Rabbi Eckstein’s biography, The Bridge Builder, just released earlier this week. In celebration, enjoy an excerpt from this compelling book about the rabbi’s life and continuing legacy.
[Rabbi Eckstein] flew to Ethiopia with a camera crew and was shocked by what he found.
“The camps were in horrible shape. People lived in appalling conditions,” he recalls. “There was no electricity or running water. The kids were undernourished. They reminded me of the footage of the children in Biafra in the sixties.
“At first, I had a fear of even touching them. They were filthy, repulsive. There were open sewers in the camps, and I was constantly worried I would lose my footing and fall in. But I knew I couldn’t help these Jews if I couldn’t embrace them, not just figuratively but literally, and communicate with them in their own language. So I tried and I learned. I’d sit on the rock floor of their huts and drink buna, their version of coffee, and eat injera, a kind of bread made from rough flour, and talk to them, simple Amharic words they taught me.
“Eventually I became more comfortable and more knowledgeable. I was there to help and I needed to know how. Take food, for example. You have to feed people what they want to eat. You don’t just order them pizza. I wanted them to choose what we brought them. It would give them a sense of independence, to empower them and to allow them to enjoy their meals.” This seems obvious, but it is not. Foreign aid workers often try to forcibly improve the diets of the people they are feeding.
He also brokered and funded an arrangement that brought Falash Mura to Israel in small groups over the next decade. When the last group arrived, in 2013, Eckstein was there at the airport in Tel Aviv to greet them in Amharic. With that, two thousand years of exile ended and the Ethiopian chapter of the return was completed.
Learn more about Rabbi Eckstein’s biography at bridgebuilderbook.com.