“Everything was so different. Like really different.”
That’s what Tela Burshtain thought when she first stepped foot in Israel, after being separated from her mother in Ethiopia and airlifted from Sudan through Operation Moses — all before she was 10 years old.
As a child, she experienced a grueling three-week trek from Ethiopia with her aunt and grandfather, a harrowing stay in Sudan, then the challenge of beginning a new life a country where she didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. But Burshtain has a pragmatic attitude.
“I’m very thankful for my experience because … I’m not dead,” she said.
Burshtain, who now lives in Danville, will be talking about her amazing, potentially life-saving journey in a presentation on Thursday, Sept. 14 at Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton. The talk, titled “Journey to Promised Land,” is part of the 2017-18 Under One Tent cultural festival held at venues around Contra Costa County and the Tri-Valley area.
Operation Moses was the name given to the massive, multi-state effort in late 1984 to evacuate Ethiopian Jews from war-torn and famine-plagued Sudan and bring them to Israel. Huge numbers of Ethiopian Jews fled famine and hardship in Ethiopia by trekking to Sudan but many — estimates are up to 4,000 — died on the brutal journey. Covert cooperation from Sudan allowed secret services from Israel and the United States to arrange to fly out approximately 8,000 survivors.
Less than two months after beginning on Nov. 21, 1984, the operation ended Jan. 5, 1985 after rumors about the effort made it into media reports. It was confirmed by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and Sudan bowed to pressure from its Arab neighbors to stop the airlifts.
For Burshtain, the story began when her pregnant mother decided to send her (she was 8 years old at the time) to Sudan with their extended family in hope of rescue. Burshtain’s parents had separated and her mother married again, and the trip was considered too grueling for a pregnant woman. But the young Burshtain wasn’t told her mother was staying behind, at least not at first.
“She didn’t tell me because she knew I wouldn’t leave her,” Burshtain said.
She was only reunited with her mother in 1991, after Operation Solomon, an airlift of 14,000 Jews out of Ethiopia. By then, Burshtain was 16.
“She was like a stranger to me,” Burshtain said.
To get from her village in Ethiopia to Sudan, Burshtain endured weeks of walking and hiding with family members and others. And once they made it to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, there were suddenly new dangers, like plague and the fear of their religion being found out.
“They said, you better not say anything about being Jewish,” she recalled.
After a year, they were airlifted to Israel — a relief, but the beginning of a whole new shock.
“I didn’t know that there were white people in the world, at all,” she said.
Because Burshtain didn’t arrive in Israel with her parents, she was sent to a state-run boarding school, where she learned Hebrew. But she also stayed close to her family members who made it to Israel, and her Ethiopian community.
From that beginning, Burshtain didn’t let anything slow her down. After her time in the Israel Defense Forces, where she became one of the few Ethiopian officers, Burshtain started making history — as only the second Ethiopian flight attendant for El Al, and then as the first Ethiopian TV reporter, for Israel’s Channel 10. It was all part of her desire to be a role model for Ethiopian young people in Israel.
“I really wanted to give back,” she said.
Then 12 years ago, she made another change when her husband’s work brought him to California. She now lives with her family in Danville, where she runs a home staging business. The Burshtains and their three sons, ages 12, 10 and 4, don’t belong to a synagogue but have attended holiday celebrations and summer camps run by Chabad of Contra Costa.
Burshtain said that becoming a parent has changed how she looks at her own mother’s sacrifice. She now knows that although she was old enough to understand some of the dangers, she was sheltered both by the adults around her and by the natural resilience of youth.
“It was hard, but because I was young I didn’t even know how hard it was,” she said.
Jen Amiel, for one, can’t wait for people to hear Burshtain’s talk at Beth Emek. She chairs the synagogue’s Israel and World Jewry committee, which has helped organize the event.
“It brings it home like a history book won’t,” Amiel said.
“It’s also a lesson for Americans as we welcome new immigrants,” added Riva Gambert, the festival director.
Under One Tent is a project of the Contra Costa JCC. Because the center lost its physical home in 2011, the festival’s more than 45 events are spread out at locations from Lafayette to Livermore. The lineup includes a mix of author lectures, concerts, comedy, food events and film screenings, and runs through January 2018.
Organizers of the Burshtain talk are requesting a $10 donation to attend, and though some tickets will be available at the door, Amiel is encouraging people to reserve a spot by sending an email to [email protected].
For her part, Burshtain is happy to share the story of her life, something she’s done a number of times to help educate people about the Israeli Ethiopian community. And as dramatic as her childhood was, those years are just part of her story, which is one not only of rescue but also of adaptation and success.
“I’m formed the way I am because of my experience,” she said.