Sitting in a bright and cozy meeting room at Krieger Schechter Day School on a dreary November morning, the sky dark outside, rain speckling the windows, a group of men and women were rapt, listening to the life story of Yarden Fanta, an Ethiopian-born Jewish woman who, as a young girl, crossed the desert toward Sudan with her family and other villagers with one goal — to reach Israel and a better life.
The program, dubbed a post-carpool breakfast for day school parents, was part of “Tragedy to Triumph: A Brave Journey from Ethiopia to Israel,” for the The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s Sue Glick Liebman Visiting Israel Scholar Series.
The year was 1985 and Fanta, just 11, had lived a simple farming life tending the family’s cows and sheep in a village with no phones, televisions, computers or vehicles. Jewish children were not allowed to attend school.
“[I was] growing up in this Ethiopian village, a very small, remote, isolated village, disconnected to any people outside of us,” Fanta said. “No reading, no writing. All of my knowledge came from oral education from our rabbi. It was everything for us.”
Her parents made sure to instill Jewish identity in their daughter.
“All of my knowledge came from oral education from our rabbi. It was everything for us.” — Yarden Fanta
“My parents understood that it was nice to have nice clothes and shoes, but knowing who you are was most important,” Fanta said. “I didn’t like going out at that age, 6, 7 years old, barefoot and going and herding sheep and cows. But I knew why I was doing that. Somehow my parents instilled that this is our life and we need to keep hoping and praying to go to Israel.”
Many Ethiopian Jews have, like Fanta and her family, made the journey to Israel — but not without hardship. About 22,000 of them were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. Now, there are some 135,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today, many of whom are subject to grievous discrimination in a variety of contexts, including law enforcement, health, education and employment.
Still, when the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd was held on Nov. 7 in Jerusalem, two days before Fanta’s talk in Baltimore, Ethiopian Jews living in Israel gathered for a mass prayer at Sherover Promenade in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood to mark the holiday and express gratitude. The promenade, with an expansive view of the Temple Mount, was designated by the Ethiopian community as the central meeting place for the holiday when the first immigrants began to arrive in Israel.
“‘Jeena, jeena, Ierusalem, longing, longing for Jerusalem’ — this is what we sing to Jerusalem in the prayers of the festival,” said Israeli President Reuben Rivlin to the crowd. “And those prayers — those ancient, wonderful prayers that you kept hold of and held dear to you and learned by heart and taught your children and passed down the generations — they are prayers of wonder and expectation all the way to Jerusalem.
“You brought a spirit of heroism and nobility that was sorely tested on the difficult journey you undertook and over the long years of expectation and yearning,” he said. “And you brought with you an ancient and passionate love for Zion, a love without bounds.”
A Perilous Journey
It took Fanta and her family a month to make the 450-mile journey, barefoot, mostly traveling at night, to reach a refugee camp in Sudan.
“Never mind what barriers we have,” she remembers her mother telling her and her siblings. “We can make it happen. We don’t have cars? We don’t have an airplane? We can walk.”
They carried white flour, salt and water. Every day, Fanta said, somebody died — including one of her sisters. “You cannot compare where we were, and where we were heading to.”
After 11 months in the Sudanese refugee camp, Fanta and her family were airlifted to Israel, where she, only speaking Amharic, began going to school for the first time at 14. She learned Hebrew and excelled in school, going on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Bar Ilan University in criminology and sociology and her master’s degree from Tel Aviv University in educational counseling.
The first exam she took as a new student in Israel, she got 20 out of 100 right. But she wasn’t deterred.
“If I got 20, which means I know something, I can improve for next time,” she recalled. “It’s about seeing and winning with whatever you have.”
In 2004, she went on a 35-day peace expedition to Antarctica with three other Israelis and four Palestinians. The mission of the trip was “to break the ice” between the two cultures. A year later, she earned her Ph.D. in education, becoming the first Ethiopian woman to earn a doctorate in Israel. She went on to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Boston, where she still lives with her family.
