When Rabbi Sharon Shalom tasted fruit juice for the first time after arriving in Israel from his native Ethiopia, he thought it was water. He had been told Israel flowed with milk and honey, so he assumed the country’s water must also be sweet, he said in the new documentary, “Yerusalem: The Incredible Story of Ethiopian Jewry.”
Classrooms Without Borders premiered the documentary virtually as part of its Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration. A discussion with Shalom and former Israeli naval commando and ex-Mossad agent Rubi Viterbo followed the screening.
Directed by Levi Zini, “Yerusalem” tells the story of the Ethiopian Beta Israel Jews who lived in the sometimes-hostile Christian country before emigrating to Israel. It recounts the history of the community and examines its roots, including the belief that it was descended from the lost tribe of Dan. The film also covers the Mossad missions, which began in the late 1970s and continued through the mid-1980s, to bring the Beta Israel Jews — known in the African nation by the derogatory term Falasha, or “stranger” — to the Jewish homeland.
The film further explores the racism felt by the Jews who came to Israel as part of Operation Moses, Operation Joshua and other clandestine missions. Secret conversion ceremonies, boarding schools and attempts to create division between younger community members and their parents and grandparents are all recounted in first-person interviews.
“I remember my grandpa read from the Torah, from the prophets who recorded God’s promise to gather his people in Israel,” Shalom recounted to the nearly 200 people online for the post-film discussion.
Viterbo spoke of his involvement in rescuing the Jews of Ethiopia; he helped to recruit several people for the missions, including those with diving experience and the ability to speak several foreign languages.
The ex-Mossad agent said that at the start he traveled to Sudan to set up a base, and that he had butterflies in his stomach as the missions began.
“I mean, to smuggle money or even weapons or drugs, it’s relatively not too dangerous,” Viterbo said, “but to smuggle people in a hostile country, there is a penalty for that if they catch you.”
Zini told the Chronicle he made the documentary in response to what he views as the mistreatment of the Ethiopian Jewish community and encouraged viewers to learn more about Ethiopian Jews.
“It’s an amazing community,” he said. “What fascinated me is how this small tribe succeeded to keep their unique religion for more than 2,000 years. It was very difficult. What made me furious is the way we treated them here in Israel.”
The film also highlights the bravery of the Mossad, Zini said, who “went to Africa and took those Jews and brought them to our lovely country.”
Zipora Gur, executive director of Classrooms Without Borders, said she wanted to bring something meaningful to the Jewish community to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. The founding of Israel, she said, is a miracle and the film highlights the bravery of Israeli soldiers, in addition to the Beta Israel community.
“Here is a story of 30 years of Ethiopians that dreamt about coming to Jerusalem,” she said. “It tells of the courageous operation done by the country to bring these Jewish people to Israel.”
Since the pandemic, Classrooms Without Borders has brought 250 free programs to the Jewish community, including 30 documentaries with post-film discussions, Gur said. The organization typically has more than 200 people at each of its programs.
The event was hosted by Avi Ben-Hur, Classrooms Without Borders‘ director of education and scholar in residence. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.