Changing my routine transports me to Africa

As I scooped up red lentils and yellow split peas with spongy injera bread, chitchatted with my tablemates and waited for the presentation on Ethiopia to begin, I was feeling a little squirmy.

At first I thought it was just my hypersensitive social tuner alerting me that I was outside my comfort zone, at a Shabbat dinner at the JCC of San Francisco after a long day of work. (On a typical Friday night, when I get home I like to challenge myself to how fast I can change from daywear into eveningwear — by which I mean, of course, sweatpants.)

Then I realized it wasn’t discomfort I was feeling, but rather envy. The JCC was promoting a 10-day spring journey to Ethiopia, the travel program’s first trip there, and presumably the people in the room were thinking about signing up. Lucky them.

Exotic trips haven’t been on my agenda for many years now (I blame my children), so I decided I was up for a little armchair travel. It didn’t hurt that a vegetarian Ethiopian dinner was part of the deal. I thought I’d eat, drink a chilled St. George beer, listen to a prepared pitch about Ethiopia, and be on my way.

What I didn’t anticipate is how moving I’d find the presentation and how much it would draw me in.

In the information age, it’s become common to develop only a surface understanding of many topics. Unless there’s a reason to go deeper, we tend to distill a glut of knowledge — the history of an entire nation, even — into a few salient facts.

Ethiopia’s bullet points: hunger, famine, poverty, agriculture, Ethiopian Jews, tribalism, Africa, mass exodus, historic airlifts to Israel.

The presenter was Peggy Myers, who traveled to Ethiopia with her late husband, Dr. Ted Myers, nearly a dozen times starting in the mid-1980s. She showed us gorgeous slides she’d taken of the people and the relief work done in concert with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Ted Myers established JDC’s first medical programs in the northern Gondar region, where the majority of Jews lived, and went on to introduce immunization clinics, nutrition programs for malnourished children and professional education initiatives to promote self-sufficiency — not only in Ethiopia but also in the Sudan, Cuba and the former Soviet Union.

I suspect Peggy is pretty well known on the Peninsula, where she lives. She and her husband devoted much of their lives to a humanitarian cause that not only improved lives, but actually saved them — by the thousands. I can’t say I’ve met many others who have done that, who so unequivocally acted out the talmudic principle that “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

The JDC’s efforts are just as laudable. Its global programs are nonsectarian and stress public health and education. In Ethiopia, the organization has built systems to raise sanitation standards, constructed schools in rural areas and launched a university scholarship program for women.

It also runs lifesaving medical programs in Gondar (Dr. Rick Hodes, an Orthodox Jew, took over for Myers in 1990 and has been there ever since). There the JDC also looks after several thousand Falash Mura — descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity — who await their turn to emigrate. They were not included in the Operation Solomon airlift in 1991, the watershed moment when Israel spirited more than 14,000 Jews out of the country in 36 hours, in one of history’s most dramatic mass exoduses.

Last year, Israel agreed to absorb up to 8,000 Falash Mura over the next few years, concluding the massive aliyah.

Many Ethiopian Jews, or Beta Israel, trace their roots back to Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, when they splintered off from the group and headed south (wandering wanderers, it appears they turned right instead of left). Isolated from the rest of the Jewish world, they remained committed to Judaism, sustaining their faith through the centuries and dreaming of their “return to Jerusalem.” Today more than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews call Israel home.

Visitors to the African country won’t see what Peggy and Ted Myers witnessed all those years ago. But millions of rural Ethiopians are still malnourished, sick and living in poverty. The JCC travelers will be there for only a short time, but I’m sure they’ll roll up their sleeves — and turn my envy into admiration.

 

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.