It’s about 2,500 miles from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Jerusalem. Ethiopian Jews have trekked this distance for 90 years.
They hoped of a better life. Some walked or drove; others were airlifted or smuggled in trucks. Like Abraham, they sought a promised homeland, but found an uncertain future.
It’s not an easy journey, and not all make it to Israel. Even those who do face steep obstacles. It’s not easy to transition from African remote village life to Israel’s high-tech, fast-moving society.
A new nation
Ethiopia shows up in biblical prophecies as Cush, although there is some disagreement over this interpretation. Many think the Jews of Ethiopia are descended from Menelik, the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. Philip, in the New Testament, met a Jew returning to Ethiopia (Acts 8:27). Philip introduced him to the Messiah, and he went on his way rejoicing.
Isaiah 11:11 says, “In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush [Ethiopia], from Elam [Iran], from Babylonia, from Hamath, and from the islands of the Mediterranean.”
Jews, often called the most persecuted people group in history, dreamed for centuries of having a place of safety they could call “home.” In 1917, as World War I wore on in Europe, the British government declared its commitment to set aside a portion of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire as a state for the Jewish people who had been scattered throughout the world. The state became official on November 29, 1947, as the United Nations resolved to create two states. Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948. Local Palestinians balked at the division of the land and their state never became a reality.
Worldwide, Jews began making aliyah (“ascent”) to the land that God promised to their father Abraham—fulfilling hundreds of biblical prophecies, such as Jeremiah 32:37–41: “Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them…I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety…I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”
Long before Israeli statehood, Jews from Ethiopia began migrating to Israel in the 1930s; waves of migration followed. Civil wars and famines rocked Ethiopia in the 1980s, which prompted the Israeli government to airlift much of Ethiopia’s Jewish community out of the country.
A difficult new home
Approximately 140,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel. Fewer than 5,000 remain in Ethiopia. Many of them never had electricity, used elevators, flushed toilets, or watched television. They don’t know Hebrew, have little education, and struggle to find work. They also suffer discrimination because of the color of their skin.
More than 6% of Ethiopian students drop out of school between the ages of 14–17, double the national average. More Ethiopian young people are arrested than any other ethnic group. Most Ethiopians live below the poverty line, and their youths have the highest suicide rate of all Israeli youth.
But God sent them a modern Philip to help them: two Messianic Jews from Ethiopia, Kokeb and Menalu Gedamu. Menalu’s father believed she would be their family’s seed that would enter the Promised Land. Kokeb’s father had told him he was a child of Wolte Yisrael (“Mother Israel”) and a Levite. So when the brutal, communist Dergue regime took over Ethiopia, they headed to Israel. They missed the massive airlift campaigns. Instead, they trekked overland and went through many countries before reaching their destination.
It was like the Underground Railroad: guides, guns, moving under the shroud of darkness. Dressed like peasants, Kokeb and Menalu persevered through a landscape littered with bodies of comrades shot by the rebels or communists. Some had decomposed, and others were mutilated by wild animals. At one point, they got into large sacks of charcoal and traveled all day in the back of a tarp-covered truck with no airflow through the scorching Sudanese desert. More than 4,000 Ethiopian Jews seeking migration died of starvation and malaria along the way.
When Kokeb and Menalu finally got to Israel, their empathy for their fellow Ethiopian Jews led them to found a ministry called Pillar of Fire, recalling the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness.
Help from within
Pillar of Fire provides a wide array of responses to the plight of Ethiopian immigrants, both new arrivals and long-time residents. Staff members provide mentoring and counseling in life skills such as parenting, financial planning, resume writing, and job searching. They also train young people in computer skills, plumbing, carpentry, electricity, and cosmetology.
Their goal is to instill a sense of dignity and accomplishment so these young people can become productive contributors in their new nation. Pillar of Fire staff members also visit the jails to encourage fellow Ethiopians and let them know they belong. When they are released, they have a place to go where people believe in them.
Kokeb is a Messianic Jewish rabbi, a seasoned pastor, and a compassionate father figure in the community with a congregation in Jerusalem. He preaches that there is no upper-class Christianity, that in God’s sight there is neither Jew nor Gentile, black nor white, rich nor poor. For Jews who begin following Jesus as the Messiah, Kokeb gives guidance in Christian leadership. Kokeb also travels back to Ethiopia to prepare Jews still in the country for their journey to Israel.
One Messianic leader wrote, “I have known Kokeb for over 20 years, and I believe that he really is the man for the hour at this time.” Another leader commented, “It’s exciting to see Kokeb involved in a very practical way to give Ethiopian Jewish youth the skills they need to not be dependent on outside people or the Israeli social system. With Kokeb’s help, they can go from being the tail to the head and become leaders in Israeli society. God is going to do great things through this work.”