Days 3 & 4

On Saturday morning, some of us went on a hike on the outskirts of the city. The rest of us, including myself, went on a walk around the neighborhood near the hotel. For me, one of the most striking parts of the walk was going through the upscale part of the neighborhood. We were able to glimpse at the massive houses behind the high security walls. However, it was not too far from the beggars and shanties that populate most of the rest of the city.

We had lunch with students from Unity University, a private university in Addis Ababa. The women we ate with had all received scholarships from the JDC to attend Unity as part of its initiative to empower females. This was especially significant for those who were not from Addis and for those who were the first in their families to attend university. Most of the women were first-year accounting students. We also had the chance to hear from one of the administrators of the university (a former journalist) and some graduates who were gainfully employed at different companies in Addis. Afterwards we played an icebreaker game with the students by finding students from the opposite university who could do something or knew something about their own culture. For example, Unity students were told to look for someone from Maryland who knew the name of the current prime minister of Ethiopia or who knew the words to the chorus of “Call Me Maybe” (none of us knew the former). Conversely, we were told to find a Unity student who knew who the first president of the United States was or who knew the lyrics to a song by a famous Ethiopian artist. (None of them identified George Washington as the first president, though I met one student who guessed Lincoln.)

We then had a reflection session among ourselves where we discussed our reactions to the myriad of experiences we had had over the past couple of days. We also had our first (of five) text-based discussion on the issue of, as Jews, the degree of our responsibility to help others. This is especially relevant to our trip since we are Jews who are helping non-Jews. Moreover, we all feel overwhelmed by the amount of problems in Ethiopia, let alone the rest of the world. How can we possibly make a dent with any of the myriad of issues that plague the country? What can be expected of us? What is realistic? Some biblical, Talmudic, and contemporary texts helped us grapple with these challenges.

Next, we had a discussion with Manlio Dell’Ariccia and Will Recant about some of the history of the JDC. Will had actually just flown in from Rwanda where he was visiting the JDC fellows stationed there. We then had a discussion with Sam, Menachem, and Rebecca who are currently JDC Jewish Service Corps fellows in Addis. Sam and Menachem are year-long fellows, while Rebecca is a short-term fellows (she has also completed other short-term JDC fellowships in other locations around the world). We asked them everything about working for the JDC in Addis, like the nature of their work, why they signed choose to do a JDC fellowship, and what is was like to be a Westerner in Addis for an extended period.

We concluded Shabbat with a nice havdalah. Later, we went out for dinner at a crowded restaurant. It was filled with wealthy Ethiopians, Westerners, Asians, and a group from the United Arab Emirates. Throughout the meal, a group of musicians and dancers entertained everyone on stage. There was also a wedding at the restaurant. Later, many of us went up on stage and danced with the dancers! It was quite a sight, and it seemed like many of the patrons found our dancing the most entertaining part of the evening.

The next day, we gathered in the lobby at 5:30am to catch an early flight to Gondar. We flew a propeller jet to what was the smallest airport I have ever been to. Upon landing, we met with Liz and Max who are JDC  Jewish Service Corp fellows stationed in Gondar. They spend their time teaching ninth-grade English at a large public school and monitoring water wells installed by the JDC in some of the nearby villages.

Though Gondar is Ethiopia’s third-largest city, it has the feel of a small town. Unlike Addis, it feels like a larger rural village than a bustling city. Gondar has special significance for the JDC, since it used to be home to most of Ethiopia’s Jews. Early on, JDC focused its work in this city to help the Jews there move to Israel. Many Jews traveled from villages, near and far, to fulfill their dream of seeing Zion. To facilitate the move, the JDC built a medical clinic to screen everybody and to provide them with assistance in making the transition  from rural Ethiopia to urban Israel.

Upon arrival, we went straight to an elementary school in a local village. The JDC was funding the building of the school and we helped construct the lavatories (not all schools in rural areas have one). This included hauling cinderblocks from one area to the site of the future lavatories, making cement, and using those materials to build the wall for the building. Local workers who were already working at this site guided us. We also spent time playing with the kids who had gathered to watch us work.

After lunch at the hotel, we visited the Teda Medical Clinic that the JDC established in 1986, during the first wave of Ethiopian migration to Israel. Interestingly, a plaque notes the clinic’s founding by the Ministry of Health and the “American Joint Distribution Committee”—not the “American Jewish JDC.” This is because in 1986, Ethiopia was run by a communist regime that was anti-Zionist and did not approve of touting the clinic’s Jewish origin. Indeed, JDC was only allowed to work in Ethiopia on the condition that they served both Jews and non-Jews. Today, the clinic is still running even though almost all of the local Jews have left.

We then drove to a nearby village to visit a water well that was paid for by the JDC. The JDC works closely with the local water authority to determine where to build clean water wells. The well that we visited is situated next to a stream. Before the well was built, villagers would get their water from that stream where their animals also drank. This caused many health issues for the villagers. After the well was built, the villagers reported a drastic decrease in water-borne infections. Still, there are problems related to water for the villagers. Chief among them is that the job of transporting the water from the well to people’s homes usually falls on girls and young women. They must carry twenty-five liter jugs to their homes, which sometimes takes up to two hours. Thus, these women spend most of their day and energy just transporting water.

Next, we drove to a village outside of Gondar, Ambober, that used to be home to many Jews, including the current Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia. We went inside the village’s synagogue, which is mostly empty, except for some benches, a modest library of Jewish texts, and a couple of plaques commemorating the community that used to reside there. Adjacent to the synagogue is a building for harvesting bees that the JDC built to help some of the Jews there make some money. Afterwards, we toured an elementary school that is right next to the synagogue. We concluded our busy day with dinner at a local restaurant.


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January 13, 2013 at 5:14 PM




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