Thankful for Ethiopia: A Foreign Lens on an American Holiday

I have always thought of Thanksgiving as an American holiday with a Jewish theme. Eating and giving thanks is what we Jews do best, proven by the fact that many years after graduating from Jewish day school, I can still recite the blessing of Grace after Meals by heart, without giving it a second thought. “Hakarat Hatov,” literally translated as “recognizing the good,” and usually interpreted as “giving thanks where thanks is due,” is a concept that is prevalent in the Jewish tradition. The Rabbis tell us to thank God for every little thing we have and do, a list that ranges from waking up to going to sleep and everything in between. Whether or not you are the kind of Jew who says or thinks the words of gratitude daily, we are all happy to celebrate a holiday to remind us to appreciate what we have, and gives us an excuse to eat pumpkin pie.

Every year, at my family’s Thanksgiving table, I make a foolish attempt to get my family to play the “I am thankful for…” game. As everyone else in the family becomes immediately and intentionally distracted by everything but the game, I am left thinking about my own sentimental answers: my supportive friends and family, my job, my apartment (and my roommates!), my Jewish community, etc. I never forget to voice how thankful I am for my Mother’s delicious cooking.

This year, my answers and perspective are slightly different than they have been for the last 20 or so years. For example, this year I am also thankful for every pencil I have ever laid my hands on. Why? Because I recently returned from a service trip to Ethiopia with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).  If anyone can teach you about what it means to be thankful, it would be an impoverished Ethiopian child whose face lights up just because you gave him something as simple as a pencil.

While in Ethiopia, I listened to a first-hand account of the history of JDC’S involvement in transporting Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel on massive airlifts during Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991). Committed to the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, JDC continues to engage in long-term humanitarian efforts for the poorest Ethiopians. I was privileged to contribute to their projects of construction of a rural school and medical treatment for children. I also learned about other JDC projects, including scholarships for university and nursing degrees, water well construction to provide rural villages with potable water, and life-saving heart and spinal surgeries, and treatments for curable forms of cancer. This was truly a life-changing and unforgettable opportunity.

So, some other things included on my “I am thankful for…” list this year:

  1. Thankful that…I can drink water from the tap. It may taste nasty before it runs through a Brita filter, but it doesn’t contain parasites and bacteria that make me ill. I don’t have to walk for miles to get to the water, and carry a heavy water-filled jerry can back home, only to get sick from drinking it later on. I watched some women in Ethiopia do all this with babies on their backs, at a certain stream near a village in Gondar (see picture!). I am thankful that, within the next year, JDC will build a water well in that same area, to make clean and safe water accessible to the villagers.
  2. Thankful for…living in a city where my higher education is encouraged. We met with JDC scholarship recipients, all female, most of who were the first in their family to attend university, some of who were considered rebellious because most women do not attend university in Ethiopia.
  3. Thankful for…the lack of parasites in my body. Ethiopians are chronically infected with worms, which can negatively affect health, nutrition, and cognitive development. We spent a day at a school, deworming over 150 children, many of whom had never swallowed a pill before in their lives. We then went on to distribute school supplies to those children, which were donated back in the United States, hence the excitement associated with the pencil.
  4. Thankful for…my straight back. “Zokef Kefufim,” the daily prayer said to thank God for “straightening those who are bent,” takes on a whole new meaning after spending a few days with a doctor who has made this his life’s mission. A Jewish man originally from the United States, Dr. Rick Hodes has lived in Ethiopia for over 20 years, treating patients with spine disease, as well as cardiac disease and cancer. He fundraises to save the lives of children who require surgery but cannot afford to pay for the procedure. I was privileged to meet some of his patients at a Shabbat meal at Dr. Hodes’s house. Some of his patients live in his house, while he adopts others to send them to the United States to receive a proper education. All of his patients have been inspired by him, and some have even claimed that they would like to be medical doctors when they grow up. The HBO documentary “Making the Crooked Straight” delves into Dr. Hodes’s work in Ethiopia, and the miraculous encounters of his everyday life.
  5. Thankful that…I can bring the experience home. The group of young professionals that I traveled with to Ethiopia is currently fundraising for spine surgery for three of the children who we met at Dr. Hodes’s house. If you are in the position to give, please click here to donate and learn about his patients.

Amisagenalo (thank you) and happy Thanksgiving!