By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
Squeals of laughter and high-spirited traditional Ethiopian dancing, coupled with deep and mournful cries of loss and pain. The piercing sound of bullets whizzing above a soldier’s head. “Ready, aim, fire.” The quiet smile of a night under the stars with your fellow comrades.
“Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew,” the latest production from the film-focused educational non-profit Jerusalem U, is the story of an intrepid and introspective young Ethiopian-Israeli soldier.
The film, which debuted on Israeli Independence Day last month, is a spinoff of Jerusalem U’s previous documentary, “Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front” (2014), which followed five Israel Defense Forces (IDF) recruits, including Mekonen Abebe, through their military training. “Mekonen” follows up by honing in exclusively on Abebe, a young Ethiopian shepherd who overcame financial and familial hardships to realize his dream of becoming an officer in the IDF.
“After nearly every screening of ‘Beneath the Helmet,’ the audiences had burning questions about Abebe. They connected with him and wanted to know more about where he came from and how the next chapter of his story would unfold,” said Rebecca Shore, Jerusalem U’s creative director and the director of “Mekonen.”
The film, according to Jerusalem U CEO Raphael Shore, is part of the organization’s series of mission-driven productions that are meant to engage, educate, and empower Jewish young adults—particularly on college campuses, where anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are on the rise.
“We create these products to try to inspire and push back,” Shore said at the premiere event for “Mekonen” in Israel, which welcomed more than 200 youths who were culminating a year studying in Israel before attending college in the United States. “We all tend to think of ourselves as small. But we are all leaders. I hope you step up.”
“There is definitely growing anti-Semitism on campus—swastikas being painted on houses, assaults. We see it growing,” said Moshe Lencer, an international ambassador for the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi). “But on the other side, the pro-Israel camp is growing, too.…The students use these movies to help put a face to the story.”
But as much as “Mekonen” is a pro-Israel film, it is also the universal story of the Ethiopian aliyah (immigration to Israel)—and of aliyah in general.
“I decided to participate in ‘Mekonen’ to be there for others who need hope,” Mekonen Abebe, charming and modest, said in an interview. “It’s to give the weaker segment of society, those who are struggling, an example that you can win from nothing.”
Abebe came to Israel from Gondar, Ethiopia, when he was 12. His father, who had always dreamed of aliyah, died the day before the family was supposed to make their journey. The family’s aliyah was delayed by six months, but ultimately, Mekonen Abebe’s mother Talal Amara Abebe took them to Israel on her own.
Mekonen attended a boarding school for at-risk pre-teens and adolescents in Israel. He struggled with violence, and was surrounded by friends engaged in drugs and crime.
“I came here from another country,” Mekonen said. “I didn’t know the language. I had no friends. It is such a different culture—the littlest things are big differences, even the food. Things I had never seen before, people I had never seen before…all of the technology….It is easiest to go to a negative place.”
School counselors said that sometimes they were unsure if they could pull Abebe out of his troubles. But along with Mekonen himself, they persevered. “Mekonen is a fighter,” school administrator Karamit Lansker says in the film.
When Mekonen Abebe graduated, he entered his mandatory army service as part of the paratroopers’ brigade. He had difficult circumstances at home. His mother, the only breadwinner, was attempting to support 16 people. Abebe wanted to get out of the army to work and help his mother. There were a few times he did not think he would make it, even until the end of basic training.
But Abebe’s commander, Eden Adler, as well as his friends in the IDF and his loved ones, supported him through his journey from just surviving to thriving. After completing his first three years of service, Abebe was selected to become an IDF officer. Today, he oversees more than 40 recruits.
“He chose it. People helped, but he chose to make it—that is the way I see it,” said Rebecca Shore.
Before Abebe could start his new role as an officer, he said he had a deep desire to explore his past.
“I took my week [between completing officer training and starting in the new role] to go to Ethiopia, to visit the place where I was born and draw strength,” he said”When I was 5, I was a shepherd. I never imagined then that I would be a paratrooper, let alone a commander.”
“Mekonen” includes personal footage of Abebe’s travels to his first home (a hut) in Ethiopia. “There was no electricity. Nature was the clock,” he said.
This highlights the happiness of his simple shepherd youth, as he chases sheep and dances traditional Ethiopian dances with family and friends.
The film shares the heartbreaking moment in which Abebe visits his father’s grave for the first time since moving to Israel, his howls over the loss of the man who inspired his family’s exodus to Israel, and his sudden shift to a place of strength—when he places his IDF pin on his father’s tombstone.
“This is where my father dreamed, but was unable to attain,” said Abebe. “I still have feelings for this place (Ethiopia), but my true place is Israel. I think he would be proud.”
“He has a classic story of overcoming adversity,” said Rebecca Shore. “I want Jews to understand the story of Ethiopian Jewry…and to share a good and empowering story about Israel.”
“Others can come to Israel and make it, too,” Abebe said. “It doesn’t matter where you are from. With all of the challenges, all of the strife, ultimately we get up.”