Nina Rosenzwog, chair of the Sue Glick Liebman Visiting Scholar committee, said Fanta was selected by the committee in concert with The Associated’s partners, including Jewish Federations of North America.
“We spent time reviewing each individual and considering how they would help the Baltimore community, educate and deepen their relationship with the land and people of Israel,” Rosenzwog said. “We were inspired by Dr. Fanta’s story and felt she would speak to a young and diverse demographic within Baltimore, which was important for us.”
Rosenzwog said the committee hoped Fanta “would bring a unique story, passion, inspiration and determination to our community. More importantly, she stands for everything that Israel is about — a hope and a homeland for all Jews around the world. We hoped that the community would learn more about Israel through Dr. Fanta’s incredible journey.”
Fanta attended more than a dozen events over the course of her weeklong stay, speaking at schools, colleges, community and professional organizations and congregations.
Back home in Boston, Fanta heads up ZoomIn, a career and personal fulfillment coaching and motivational speaking business. She also hosts a Boston community-television show called “ZoomIn” focused on education and leadership. Its motto mirrors Fanta’s life journey: “Discover your greatest self.”
“ZoomIn is about coming to know yourself from the inside out and I’m hoping to inspire other people, if it’s in business, professional or personal life, how you can connect it to yourself,” Fanta said. “It’s about belief and taking action and that you are bigger than you are. And the power to change our lives and other people’s lives. Life can be rich. It’s all about choice.”
“Never mind where you come from, whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, or whatever you are. What are your values and how that can help you to lead your life, whatever you want to be,” she added.
Meanwhile, in March of this year the JTA reported that the aliyah of Ethiopians who claim Jewish descent, known as Falash Mura, is uncertain after the Israeli government passed the 2019 state budget with no allocation for Ethiopian immigration. The immigration and its funding reportedly was slated to be discussed at a future interministerial meeting; but no date was set.
The Interior Ministry accepts Ethiopians who claim Jewish descent as immigrants under the Law of Return, which is less restrictive than traditional Jewish law.
Following a public campaign launched by the nation’s Ethiopian community and volunteer organizations, The Knesset, in November 2015, unanimously approved a plan to bring 9,000 Falash Mura to Israel by the end of 2020. At the same time, it announced that it would be the last round of Ethiopian immigration. Many of those waiting to immigrate have family already in Israel. Some have been waiting for 20 years to come to Israel.
‘Something I Will Never Forget’
Sue Glick Liebman, for whom the visiting scholar series is named, said she was “tremendously impressed” by Fanta and her story.
“Not only does she have an inspiring personal story, she brings a passion for people and Jewish identity, which helped her brilliantly tailor her narrative to suit each unique audience she was speaking to over the course of the week,” Liebman said. “I was honored to play a part in Dr. Fanta’s Jewish journey when she spoke at my synagogue, Pikesville Jewish Congregation, and she held a Sefer Torah for the first time in her life, which was an extremely emotional moment. This is something I will never forget!”
Chizuk Amuno’s Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg had not met Fanta before the Nov. 9 event, and was also deeply affected by her story of overcoming arduous challenges.
“Her sheer will and determination to find a better life and then to create a life for her family,” Gruenberg said. “Her story will remind me of just how fortunate we are, and I am, to live as a member of the Jewish community in America.”
He said her story paralleled what rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot. “Who is happy? The one who is content with what they have or content with their portion?” he said. “We live in a consumeristic society that focuses us on what we do not have and want, and not on what we do have and need. Her lesson on this issue is not something I will soon forget.”
As for her first trip to Baltimore, Fanta said she was impressed by the Baltimore Jewish community and how it combines its synagogues and schools and cultural and social institutions.
“It feels like puzzles that match all together and create a great picture,” she said. “Everybody emphasizes something different, but it all comes together. It’s like a big umbrella. And it covers everything in such a nice way.”
After the event, Gruenberg said people who hear Fanta’s inspiring story will probably think of her as a hero.
“Her story is that of the historical paradigmatic Jew,” he said. “Marching great distances for a better life.”