Aletash* screamed, “No! No! NO!” She had just heard her son Abraham was in jail.
“He’s only a child! He can’t be in prison! For 20 years!”
Aletash, her husband Abebe, and their four children were Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel in 2011. Abraham was 12 when they arrived. They began their new life in an observation center outside Jerusalem, and the children started school. The new culture, language, modern society, and even the food were challenges.
Abraham was discouraged and saw no future in this “promised land” his parents spoke of, so he began skipping school and got into drugs and alcohol. Eventually the crowd he was involved with was tied up in a murder, and Abraham was sentenced to 20 years for his part in the crime.
Abebe left for another woman. A year later he committed suicide. Two more of Aletash’s children turned to drugs. Then one of her daughters was raped several times. The daughter suffered severe depression afterward and now sleeps day and night, refusing to go to school or get a job.
Regrettably, this is a common story of Ethiopian youth who come to Israel.
For centuries, thousands of Jews lived and observed the Jewish faith in the northeast region of Ethiopia. They developed their own interpretations of the law and added some of their own feast days. They knew no Hebrew; their scriptures were written in Ge’ez, and they spoke Amharic.
Many of these Ethiopian Jews, having no contact with the outside world, thought they were the only Jews left on the planet. They endured generations of hardship to sustain their Jewish identity and longed for the day when they would return to Zion, which they see as their ancestral homeland. “Beta Israel” (House of Israel) is what they called themselves, while some of their neighbors derided them as “Falashas” (the alien ones).
Many have now made the journey to Israel, but living in Israel is much harder than they ever thought. In this new land they do feel like the “alien ones.” Unable to adapt, they face all kinds of challenges. One Israeli organization reports that 40% of the population in Israel’s main youth detention facility are of Ethiopian heritage like Abraham.
Hope in the Promised Land
But God has not left His people without hope.
Kokeb and Menalu Gedamu, both Messianic Ethiopian Jews who also immigrated, established a ministry called Amud Ha Esh or “Pillar of Fire.”
Like the Pillar of Fire that provided light for the Israelites when they traveled out of Egypt, Kokeb and Menalu’s Pillar of Fire ministry also provides light and guidance. They visit, encourage, and counsel the Abrahams in jail, sharing the gospel with them. They also care for the families left behind. Many Ethiopian immigrants come to them for counsel and vocational skills training. This personal approach is transforming troubled youth and broken families into productive citizens in Israel.
And when Abraham is released, he already knows who loves him. And they will give him a second chance.
*Names changed for security reasons
Photo credited to Dave Herring on Unsplash.