“This is my country. I fight for it and I will continue to fight for it.”
Mekonen Abebe, a young Ethiopian shepherd,overcame financial, familial and racial hardships and rose to the rank of officer in the Israel Defense Forces. “Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew” is a forty-minute documentary produced by Jerusalem U that will inspire you to think about your Jewish identity.
Mekonen grew up in a village in the Ethiopian highlands. Despite the simplicity of village life, it was there that his grooming for leadership took root. His responsibility, as a child, for a flock of thirty sheep brings to mind the fact that the greatest leaders in Israel were shepherds. When Mekonen was six years old, his father, Abebe, led a group of thirty families on a trek to the city of Gondar in north-west Ethiopia in preparation for their move to Israel. Ostracized by most of the local Ethiopians, the family spent the next six years living in a shack with walls of mud and straw. The day before they were scheduled to move to Israel, Mekonen’s father passed away from a heart attack. But he had already given his son a moral compass and the strength to become a leader of his people.
Adjusting to a new culture is challenging for any immigrant. But for Mekonen, who was only twelve when he moved to Israel, aliyah was a double challenge: not only did he have to cope with the shock of a new culture, he also had to step into his father’s shoes and help his mother care for the family. After a difficult period, Mekonen joined Hodayot High School, a religious boarding school and youth village in the Lower Galilee. Home to approximately 200 students, many of them of Ethiopian origin, Hodayot is the last stop for teenagers who have stopped believing in themselves. Known for their dedication to their students, the staff didn’t give up on Mekonen.
When Mekonen was drafted into the IDF, his struggles continued. First Lieutenant (res.) Eden Adler, Mekonen’s commander in the 101st Paratrooper Brigade basic training base, understood Mekonen and stood by his side. In 2014, Mekonen became a sergeant during Operation Protective Edge. With several of the commanders of his platoon injured, Mekonen was forced into a position of further leadership. These experiences, still difficult for him to talk about, became the springboard that motivated him to join officer training school.
Mekonen’s return to Ethiopia gave him closure. The natural love for his childhood home was juxtaposed with the reality of ostracization: his father’s grave is located in a valley outside Gondar because the local Ethiopians do not allow Jews to bury their dead in the city.
When Mekonen graduated from the Bahd 1-IDF officer training school, it wasn’t only a triumph over the difficulties of absorption into Israeli culture. He was also capitalizing on his past, using the tools bequeathed to him by his background to become a leader and a fighter for his people. However, Mekonen’s battle isn’t over. His family’s financial plight is a reality he must still deal with. Every day he remakes the decision to move forward.
Aims of the Film
Founded in 2007, Jerusalem U is a film-based nonprofit organization. “We want to tell the story of the Jewish people and Judaism through film,” says Rebecca Shore, its creative director and the director of “Mekonen.” While Jerusalem U offers online courses, the organization is principally known for its films. “We want to make young Jews feel proud of being Jewish and emotionally connected to Israel. We share empowering stories about Jewish leaders that get the viewer thinking about their own Jewish identity.”