‘400 Miles to Freedom’ Celebrates Jewish Diversity

Scene from “400 Miles to Freedom.” Courtesy of Diane Tobin of Be’Chol Lashon

By Sasha Rogelberg

When Avishai Mekonen watched the 1993 film “Philadelphia” for the first time, he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker.

The film centers on a young Black lawyer representing a gay man living with HIV. To Mekonen, an Ethiopian immigrant trying to learn English at the time, the film represented what was possible for him.

“As a Black person watching that film … wow. It blows my mind,” he said.

For Mekonen, becoming a filmmaker meant having a say over the stories of him and others who were considered outsiders.

“As immigrants, refugees, your voice is always being told by others,” Mekonen said. “Our voice has never been told through our parents or through us. It’s always been others — the European community — they talk for us.”

His documentary, “400 Miles to Freedom” tells the story of his family’s exodus from Ethiopia to Israel.

In the film, Mekonen narrates how his family left Ethiopia to escape religious persecution. Mekonen is part of a community of Ethiopian Jews called Beta Israel, who have practiced Judaism in Ethiopia for more than 2,500 years. Along with 100 Beta Israel, Mekonen’s family fled their country in hopes of being able to freely practice Judaism in Jerusalem.

They traveled by night to avoid getting caught and spent a year in Sudan, in a refugee camp and the town of Gedaref, where Mekonen was kidnapped and missing for three weeks.

One night, over a year after his family’s departure from Ethiopia, Mekonen, his family and dozens of other Beta Israel were airlifted by Israeli forces. Mekonen arrived in Israel at the age of 9, where a series of other challenges awaited him.

In one scene, Mekonen’s mother recounts riding a bus in Jerusalem, looking around her, on buses, and in the cars below her, and only seeing white people. She asks one woman, “Is everyone here white?” The woman responds, “Yes, everyone, young and old, was white.” Mekonen’s mother laughs a bit, then says, “Also us, soon, are we also going to become white?”

Though Mekonen’s film details his family’s exodus, “400 Miles to Freedom” at its heart, is a documentary about what it means to be Black and Jewish.

Mekonen faced a lot of racism growing up.

“Living in Israel, every time when I went out the door … I was already preparing myself to face the racism … even when I wanted to go to the bank,” he said.

Moreover, Mekonen was without a community of Jews who looked like him.
He moved to New York to seek out connections with other Black Jews but had difficulties there as well.

He spent hours in Barnes & Noble and the New York Public Library on 42nd Street rummaging through books and CDs, searching for any information about Jews of color.
During the seven years it took to make “400 Miles to Freedom,” Mekonen struggled to find Jewish leaders with diverse racial backgrounds, particularly without the networking capabilities of social media.

Through the help of Be’chol Lashon, an organization committed to celebrating Jewish diversity — and the documentary’s eventual executive producer — Mekonen was finally able find Jews from Uganda, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Avishai Mekonen. Courtesy of Diane Tobin of Be’Chol Lashon

He traveled to Harlem, Brooklyn and Chicago, meeting with Black rabbis, hearing them talk about their unique Jewish customs and experiences.

Only after hearing other Black Jews tell their stories did Mekonen feel inspired to share his own.

“Doing the film, it changed my life. It helped me to talk about my past,” Mekonen said.
When Mekonen and his wife had their first son during the film’s production, Mekonen decided to talk to his parents for the first time in 18 years about his kidnapping in Sudan.

As Mekonen traveled across the country asking Black rabbis about their own experiences being Jewish, they began to ask Mekonen the same questions in return. By having difficult conversations with them, Mekonen was able to heal.

Mekonen believes that to be Jewish means to look differently at situations, to have a unique perspective worth sharing.

He hopes to evoke the same reaction from an audience watching the film that he experienced making it: awe in Jewish diversity.

“It’s the diaspora, and the diversity that is so special,” he said. “It’s like a garden of flowers: We are one, and we are so different.”

Temple Sinai and Beth ‘El Congregation are hosting a virtual conversation on May 23 with Mekonen starting at 10:30 a.m., followed by a screening of “400 Miles to Freedom.” Email [email protected] for details on how to view the presentation. l

Sasha Rogelberg is a freelance writer.


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