Maybe God Has a Purpose for Me Here

From The New York Daily News

by HEATHER ROBINSON

Thursday, March 22nd 2007, 9:02 AM

When Bizu Riki Mullu was a girl, the people of her village of Mauri, in northern Ethiopia, would come out in January and sing to the storks crossing the sky. “The villagers knew the birds came from Europe by [way of] Israel,” says Mullu, a jewelry designer who lives on the upper West Side. “So they would sing, ‘Stork, stork, how is our beloved Jerusalem?’

“I love this [memory] so much I named my organization Chassida Shmella, which means ‘Stork, stork,’ ” she says, explaining that chassida means “stork” in Hebrew, shmella means the same in Amharic, the language of the Jews of Ethiopia.

Svelte and attractive, the 40-ish Mullu, known to friends by her middle name Riki, founded Chassida Shmella in 2004 to build bridges between the city’s Ethiopian Jews and the larger Jewish community, and to celebrate the heritage of Ethiopian Jews.

The nonprofit organization coordinates scholarships for Ethiopian Jews, arranges English classes for them, and hosts events to celebrate Jewish holidays.

Israel is home to 110,000 Ethiopian Jews, who are black. New York City is home to about 300. The Jewish state officially recognized the community as Jewish in 1975.

Many Israelis believe Ethiopian Jews are descendants of King Solomon, ruler of the ancient kingdom of Judah, and the Queen of Sheba. Some scholars believe the Ethiopian Jews are descended from one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel – Dan.

Others think Ethiopian Jews were originally Christians who came to identify as Jews in the Middle Ages.

In the 1980s and 1990s, under Israel’s law of return, thousands of Jews were rescued from Ethiopia and resettled to Israel in a series of dramatic airlifts.

Mullu came to Israel at 12 in 1977, as part of Operation Begin, an early top-secret effort organized by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The group consisted of 150 refugees, 24 of them children. Mullu’s parents sent her without them.

“Every day, as an Ethiopian Jew, you talk and think about Israel,” Mullu explains. “You are a Zionist.”

While she enjoyed life in Israel, where her family was eventually reunited, she also fell in love with New York.

She first came here in 1991, at age 25, to visit and study English. Six years later she won the visa lottery.

By then, she had already been an adviser to the Israeli government on a health program for Ethiopian Jews and was doing public speaking in U.S. cities on behalf of the Jewish Agency of Israel, a nonprofit organization in Jerusalem.

“I didn’t plan to leave Israel – I love it,” she says. “But then I won the green card lottery and I thought, ‘Maybe God has a purpose for me here.’ ”

Chassida Shmella has coordinated scholarships for two Ethiopian Jewish students, one of whom is an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Boston. The other, living in Israel, is deciding among Ph.D. programs in the U.S.

As part of Chassida Shmella’s effort here to celebrate the 3,000-year-old heritage of Ethiopian Jews, in October 2005, the group flew two rabbis, one a kes – trained in Ethiopia – and the other an Ethiopian-born rabbi trained in Israel, to observe the holiday of Sigd, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, or first five books of Moses.

Traditionally a holiday of fasting and prayer specific to Ethiopian Jews, Sigd is now a national holiday in Israel. Each year, 15,000 to 20,000 Ethiopian Jews flock to Jerusalem to celebrate it. In Ethiopia, whole villages would climb the highest mountain, face Jerusalem, and pray to be allowed to return to the Holy City.

“We got a permit to celebrate it in Central Park … then it poured,” Mullu recalls. “So we set up our colored umbrellas in the lobby of the upper West Side Jewish Community Center.”

These days Mullu, who has dual American-Israeli citizenship, divides her time among the upper West Side, Israel and Ethiopia.

She visits Israel about four times a year to see her parents, eight siblings, and 45 nieces and nephews. She enjoys this, but thinks New York is the best match for her.

“Here’s it’s okay to be single,” she says with a grin. “In Israel, every other person will ask, ‘So why aren’t you married?’ ”

For Ethiopian Jews living in New York, Mullu is like a godmother.

“If you ask the Ethiopian Jews in New York, 99% know Riki,” says Angoch Goshu, 24, an Ethiopian Israeli nanny for whom Mullu arranged English lessons. “If she can’t help you [directly], she will know other people [who can]. She is really in charge.”

At least three times a year Mullu travels to Ethiopia, where she buys fabric and handmade embroidery, and commissions artisans to craft jewelry in silver and gold and Judaica, or artistic religious pieces. She sells the work at arts and crafts shows in New York.

“To travel back to Ethiopia [and see that] people have so little, I feel so grateful to have the opportunities I do,” she says.

She sees herself as something of a citizen of the world.

“If you’re a good citizen and you work hard and are not a troublemaker, you should be able to live wherever you want. Why not?”

This entry was written by and posted on March 22, 2007 at 6:01 pm and filed under Profiles.

1 response to Maybe God Has a Purpose for Me Here
  • 1.

    Elishebah

    January 13, 2008 at 4:22 pm


    Shalom, will you please ask Mullu if she can tell me how the Beta Yisrael calculated the start of the sacred year acording to the Torah? Do they use the moon or the moon and observation of crops/barley? Also—if agriculature is a criterium—then what do they do during famine years when no crops can grow/
    Thank you,
    Elishebah