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That time a Jewish hero came for dinner

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An Ethiopian Jewish child in an Israeli absorption center. Vadim Lavrusik FLICKR

I wanted my son to meet a Jewish hero, so I invited one for dinner. His name is Joseph Enyew. He is an Ethiopian Jew. In 1984, just finishing his teen years, Joseph rescued more than 1,500 Jewish souls.

I have known Joseph since the mid-‘80s, when he arrived in Toronto. He was a skinny giant of a figure, with a prominent smile and sparkling eyes. Joseph carried himself the way world-class figures do: confidently, and with a sense he could change the world.

One morning in 1984, while Joseph was still living in Ethiopia, he told his mother he was going to buy a shirt. Instead, he walked hundreds of kilometres on treacherous roads, ultimately arriving at a refugee camp in Sudan, to which thousands of Ethiopian Jews had fled.

Joseph is a resourceful fellow. Shortly after coming to the refugee camp, he understood its infrastructure, who was in charge and who to bribe. Using his well-honed senses, Joseph, a brother to a dozen siblings, met with Mossad agents and agreed to work with them to rescue as many Ethiopian Jews as possible. It was called Operation Moses. It was going to be dangerous.

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Soon enough, the nightly escorts of individuals and families from the camp to awaiting planes on unassuming runways began. Joseph’s source of illumination was the moon, while passing clouds would restore the cover of darkness.

The human pipeline continued night after night. At some point, Joseph was caught and tortured. (He was not graphic in his explanation of the torture, saving my son awful images in his head later on). The Mossad helped free Joseph from his captors and he returned to his perilous task.

Joseph could not possibly remember all the Ethiopian Jews he helped save. Years later, however, he was in Israel, where his family lives, and was approached by a woman who subsequently hugged and kissed him, over and over, and showered him with thank you’s.

Joseph apologized, saying he did not know her. The aging woman told him Sudanese men had captured her and locked her in a home in 1984. They would not let her go. She reminded Joseph how he had caught word of her kidnapping and how he immediately ran to the home, pushed open the door and darted inside with an axe, threatening the men. He grabbed the young woman and the two of them ran like hell to freedom. Soon enough, she boarded a plane and flew to Israel.

After 500 days in Sudan, it was not wise for Joseph to continue his courageous role in Operation Moses. He accepted a flight to Toronto. For a few years, the Greater Toronto Area was his home. It was then that I met Joseph and other Ethiopian Jews, like Kibur and Paulo Asres, brothers and activists. (I asked Joseph why the Mossad had not offered him the chance to leave Sudan earlier. He replied, “The Mossad did offer me a place on a plane, but I turned it down. I wanted someone else to use it.”)

Eventually, it became obvious Joseph belonged in Ethiopia. He simply wasn’t made for metropolitan Toronto and working as a parking lot attendant. Ve’ahavta assisted Joseph’s trip back home, where he became the organization’s eyes on the ground, assisting people affected by famine. He later launched his own successful entrepreneurial ventures. Understandably, he also went on to adopt a number of children, giving them new lives.

I wanted my son to meet a Jewish hero, so we invited Joseph Enyew to dinner. It was an honour.