When Geula Hadarai speaks of her journey on foot from Ethiopia to Sudan, her eyes light up with a defiant fire that brings to mind a real-life Wonder Woman. As an eight-year old, she and her family marched 700 miles in silence, walking at night and hiding during the day.
After a week and a half, they reached a refugee camp in Sudan, where they would stay for two years, keeping their faith secret for fear of the Sudanese.
Every once in a while, the Mossad and its Ethiopian Jewish operatives would pick a few families and whisk them away in the middle of the night. "They are going to Yerusalem," Geula was told. One Saturday, a knock was heard on the door. They were leaving that night.
The family was packed into a truck with 150 Jews, hidden under a tarp. Not a sound was heard during the three-hour ride for fear of being caught by the Sudanese. Geula felt a mixture of fear of the unknown and an excitement at the prospect of reaching Jerusalem. "I was going to fulfill my dream and that of my ancestors," she said with a sparkle in her eye.
They arrived at the Red Sea Diving Resort, a fake front maintained by the Mossad to cover up the clandestine activity. When asked about the movie about the resort, Geula smiled. "The true heroes were our own Ferede Aklum, a community leader who led Ethiopian
, and our families, but the movie doesn't show that," she said.
Each family boarded a tiny boat and skimmed over the choppy water towards an Israeli Navy ship. When Geula was lifted on board, her first thought was: "These men must be sick! They all have pale, white skin." She had never seen white men.
Absorption in Israel was not easy for the community. They had to learn a new language, culture, and customs, and make a leap of a thousand years to a technologically advanced country. What set them apart, and forever would, was the color of their skin. Many encountered prejudice and bias from some veteran Israelis, many of whom had suffered the same prejudice as new immigrants from Morocco, Iraq, or Yemen in the 1950s. Geula was shocked. How could the land of milk and honey allow discrimination against another Jew?
"When faced with challenges," Geula said, "you either blame your parents for taking you out of Ethiopia, or you gather your strength and declare-I am here to prove my strength." Indeed, Geula proved her strength. She excelled at school, became a teacher, married, and raised a family.
Today, Geula runs the Beita Israel Village (
), an experiential cultural conservation center for Ethiopian immigrants in Kiryat Gat, JUF's Partnership region. The farm was established thanks to a grant from JUF and still receives our support. It provides land for elderly Ethiopian Jews where they retain their sense of usefulness. The farm teaches thousands of visitors about the rich culture of Ethiopia's Jewish community and heritage, a source of pride to veteran Israelis but, more importantly, to young kids of Ethiopian descent born in Israel.
Geula fights for acceptance of all Jews and full integration into society. "Many still see a person's skin color and not their individual value," she said. "Israeli society needs to repair itself and learn to accept the other. The road ahead is still long."
Geula is a superhero, a bridge between two communities. She teaches young Israelis of the Ethiopian community to take pride in their past while building a better Israel for future generations. Hundreds of Chicagoans visit the farm through JUF, which is proud to support Geula in shattering prejudice and teaching about the rich heritage of Ethiopia's Jewish community.
Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office.
JUF's Partnership Together (P2G) is a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel that links communities in the Diaspora with communities in Israel. Chicago's P2G region of Kiryat Gat-Lachish-Shafir is located in Israel's northern Negev. Through P2G, more than $1 million of funding from JUF's annual campaign supports projects that promote the region's development, improve the quality of life for its residents, and connects them with Chicago Jewry through "people-to-people" programs. This story is one of a series titled "25 stories," celebrating 25 years of partnership between JUF and Kiryat Gat, Lachish, and Shafir.