Saturday, March 2, 2013

Tales from Ethiopia & The Starfish Tale

Participating in the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony 
By Raquel Benguiat 

“You are like Angelina Jolie!” a friend commented on a Facebook photo of my most recent overseas adventure, JDC Entwine: Inside Ethiopia. The truth of the matter is that I felt nothing like the exotic and sophisticated Angelina Jolie. Quite the opposite in fact; to this day I am ashamed to admit that I had a really hard time on this trip. I was constantly worried about what I ate, what I drank and how determined I was to keep my hands clean. Even worse, I feel guilty for having sadness for the Ethiopian people, believing they could not possibly be happy with the life they lead with such harsh living conditions. I would certainly not be happy living without access to clean water, wearing torn clothing, walking barefoot, living in a shack, not knowing how to read or write, being exposed to many diseases including malnourishment and having to walk for miles to get anywhere. Anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not a hiker!

Thankfully, I do not have to face these challenges every day of my life. But I am grateful that I had the opportunity to experience them for at least a few days, along with a group of smart, fun, socially and globally-aware Jewish young adults from the US, London, Canada and Australia. Here I’m sharing a few of my reflections in an effort to tell a story that not many people have the privilege of experiencing themselves.

My first few hours in Gondar, Ethiopia were epic. After spending a day in Addis Abba, a city that can be compared to Tijuana, Gondar felt like traveling back in time. Very few roads are paved and the views are breathtaking; gorgeous and plentiful green fields. 

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Health Clinic
Our first stop was at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Health Clinic, which tends to the medical needs of those who are waiting to immigrate to Israel. We were welcomed by dozens of children running towards us yelling and screaming: shalom! I was surprised and overjoyed when listening in broken Hebrew. That day was “Deworming Campaign Day”, and dozens of families were waiting for us to make that happen. This was something like I never experienced before!

Traveling with us was the legendary Dr. Rick Hodes, head of the Health Clinic, who has been saving lives in Ethiopia for over 20 years. We were given very specific instructions on how to perform the deworming campaign successfully and the importance of tracking the clients and keeping records up to date.
Deworming Campaign Day
It did not take long after we officially started that we were immediately surrounded by a lot of people who were impatiently demanding the pills. In no time we lost control and we were giving pills away with no tracking system whatsoever. I felt extremely overwhelmed at that point, although we were told that the pills were not toxic. I stepped away from the table and asked someone else to cover for me as I took a deep breath.

In that moment a question entered my mind - an unanswered question that continues to follow me to this day. I wondered what it would take for these people, with such different culture and norms, to be integrated into a Jewish western culture, such as Israel. Furthermore, I wondered how Israel, with all its current internal and external challenges, could take this enormous and difficult task. Before the trip, I would proudly and fiercely defend Israel’s role in rescuing and providing a better future for every Jew on earth. Quite honestly, after experiencing the magnitude of the gap between the cultures, I began questioning my own beliefs and assumptions on this matter.

Later that day, I experienced something beautiful that soften my view on this questioning. After a couple of hours traveling on rural roads, witnessing magnificent views, sporadically passing villages and barefoot young children herding cattle, feeling car sick and all that goes along with this kind of travel, we arrived at our destination, Teda Village. This is a small village that was home to the Beta Yisrael Ethiopian Jews prior to their emigration to Israel. We entered the village and walked up the hill. At the top of the hill, I saw something that was completely unexpected and that made the uncomfortable two hour trip, completely worthwhile: an unpretentious cement structure with a Star of David on the top. I was mesmerized as I stared at the Amboder Synagogue. Suddenly, I felt a strong connection with the people who lived here, even though they looked completely different than me and are living such a different life from me. 

Amboder Synagogue at Teda Village

 The following day we visited a school. When we arrived the students were in their classrooms, but nothing like I had ever seen before. The classrooms were shacks made from sticks and mud. Some students were sitting on rocks, others sitting on broken chairs. At the far end of the school yard, there was a cement building with three classrooms. That’s when we learned that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has been building dozens of these buildings in Gondar. 

Our assignment was to decorate the school building facade. We were given brushes and few buckets of paint. We decided on an educational design: numbers, the English alphabet, animals and the world. We divided into small groups and started to paint. In the meantime, the kids were in their classrooms learning and repeating out loud the “ABC’s”. After an hour or so, the kids came out to see what we were doing and were happily surprised. They ran right up to us, and one boy in particular was getting really close to me, curious as to what I was doing. I extended my brush and pointed to the yellow tulip I was painting. He looked me in the eye with a big smile and started to paint. After every brush, he would turn to me and look for my approval. I kept nodding with a big smile on my face. We were communicating even though we did not have a common language; art connected us. He was so happy painting that flower. I was no longer overwhelmed at that moment by the crowds, the aromas or my own assumptions of what happy looks and feels like. It was a brief but beautiful moment.

School classroom and students outside Gondar
Ethiopia faces tremendous challenges and even though the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is doing a magnificent job providing access to water, granting university scholarships, building schools and offering lifesaving healthcare services; the task seems to be never-ending. When I expressed this overwhelming feeling to Rob, a member of our group from London, he shared with me a tale. It was about a boy who was at the beach and discovered hundreds of starfishes on the sand. The boy knew that if starfish did not return to the ocean, they would die. He desperately ran and threw as many as he could back into the ocean. When his father saw him so overwhelmed, he stopped him and said: “I’m sorry son but there are too many starfishes and there is no way you can save them all”. The boy wisely responded: “I might not be able to save them all, but to this particular starfish my help means a world of difference”.
Decorating the American Jewish Joint Distribution school building
I left Ethiopia with more and different questions than I had upon my arrival. I feel connected to Ethiopian Jews in ways I never expected. I have a new, different perspective of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s role as the largest Jewish international humanitarian aid organization. I have a new appreciation for Israel’s efforts integrating Ethiopian immigrants into their society. I’m comforted to know that there are many Jewish young adults around the world who care about our global Jewish community just like I do. And most importantly, I left Ethiopia knowing that we might not be able to care for them all, but that for each and every person that we touch, it means a world of difference. 

JDC Entwine Inside Ethiopia 2012 Participants 

Are you a young adult who is interested in being part of JDC Entwine overseas experience and explore Jewish communities around the world? Contact Jonathan Goldstone, JDC Entwine West Coast Program Specialist at or visit


  1. History continues to prove that skin color is a major issue for many people.

    An orthodox black Jew would unlikely be acceptable to an orthodox white Jew.

    Social status has nothing to do with it - that's my belief.

    Maybe one day differences of skin color won't matter - but even orthodox Jews don't think Reform and Conservative and Humanist and Reconstructionist Jews are Jews - even with the same skin color or Caucasian.

    People WHO
    Things THAT