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‘We prayed with our feet’

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Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla and Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner at the AIPAC conference. Courtesy Rabbi Kirshner

Mayor Corey Booker of Newark once said, “Democracy is not a sideline sport.” If ever one wanted to prove that statement true, one would only need to spend three days in Washington at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

This week, 76 members of Temple Emanu-El in Closter joined the ranks of 7,724 (close to 200 from Bergen County alone) others — Jews and gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, old and young — and ran on to the field of the American Israel relationship. Little did we know when we signed up for the policy conference, some as early as 11 months ago, that Israel and America would be embroiled in a public relations mess that would not only take some of the focus off of health care but would also serve as a re-examination and reiteration of the core principles of the 62-year-old partnership. It made for an exciting, engaging, and energetic conference.

First Person

The topnotch speakers included Benjamin Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, members of the Israeli Medical Corps who serviced Haiti, and many more. But perhaps one of the most moving was Member of Knesset Shlomo Molla, who was brought to Israel in the middle of a cold and dark night from somewhere in the desert of Sudan more than 25 years ago. His story of perseverance and determination was powerful.

As a young man living in Ethiopia, he faced a communist regime that did not allow him or his community to practice Judaism. The country continued to enforce more obstacles to normal living and cruelty to the point where Molla and thousands of others had to flee. They escaped, barefoot, with no possessions and little food and water. Their journey eventually led them to the African Sudan. Some 4,000 of their brethren did not make it. The punishing elements took their lives. But Molla and others were airlifted by the Israel Defense Forces to Israel, where they made a home within a homeland and created a family surrounded by new and familiar brothers and sisters.

This story rang the bell of our memories to the Ethiopian children and the Russian grandmothers who walked down the stairs to the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport and danced and kissed the ground as our arms opened for their embrace and our collective eyes welled with tears of gratitude. In each of our mind’s tickers ran Theodor Herzl’s words, “If you will it, it is no dream.” The foundation of the state and the spirit of the state was realized; a home for every Jewish person, then and now, will endure.

Today, Molla, a distinguished member of the Kadima Party, spoke to the AIPAC plenary and at various smaller sessions, too. Many were reminded, when we listened to him and his story, why we were in Washington just before Passover — because we are still making the case for Israel to live in peace.

We took the information we learned from our sessions and speakers, along with the words of our political leaders and Molla’s spirit and determination, and we took to the streets. Tuesday morning we realized Booker’s words, and the AIPAC delegates met with representatives in each Senate office and more than 400 offices in the House of Representatives to lobby in support of a strong Israel-America relationship. We underscored basic principles critical for the continued strength of the Jewish state: the need for quickly passing crippling sanctions against Iran, continuing to condemn the flawed and non-factual Goldstone Report, and encouraging the Palestinian Authority to come to a meeting table with the Israeli leadership immediately for discussions followed by negotiations for peace and the creation of a two-state region. It was a life-changing experience for our new participants. As almost every AIPAC rookie said to me, “This is my first AIPAC event, but certainly not my last.”

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., Heschel proclaimed that he was praying with his feet. That is how many of us felt as we boarded airplanes and trains back to Bergen County rejuvenated by our time spent in Washington. We prayed with our feet. The foundations of Judaism and the core fundamentals of America are similar; we celebrate our voice and how we share it, our hand and how we and both America and Judaism are as much about our possibilities as they are about our histories and traditions. Those shared values are the reason the Jewish people have thrived in the United States.

On the eve of Passover, may we never take the freedoms of Shlomo Molla and the State of Israel for granted. May we realize the freedoms afforded us as Americans, and may we use our voices, our feet, and our passion to celebrate America’s and Israel’s unbreakable bond.

 
 

Shlomo Molla, Ethiopian member of Knesset, brings message of diversity to North Jersey

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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.”

 
 
 
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