Eginsu Meyer’s aliyah journey has taken her from Africa to Israel and now London
By Simon Rocker
Eginsu Meyer, her husband Joel and their one-year-old daughter Eliya have been living for a year in Golders Green. About the only thing it has in common with her birthplace – an Ethiopian village called Gayne – is that it begins with “G”.
Mrs Meyer is the director of Habayta UK, which promotes aliyah for the World Zionist Organisation. She is – as far as any one knows – the first Israeli shlichah (emissary) from Ethiopia to serve here.
The 31-year-old made aliyah herself as a child. She served as a lieutenant in the Israeli army’s education corps, and organised the Jewish Agency’s programme at the UK Limmud conference last winter before taking the Habayta job.
“From the beginning it was hard to understand why anyone would not want to make aliyah when you can just come and open a file to go,” she said.
“But when I got to understand that there are a lot of people who want to make aliyah but they can’t because of language or jobs, that’s why in Habayta we try to help them.
“I know it is tough because in London life is good – it’s hard to get talking about aliyah. I don’t talk about my own experiences so much. When people ask me, of course, I will answer.”
Mrs Meyer’s experience of making aliyah was rather more complicated than going to an office and opening a file.
Gayne – a settlement of a few hundred, mostly Jewish, people near Gondar city in northern Ethiopia – “was a village from the olden days,” she said, “There was no electricity. People built their houses from mud and wood.”
By local standards, her family was prosperous – they owned a farm. Every Friday night, 40 members of the extended family gathered around the Shabbat table where her grandfather, the religious head of the village, would cut the dabo, the round challah-like loaves.
“Every time my grandfather told a story about Yerushalayim, he described it as the most beautiful place on earth – everything was clean, everything was made of gold. This was a place for the Jews.”
Her eldest brother Yosef, sister Daphna and her husband were first in the family to make their escape to Israel.
“My father took them to the next village, where they met the guide who knew how to get to Sudan. They walked two weeks in the desert; they didn’t have enough food or water. They spent more than a year in Sudan, where they needed to hide that they were Jews. We couldn’t tell what happened – there was no phone, no letters,” she said.
Only some time after did the family learn of their safe arrival in Israel. But Daphna’s infant son perished on the way.
Mrs Meyer was only seven when it was the turn for her and most of her remaining siblings. They had left Gayne and spent a year in a rented house in the capital, Addis Ababa.
“I remember someone woke me up to say we were going to Israel. I said I have toys and clothes I want to take, and they said, no, you won’t need them in Israel, you will have better things,” she said.
But the family’s joy was tinged with sadness because they had to leave behind her father. Devakulu Ayele’s role in helping other Jews to leave had got him into trouble. He spent three years in jail, facing a death sentence; but the wife of Mrs Meyer’s uncle worked in the justice system and they were able to bribe a judge in time. He joined the rest of his family in Israel a year later.
Until she boarded the plane to Israel, the only white face Mrs Meyer had seen had been that of Jewish Agency representative, Micha Feldmann. “In Ethiopia, we thought we were the only Jews left in the world – we didn’t know there were more Jews outside, especially white people,” she said.
While she and her siblings integrated into Israel, adjusting to a new society proved harder for her father’s generation. The absorption centre in which the family spent their first few months isolated them from other Israelis. But her father never regretted his Zionism. When told her British-born husband’s parents were still living in the UK, he could not believe they were Jewish – how could any Jew free to move to Israel not go?
“It was hard to explain,” she said. “I said to Joel give me your parents’ ketubah just to show my father.”
The couple met in Israel in 2011. Mr Meyer, 33, from Reading, made aliyah after university and is now the UK shaliach for his former youth movement, Hanoar Hatzioni, as well as for students and young adults.
Mrs Meyer says she has never encountered prejudice from Jews in the UK.”No, it is a very nice, a very welcoming community,” she said.
“It is amazing, after making aliyah from Ethiopia, to come to another country to represent Israeli people. There is no word in English to describe it. When I told my father I was going to be a shlichah, he was so excited. He said: ‘I’m really proud of you – now you can explain about Israel, this is the Jews’ country’.”