Land.”

Washington: How was it adjusting to Israeli society?

Samuel: It was very difficult. As a Black Jew, it was the first time I saw a white Jew. 

Washington: Did you think they were Jewish?

Samuel: No, because we thought we were the only Jewish people remaining in the world. “Who are these strange people claiming that they are Jews?”

Washington: I take it you didn’t know Hebrew. How long did it take to learn the language? And when did you learn English?

Samuel: Actually, it was easy for me to learn Hebrew because we were so motivated. Plus I remember the teachers told us:“Forget your culture, your language — now you are in a new country.” Unfortunately, my English is just from the university.

From left to right, Samuel with her children Alemaz, Liad, her husband Alevel, and child Mulu on a family vacation in Toronto. Courtesy of Michal Avera Samuel

Washington: You were a child when you learned Hebrew. Children pick up languages easier.

Samuel: Yes, I see it with my kids. My son came to Columbus when he was in second grade without knowing one word of English. Now he’s fluent and doesn’t have an accent — and he’s laughing at my accent!

Washington: So how do you celebrate Jerusalem Day? Or is it a celebration?.

Samuel: No, I don’t celebrate Jerusalem Day. This is a happy and sad day for us. It’s a day that we are remembering all who were lost. We’re not celebrating. Unfortunately, we are the only Ethiopian Jewish people in my area — people here barely know about Ethiopian Jewish history, and not about the loss we had during our journey to Jerusalem.

It is so important to remember the Ethiopian Jews who perished on the way to Jerusalem, to learn and remember the story of the heroism of the Ethiopian Jews as part of the mosaic of the Jewish people.

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