“Do you want to go to Ethiopia?” my mom asked. I replied, “Of course not. Why would anyone want to go to Ethiopia?”
The trip would start the first day of summer and I had planned on one week of freedom before I started my summer job. After a tough junior year in high school, I clearly deserved a little time off.
But my mom was persistent and wouldn’t let it go. The purpose of the trip was to move Ethiopian Jews out of Ethiopia to Israel. Soon it was clear that no matter how much I complained or made excuses, I had no choice.
School ended on June 7. On June 8, at 11 a.m., I boarded a plane to Addis Abba from JFK with a stopover in Tel Aviv. After 23 hours, we arrived at our destination.
Our first stop was an open-air market. What a scene! The local Ethiopians kept trying to touch my pale skin. Donkeys roamed free among baskets of food. Army officers with machine guns kept order.
We saw people bathing in the river, living in tin shacks and scrambling after our tour bus as if we were visiting royalty. It was culture shock.
We spent the next four days exploring Ethiopia: visiting local schools, playing soccer with the students, seeing where people lived, visiting a medical clinic and even attending a popular Ethiopian nightclub to learn traditional Ethiopian dances and try some local food.
Because there were few mirrors in Ethiopia, when we pulled out our phones to take and show pictures, the Ethiopians were fascinated. For many of them, it was the first time they had seen themselves.
We also attended services. While the ceremony was very traditional with men and women praying in separate areas, I realized that we say the same exact prayers half a world away.
I was still uncomfortable, but I began to be intrigued with the different customs and traditions.
One morning, I quietly tried to give one girl a piece of gum so as to not start a scene. Soon I was surrounded by a pack of kids begging for gum. After splitting the rest of the pieces, I satisfied close to 15 kids.
Being grabbed at was both amusing and troubling. I knew I was never in any danger (after all I was a good foot taller than the little kids), but it really bothered me to see how much such a little treat meant to them.
No wonder their parents were willing to sacrifice by leaving their homeland in order to improve their kids’ lives.
Finally, it was time for our real “mission” — helping the Ethiopian Jews move to Israel.
I expected them to not know how to navigate the security lines. I did not realize that I would have to show them how to fasten a seat belt, flush the toilets on the plane and even show the kids how to use the crayons and coloring books we brought.
When we arrived in Tel Aviv it was heartwarming to see how thrilled they were to reunite with family members and to begin a new life in the Promised Land. They truly found joy and excitement in every aspect of the process.
While it is hard for me to admit to my mother, even though I was dreading this trip, this was the best trip I have ever taken.
The trip made me appreciate how lucky I am to have been born and live where I do. It also inspired me to try to work harder, to try not to complain about the little things, to volunteer more often and to have the courage to try new things.
These people were willing to travel across the world and leave everything they knew for a better life. I will not have to travel nearly as far — I just need the courage and determination to make a difference.
(Josh Schneider, a Milwaukee high school student and the grandson of Barbara and David Burstin [son of Andrea and Rodd Schneider], participated in the Jewish Federations of North America Completing the Journey mission to Ethiopia this past June. The last members of the Ethiopian Jewish community to move to Israel landed there on Aug. 28. This column first appeared in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.)