Traveling through the desert without shoes or food

In 1983, life was not easy for the Jewish people living in Ethiopia. Practicing Judaism was outlawed, and Jewish leaders were often imprisoned. It was at that time that 16-year-old Shlomo Molla heard rumors of a modern Jewish state that would welcome new immigrants. He and his friends set forth on a 400 mile journey across the desert barefoot and without food in search of the miracle “land of milk and honey.”

After 10 days, they crossed into Sudan, where they were fired upon and later captured. One of Molla’s close friends was killed. Molla was jailed and tortured for 91 days before being released to a refugee camp in northern Sudan. At the camp, a man reached out to Molla and his friends, and directed them to a location where they were packed into trucks and told not to make noise. After many hours, the trucks finally stopped. The group was then loaded onto a plane by paratroopers singing “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.” This airlift was part of Operation Moses, which brought 8,000 Jews from Sudan to Israel in 1984 and 1985. There were another 4,000 Jews who tried to make a similar trek through the Sudanese desert, but died.

Reaching Israel was only the beginning of Molla’s journey. At first, Molla was not convinced that he had actually reached the Jewish state. It had been only two years since he had learned that there were white Jews, and now he was in a land where almost everyone was white! Like many Ethiopian immigrants, Molla had to learn Hebrew. He continued his education by attending a high school in Haifa, and later studied law and social work in college. As an adult, Molla became heavily involved with the Jewish Agency. He not only worked with new immigrants, but he also became their champion.

Twelve years ago, Molla took another trek, this time to San Francisco to ask our Federation to raise money for immigrant absorption. The Federations responded by focusing their dollars in education. Molla said, “In Israel, 65% of Ethiopian Jews are under the age of 18.” He continued by saying that even though 95% of Ethiopians are illiterate in their mother tongue, over 10,000 Ethiopian-Israelis have graduated from college.

Today, Molla serves as a Member of Knesset (Israeli Parliament). He is the second Ethiopian Jew to hold this title.

Molla is in the Bay Area as part of the Israeli Consulate’s tribute to Black History Month. He is speaking tonight (February 24, 2011) at UC Berkeley.


- by Joy Powers

Categories: Israel


February 24, 2011


The Federation