By Samuel Hyde
Growing up in Ethiopia during the 1980s, Batya Shmueli had to constantly hide her Jewish identity.
She recalls celebrating Jewish holidays such as Pesach, remembering how they weren’t able to sing or pray loudly for fear of drawing unwanted attention to themselves. Most of the Ethiopian Jewish community grew up in villages located in the North, but after her father purchased land close to the city he sent word to others to join, and by 1991 they had built a community of 75 Jewish families.
In 1939, during the Second Italo, a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Batya’s father was just 16 years old when his childhood village was attacked. When the attackers found out he was Jewish, they beat him violently and abused him for hours. This horrific incident became the defining moment that led him to change his name so that he could assimilate into Ethiopian society, without the fear of antisemitic persecution.
Batya recalls that in her village everyone took care of each other but until she was11 years old, she had to live her life in secret. One day, shlichim from the Jewish Agency for Israel came knocking on her family’s door and told them to get ready, “The way to Jerusalem is open for you.” Batya’s father dropped to his knees, looked to the sky and said “thank you G-d, thank you G-d, you did not forget me.” Within a short time Batya’s father had sold their house and the family were ready to embark on a journey to the place she had only heard about from the stories of the Torah.
The night before the family were supposed to leave Batya was woken up to the sound of a neighbour’s voice desperately saying, “you must leave now, they’re coming.” Earlier on that evening the neighbouring villages had held a meeting. They had found out that her father was Jewish, and blamed him for the death of their family members. They said he killed them because he was a Jew. They blamed everything bad that had happened over the years on her father, a man who had spent his 81 years giving to everyone he could. At this moment the family knew that they had to escape for their lives in the middle of the night.
She recalls the moment of arrival in Israel, as if for the first time, “My parents got off the plane and kissed the ground. We didn’t know why but we copied them. It was very emotional, very exciting, everyone was so welcoming and kind.” One cannot help but notice how Batya’s life has gone ‘full circle’, from that defining childhood moment when the shlichim knocked on the door of her home to tell them the dream of going to the holy land was now a reality, to her becoming a shlicha and committing her life to nurturing the bond between Jews in the diaspora and Israel.
One could write a book on Batya’s life, she is one of the most inspirational people I have had the chance to meet. As a South African living in Israel, all I can say about Batya Shmueli is that the Cape Town Jewish community has the greatest privilege to have her as their shlicha.
• Published in the PDF edition of the September 2021 issue – Get the PDF here.
• Sign up for our newsletter and never miss another issue!
• Please support the Cape Jewish Chronicle with a voluntary Subscription. For payment info click here.
• Visit our Portal to the Jewish Community to see a list of all the Jewish organisations in Cape Town with links to their websites.
Follow the Chronicle: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn