Reflecting through a Polaroid: an Ethiopian journal

by Heather Adelson

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit Ethiopia as part of a mission to help a group of Ethiopian Jews make aliyah. Upon our arrival, we met the 15 families who were slated to travel back with us to Israel. This experience was truly transformational and provided me with a first-hand encounter as to just how much the work of CJA can transcend both boarder and culture.

During one of my first encounters, I was given the honour of presenting the locals with clothing. I can vividly recall the profound sense of gratitude exhibited by a little girl whom I had just handed a package. She held it close to her chest, proudly, and cherished it like it was the first time anyone had given her anything. It was such an uplifting, human experience.  Never before had I witnessed first-hand how our small acts of kindness can make such a meaningful difference in the life of another.

On another occasion, I took out an old Polaroid camera to show the kids. Living in poverty, many of them had never even seen their own reflection. I snapped a picture of a girl, and upon showing her the print, her face lit up with such innocent joy. It was the first time she had seen her own face.

I enjoyed a similar experience when I taught a group of kids how to pop bubbles with their fingers. They laughed hysterically. Soon, our “event” expanded, and attracted a large following. I look at these kids and how they derive so much happiness from even the simplest activities. It reminded me of the childlike innocence once felt with my own children. I felt so fortunate to be able to witness it, experience it, and be part of the movement that is able to help these people.

Then there were the adults. To help them prepare for their lives in Israel, we took them to a more “advanced” building for a 24 hour stay. The goal was to acclimatize them with even the most basic technologies. Everything from the fridge to the light switch was so foreign to them. I observed in awe as they interacted with their new environment. I watched one woman try to open a sandwich wrapper, not even knowing what the plastic seal was. It was all so different… so overwhelming to them.

On the day they were scheduled to depart for Israel, it was quite something to see the women walking along the roadside toward the embassy, many of whom carried their belongings in suitcases and containers on their heads. As they approached the entrance for the embassy, our group formed two lines for them to pass through as they symbolically began their new lives, and we spontaneously began singing Am Yisrael Chai. The Ethiopian women quickly joined us in a collective chant of this meaningful song. As the last girl made her way through the line, she threw off one of her shoes, which I bent down to pick up. She motioned “no”, and then removed the other shoe. The volunteer next to me immediately took off her own shoes and gave them to the girl, as it was evident that hers were unsuitable for walking. It was quite an emotional moment. Another group of volunteers then prepared them for their arrival at the airport by styling their hair, doing their nails and providing them with new clothing. They departed for their new life inIsrael with dignity and pride.

Since returning to Montreal, I’ve felt compelled to share my story. I speak to Jews and non Jews, friends and to strangers. I talk to anyone who values the human spirit. As Chair of the Women’s Philanthropy Campaign, this experience has proven to offer tremendous insight. The way I see it is this: The more you know about  the power of community and the impact of the annual gift to Combined Jewish Appeal, the more you’ll want to get involved and join us in securing a stronger future for Jews here, Israel and all over the world. People often underestimate the impact they can make. We must remind them, that as Jews, it is within our core values to exhibit a sense of collective responsibility. If we just tell our story, whatever our story is, it has the potential to set off a chain reaction of philanthropy and compassion. For our people. For us all.

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