Friday, January 16, 2009

Parashat Shemot - In Memory of Ferde Alkom z"l

At a time when it seems that there is nothing going on in Israel other than the war in Gaza; when the international media is haranguing Israel and, for the most part, standing in solidarity with Hamas terrorists; when Time Magazine has shockingly turned to reverse Holocaust imagery - a big, ominous, looming and rising star of David behind a concrete wall with razor wire - to proclaim its discontent with Israel’s actions in Gaza, it is important to remember that there is life in Israel beyond the way. It is difficult to say, especially in light of the ongoing rocket attacks in the South, the world media images so grossly biased against Israel, the deaths of soldiers, along with the sad reality of the death of non-combatant civilians in Gaza, that life goes on in Israel, that there are other things going on. But it does and I believe it is important to tell some of those stories. I am looking for happier ones, but this one arrived in my inbox just the other day and I believe it is a story that everyone should know.

A hero died this week, one that I did not know personally. While I witnessed the results of his actions, I did not know his name. I learned about him from an e-mail from our friend, Zehava Tesfay. Zehava, a shlicha at Ramah Darom for many summers, is from Ethiopia. She grew up in Beersheba, where her family lives - and we pray for their safety as Grad rockets land now in her hometown. She sent me the following e-mail telling of the death of Ferde Alkom, a hero of the Ethiopian Jewish Aliyah known as Operation Moses. While Zehava refers to Ferde as her Herzl and Ben Gurion, I also know that she must think of him as the Moses who found the way and led his people out of Ethiopia. The following is my translation of Zehava’s e-mail, reviewed by her, and posted here with her permission:

"I am writing to you because yesterday, I received very sad and painful news. Yesterday, Ferde Alkom , one of the most important members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in general and of the Ethiopian region of Tigre specifically, died. I am almost completely certain that virtually none of you know about him - and that fact saddens me as well. Few are the people who know about the heroic activities of Ferde. In his memory, therefore, I will tell you a little about what he did that will illustrate just a small part of his important activities, as they were told to me by his nephew and my father.

Ferde Alkom was the first Jew to flee Ethiopia to Sudan. He succeeded in finding a passage where none had previously existed in order to get from Ethiopia to Sudan. With this success, he turned to the Mossad with a request to bring the Jews of Ethiopia on Aliyah to Israel. He promised that he would bring them to Sudan and requested that they, in turn, gather them up and bring them to Israel. The Mossad agents were skeptical that Ferde would be able to find this as yet unknown passage, as they had tried and failed. They did not believe that it was possible to walk by foot from the farming villages of Ethiopia thousands and millions of kilometers to Sudan. Nonetheless, they decided to give it a try and set a place and time to meet Ferde.

For the first attempt, Ferde decided that he would not endanger other families and that he would take with him only members of his family, and so he took three families (the Ethiopian definition of family is broader than other communities). Since Ferde was not able to return to Ethiopia because he was now wanted by the Ethiopian Army, he paid a large sum of money to a Christian man who would follow the directions Ferde gave him in order to bring his family to Sudan.

Ferde was with the Mossad agents at the time and the place that had been agreed upon and they waited together for his family, and they waited a long time. Ferde knew that the passage was not really a passage, and that it was very long and full of challenges and dangers, and that they would be killed if they were caught.

And that's how Ferde's nephew described it: the Mossad agents waited for a long time. The time agreed upon for when the family would arrive from Ethiopia to Sudan had already passed and they decided that they were going to leave. At that very moment Ferde’s family appeared before them - the three families of Ferde Alkom. The Mossad agents stood in disbelief for they were sure that it was impossible to find a passage from Ethiopia to Sudan and that if they did find such a passage, they would not be able to navigate it because it would be too dangerous for an individual to succeed let alone a group of people.

It was in this way that the passage from the farming villages of Ethiopia to Sudan and from there to Israel was discovered. Ferde worked for the Ethiopian Aliyah in the midst of constant dangers to his own life. He started to work with the Mossad in the State of Israel in order to bring all of the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel. Groups started to leave, long parades of Jews, who heard about the magical passage that would take them to Israel.

My parents and my entire family came to Israel via this passage and this process. The actions of Ferde led to Operation Moses. I grew up on stories about the passage and the heroic efforts of Ferde and of the incredible value and appreciation my parents personally felt for him. Ferde Alkom is a member of my family and, for me, a hero and a leader, he is my "Herzl" and my "Ben Gurion" and I know that others see him in the same way as well.

I will always remember the resourcefulness, acceptance of responsibility and personal charisma of Ferde.

Ferde Yezahzu Alkom, may his memory be for a blessing."
This Shabbat, we begin reading Exodus. Our 70 families have grown into a nation, a People, one that is enslaved and persecuted. A leader will arise, God’s agent, who will lead them out of the land of Egypt and to freedom. Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Great Teacher, will lead them to the brink of the promised land. This week, another Moses died, one less famous in most of our communities. Ferde Alkom led part of our family, those who were suffering from persecution and starvation in Ethiopia, out and succeeded not only in guiding them to the Promised Land but to entering it as well. I hope and pray that we will all be inspired by Ferde’s leadership, will share his story, and will demand leadership of this calibre in the future.

In a week when we will honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and will witness the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, Barak Obama, the memory of Ferde Alkom, who was the Nachshon ben Aminadav and the Moses of the Ethiopian Aliya, be a blessing and inspiration to us all.

Thank you to Zehava for sharing Ferde’s story.

Shabbat Shalom.

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