|Knesset member Shlomo Molla meets with members of Solomon Schechter Day School’s student government. Josh Lipkowsky|
Few members of Israel’s Knesset can say their journeys to Israel included walking hundreds of miles and escaping from a Sudanese prison.
Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian member of Israel’s Knesset who came to the Jewish state as a teenager, told his story to members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter and students at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford last Friday.
During his talk at Emanu-El, which attracted more than 40 people, he spoke about the challenges of his Kadima Party’s remaining outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Iranian threat, and Israel’s need to be a Jewish state but not necessarily one based on Jewish law.
“He’s very quick to have those conversations with people as a black Jew because he knows what it’s like to be told you don’t count,” said Emanu-El’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who met Molla at AIPAC’s Policy Conference earlier this year and arranged the visits.
At Schechter, Molla recounted his harrowing journey to Israel. Molla grew up in the Ethiopian village of Gandar, whose Jewish community traced itself back 2,500 years to the expulsion from Jerusalem after the destruction of the First Temple. The 16-year-old Molla had heard about the Jewish state, and he and a group of friends began a 780-kilometer journey on foot across Ethiopia to reach “the land of milk and honey and gold.”
It was a dangerous journey, Molla said, but they were motivated. Their planned route was from Ethiopia to Sudan to Egypt and finally to Israel. When they reached Sudan, however, they were accused of being spies for Ethiopia and Israel and were thrown in prison, where Molla saw one of his friends murdered. They were soon taken to a Sudanese refugee camp, where an Ethiopian reached out to Molla and his friends. He directed them to a clandestine location, where they were met by Israeli commandos who brought them to Israel in 1984.
His first shock, Molla said, was seeing all the white people. He wondered if they were really Jews, he said. He now praises the Jewish state for its diversity.
“Israel is not like America,” Molla told an assembly of SSDS’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes. “Israel is the Jewish homeland, a country for each minority of Jews.”
Eventually, Molla went to work in the same absorption centers that helped him adapt to his new life in Israel, and he became a champion of Ethiopian rights. When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was forming his new Kadima Party, he encouraged Molla to join its parliamentary list, and Molla has been a member of the Knesset since 2008.
Molla left nine brothers and two sisters in Ethiopia. He had no contact with his family there until they came to Israel seven years later as part of Operation Solomon in 1991, when Israel covertly airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in 36 hours.
The story of the Ethiopian immigration is largely unknown to American Jewish children, Molla told The Jewish Standard. He spent last week visiting schools and synagogues in New Jersey and New York, as well as meeting with political leaders in Washington to discuss the peace process and U.S.-Israel relations.
“We need the United States to stand behind Israel,” he said, noting that the Israeli public is mostly unaware of the support President Obama has provided Israel militarily and financially.
When Obama spoke in Cairo, Germany, and Turkey during the early days of his administration, he missed an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people, Molla said.
“Obama must come talk to the Israelis eye to eye,” he said.
Molla is the second Knesset member to visit Solomon Schechter in as many months. Last month, Dalia Itzik, Israel’s first female Knesset speaker and also a member of Kadima, addressed the students.
“It’s an inspiration,” said Schechter’s head of school, Ruth Gafni, who praised the politicians as role models for the children.
While Itzik brought a message of accomplishment for Schechter’s female students, Molla reinforced ideas of diversity and inclusiveness, said Gafni, who added how important it is for the children to see that there are black Jews.
“Our goal at the school is to provide the children an opportunity for learning from the experts in any field and to inspire them with role models in any field, and have them be eyewitnesses to history,” she said. “It’s a powerful foundation they’ll carry with them for a lifetime.”