Sharon spent two years thinking his parents had died in Sudan

RABBI Sharon Shalom was nine-years-old and helping his father as an 'assistant shepherd' in Ethiopia when his family embarked on a 1,500-mile trek to Sudan in 1984.

Born Zaoda Taspei in a small village in the Tigre region of his homeland, he was part of the daring Operation Moses mission that brought 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from Sudan via Brussels to Israel after the Israeli Chief Rabbi accepted they were Jewish.

A secret Israeli cabinet meeting heralded the covert departure of the Falashas by Israel Defence Forces, Central Intelligence Agency and Sudanese security forces.

The 30 flights took place from November 21, 1984 until January 5, 1985.

Before the operation, around 250 Ethiopian immigrants lived in Israel. Thousands of Falashas fled Ethiopia for refugee camps in Sudan and it is estimated 4,000 died during the trek.

Two days after the airlifts began, Jewish journalists wrote about the mass rescue.

After Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres confirmed the airlift after the last flight, Arab countries pressured Sudan to stop the airlift.

Some 1,000 Ethiopian Jews were left behind.

Around 650 were later evacuated by the American-led Operation Joshua, while Operation Solomon took 14,000 more Jews to Israel in 1991.

It is impossible to imagine the heart-wrenching decision Sharon's parents, S'eela and Mulu Taspei, had to take when advised to let their first-born child join 1,000 'orphans of circumstance' travel to Israel.

The Taspei family were told other members would follow on.

Given a new name by Mossad commandos, Sharon's tale, like that of many Ethiopians, has not been without challenges.

Though officially accepted, Ethiopian Jews experienced racism in Israeli society, an issue Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to alleviate after meeting Ethiopian community leaders.

Three decades ago, however, Sharon arrived at an Afula orphanage full of hope, but he soon grieved after being told his family had died in Sudan.

But unbeknown to him they miraculously survived, though he would not hear the incredible news for two years.

The coming years would see Sharon complete high school, study at yeshiva, serve in the army as an immigration absorption officer, prior to gaining an MA from Bar-Ilan University and becoming the second Ethiopian minister ordained by the Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Rabbi Shalom was 37 on his appointment at Kdoshei Yisrael Synagogue in Kiryat Gat.

The sleepy synagogue was made up mainly of Holocaust survivors, but is now vibrant with members originating from Russia, Ethiopia, Morocco and Tunisia.

Married to Switzerland-born Avital, the couple have four children.

Away from his congregation, Rabbi Shalom is renowned as an inspirational lecturer and sought after speaker globally.

Recalling his days as an assistant shepherd hoping to herd cows, he noted that most Ethiopian Jews were farmers, tool makers or in the clothing industry.

Unaware he was Orthodox, Sharon's grandfather, Abba Gidon Dejan Mengesha, was a learned man.

"Everything we did was directed towards one day being in Jerusalem, but customs in Ethiopia were different to those I discovered in Israel," he said.

"We celebrated Rosh Hashana for one day, not two, and Ethiopians ate humus to clean the stomach three days before Pesach.

"There were also different interpretations of laws for Shavuot and Yom Kippur."

His recollections of Operation Moses and the month-long trek are limited, but succinct.

"We got the message from Mossad to leave immediately," he recalled.

"We had prayed that one day we would go to Israel, it was meant to happen.

"Before we left, soldiers had taken my grandfather to prison to stop him going, so we left without telling him.

"I later heard when he got back to the village he had no idea where we'd gone, but found our dogs tied to trees which was a signal we'd departed,

"He later followed and we met him there, which was wonderful."

He added: "When I look back, all we did was take one step at a time.

"Of course it was tough, but I knew that I was on the journey to where I belonged."

Sharon recalled a comical yet bizarre moment on the final journey to Israel.

"When soldiers started singing Aveinu Shalom Alechem we thought we'd arrived In Israel," he recalled.

"Everyone laid down and kissed the ground, but the soldiers could not understand why we did this.

"Once at Ben Gurion Airport, though, we as a community kissed the ground."

He added: "The whole journey and arriving was a miracle. When I saw water coming out of a tap, it was like a river coming to my house.

"Everything was amazing and it felt very good."

As for his name change, it was a moment he fondly recalled.

"Having a new name, I was so happy because Sharon is a holy name from Jerusalem," he said.

"Nowadays though, when an Ethiopian grows up they are told to go back to their original name.

"But I am very happy to have two names."

Acutely aware many Ethiopians never made it to Israel, Sharon believes divine intervention proved his saviour - and not for the first time in his life.

"My mother, who passed away in Israel, told me once I was very sick and would die," he said.

"Villagers were ready to bury me, but at the last moment someone came, made a cut with his knife on my body and suddenly I woke up."

He also believes his future has always been mapped out.

"God sent me all this way to be a teacher and a rabbi," he said.

"The Israeli government sent me to a religious school, I never decided to go, it was meant to be."

As for his synagogue, Rabbi Shalom believes building a community is the dream of Israel.

"We are an Ashkenazi Synagogue and having Holocaust survivors made me feel very privileged," he said.

"When I'm asked where is God, I tell them that God exists in a place you open to him.

"Sadly, many survivors have now died, but younger members are Moroccans, Russians, Ethiopians and they are all happy together."

Rabbi Shalom laments that many Ethiopians have not been accepted by Israeli society.

As for his own success, he is philosophical.

"If I didn't believe in myself, I would not have become a rabbi," he said.

"People ask me how Jews receive me, but the question is not how they receive me, it's how I receive myself.

"If I receive myself as an Israeli Jew then all doors are open to me in Israel."

He added: "My wife's parents arrived from Auschwitz with nothing.

"They were very poor, but took their opportunity and the second generation are in the army and successful.

"If you cry that you are poor and black, you will never succeed. There is a stigma, but individuals can change things, though it is not easy.

"When I arrived in Israel, I had nothing, but today I am a rabbi with a PhD and look positively at the future.

"Holocaust survivors taught me that although you arrive with nothing, you can succeed and build a strong life.

"At first I cried because I had no parents, but my problems were nothing compared to what they suffered. They gave me strength and inspired me."

Looking ahead, Rabbi Shalom aims to complete a doctorate and will continue teaching.

"I want to do what I believe in," he said. "God sent me from Sudan. I felt the challenge and have tried to help change society in Israel.

"I want to continue giving something back."

© 2013 Jewish Telegraph