By Naomi Van Dinter
Naomi is an international development worker currently working on a large project that brings HIV care to over 500,000 people and treatment to over 200,000 people in ten countries while training and empowering local organizations to gradually assume management of the project. The central funding for the project is ending in an effort to bring the management and funding to the country level, and directly to the local partners when possible. Naomi traveled to Ethiopia to help the country program apply for direct, continued funding.
I arrived into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia during the day. I had transited through Addis previously, but only saw the city in the late evening and the early morning. I have traveled through most of Eastern and Southern Africa, yet I was especially eager to take in the sights and sounds of Ethiopia. The country has maintained a private, homogeneous culture with great pride in its traditions and roots.
I was greeted by a welcoming people that were enthusiastic in sharing their unique culture. Every person with whom I spoke wanted to talk about my impressions of Ethiopia and explain a different piece of how their heritage fit into the modern way of life. The cultural restaurants showcasing traditional music and dance, usually reserved for tourists in other African countries, were dominated by the locals – proudly enjoying their country’s food and distinctive dance while relishing the incense from the coffee ceremony at the conclusion of each meal. Along with their deep cultural roots, many of the Ethiopians are deeply religious people who choose to live their religions without judgment or evangelism.
My purpose in visiting Ethiopia was to write a proposal to continue funding for an HIV care and treatment project, however my additional personal interest lay in connecting with Ethiopian Jewish population. Prior to departing, through a contact at the Associated [Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore], I was linked with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) who recommended I contact their Country Director, Dr. Rick Hodes. I learned that unfortunately I could not visit the remaining Ethiopian Jewish population as it was too far from Addis, however I received a lovely invitation to spend Shabbat with Dr. Hodes.
Dr. Hodes has become well-known for his work with the local population through the Missionaries of Charity, as well as for caring the Ethiopian Jewish population (through JDC). However, it wasn’t until I arrived at his house did I realize that he truly lived his work.
I arrived at Dr. Hodes house at 6:30PM with a dozen roses in hand, braced for an elegant dinner in one of the large mansions in which high level expats usually live in Africa. Instead of a guard answering the door at the gate, a sweet teenage boy with a severe spinal irregularity welcomed me into the courtyard of Dr. Hodes’ modest home. There, I met a young man who had lost a leg to cancer, another girl who some physical difficulties, and the list went on. There were about 15 children who were all patients of Dr. Hodes, and I presume also orphans, as Dr. Hodes had taken them all in.
The younger ones were attending school and living in small dormitories in the back of the house, while the older children who had graduated were living in another house off-site. Despite the challenges they faced , the children had a warmth and sense a peace around them that I have only experienced in an ashram that I visited many years ago. I imagine that this came from the nurturing of a stable home and a parental figure, and security about their next meal -- all assets that had previously eluded them.
In addition to the children, a group of physical therapy graduate students from the US were socializing in the living room while waiting for Dr. Hodes to arrive. A few Jewish stragglers living in Addis were also in attendance. At around 8PM Dr. Hodes came in and quickly began Shabbat. He asked all of us to form a large circle around the living room and threw “kippot” to all of the men. These kippot were hats of all kinds: jester hats, skull caps, hats with Hanukah lights and such. Dr. Hodes and his children led the group in a rendition of the ‘The Hammer Song.’ He then said a blessing over the bread (skipped the lights), dipped each piece in salt and through it at each person to catch. To honor the Ethiopian Orthodox (Christian) fasting season that many of his children were observing, we all enjoyed a vegan Ethiopian meal.
The evening included a blend of people from different cultures, religions and socio-economic strata that were brought together in respect for a person who was living in solidarity with those he served. I was humbled by the warmth and inclusive atmosphere that I experienced during the Shabbat in Addis. To me, it personified what the core of religion is about: recognizing and honoring the piece of G-d that is living within each of us.