"They made aliyah at that time with Mivtza Shlomo (מבצע שלמה), Operation Solomon. It was a rescue action of the Israeli government to save Ethiopian Jews and bring them to safety in Israel."
Tuvya: I’m thrilled today to have with us D’vora, also known as Debbie, and Teddy Lema, in Toronto, Canada. Teddy is a self-employed retailer, and D’vora teaches Hebrew and is a busy mom too. Both of you are originally from Ethiopia. Teddy, tell us a little bit about your younger years. Where you were and how did you eventually arrive in Canada?
Teddy: I was born in Dire Dawa, just outside of the capitol city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I born in 1984 and grew up with my grandparents, because my father passed away when I was one year old. When he died, my mother was left a widow and could not bear to remain in Ethiopia. Since traveled by foot to Djibouti, so she could not take me, as just a one-year-old, with her. It was very hard for her to leave me with her siblings and her parents. So, I did not know of my mother until age 12, when she returned to get me. Until then, my grandparents were my mother and father.
Tuvya: So, you grew up with stepparents who were actually your grandparents. During that time, did you have any spiritual resource?
Teddy: In Ethiopia, the majority of people are either Muslim or Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. I grew up in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian home. There are similarities to Judaism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. For example, Ethiopian Christians don’t eat pork. Also, keeping the sabbath is also something Ethiopian Christians practice.
Tuvya: So, you were reunited with your mom at age 12. Was that when you moved from Ethiopia to Canada?
Teddy: Yes, my mother remarried during the intervening years, moved to Canada to start over, and she had two other children. So, she started the process right away, but it was another year and half after before I joined them in Toronto. Of course, it was a huge difference going from Ethiopia to Toronto, Canada, a huge adjustment getting to know my stepbrother and stepsister and my stepfather. I was excited to be with my mother, but at the same time, she was a stranger. It was a very difficult adjustment for me. It was a complete shock and totally new experience.
Tuvya: Okay. And D’vora, Debbie, tell us about your family and childhood.
D’vora: I was born in the city of Gondar, Ethiopia. It is known for having a big Jewish population, even until this day. There are definitely lots of Jewish schools and synagogues. So, I was born there in 1988, and then after three years, in 1991, my family moved to Israel. They made aliyah at that time with Mivtza Shlomo (מבצע שלמה), Operation Solomon. It was a rescue action of the Israeli government to save Ethiopian Jews and bring them to safety in Israel.
My parents and eight kids made it that way to Israel, thank God. Then I grew up in Israel. I went to school there. I served in the army. I worked for a little bit until the age of 23.
Tuvya: What was your spiritual life like, coming from Ethiopia, as you grew up in Israel?
D’vora: My family, were very Tzionim—Zionists. They wanted to go to Jerusalem their whole life. They were practicing Judaism, even stronger in Ethiopia, and obviously continued to practice their religion in Israel. And they were political Zionists, but also religious Zionists. We were Datim Masortim, religiously traditionalists.
Tuvya: So that means your family would keep the religious holidays and practices. They would observe the kosher laws, the chagim, the festivals.
D’vora: Right. Yes, and my father, he would go to synagogue every Shabbat, every Friday evening. And we children, we were educated in Dati, religious, schools. The girls wore skirts, and we learned Torah every day. It was very important for my parents that we will have all the Jewish foundation.
Tuvya: So, when you turned 18, you went into the military like every other Israeli. And I understand that you were so good with the language that you actually taught Hebrew to all the new recruits who had come from other countries. And you did so well they promoted you into officer school?
D’vora: Yes, all the soldiers were immigrants from Canada, Russia, the United States, and France. I was really enjoying this because I knew the struggle with language. As a child in Israel, I went to school where all we spoke was Hebrew. At home, my parents spoke to me in Amharic—the Ethiopian language. I would reply in Hebrew.
Tuvya: And eventually you travelled to the United States and then to Canada?
D’vora: Yes. After the army, I taught Hebrew at a Jewish summer camp in the Poconos Mountains. It was a Conservative kind of camp. Then I traveled to Canada to visit a friend from the army.
Tuvya: Teddy, is that when you met D’vora. What was your spiritual life like at the time? Were you still Ethiopian Orthodox?
Teddy: I was Ethiopian Orthodox when I was in Ethiopia. When I moved to Toronto, I discovered that my mother became a born-again Christian in Djibouti before she immigrated into Canada. That was another huge issue for me. The Pentecostal born-again Christianity was forbidden in Ethiopia. So, coming to that kind of a household for me was a huge shock. It took a long time for me to follow Christ and get baptized and to become a man of faith.
Tuvya: So, you were an evangelical when D’vorah came to Canada. How did you meet then?
Teddy: So, I work in a mall in the North Toronto. I noticed that she was Ethiopian when she was lining up to order food at a takeout. I was on my break, and I could see that she was Ethiopian, and she was having a hard time with English. She was trying to tell the server taking her order that she didn’t want any pork in her food. I stepped in to explain what she was trying to order. Then in Amharic I asked D’vorah, “Are you Ethiopian?” The thing is, Debbie’s first language is Hebrew, since she didn’t speak Amharic since she was a little girl, and she spoke very little English. It was very hard for us to communicate at first.
After that, I asked a few questions, discovered she is actually from Israel. I offered to show her the Ethiopian community in Toronto and gave her my contact information, and we both went on our way.
Tuvya: You two certainly must have had some unique cross-cultural challenges.
D’vora: Yes. It was difficult every time we would speak. If I didn’t know a word in Amharic, I would try and say it in English.
Tuvya: Yes, exactly. You’re both from Ethiopia, but you’re two different ethnicities coming out of Ethiopian. You’re Jewish, and Teddy is from another Ethiopian community, but he’s living in Canada, and he’s a Christian.
D’vora: Yes. At that time, right away, besides the language, that was the main challenge at the beginning, although we kind of found a way to overcome that. But it might be a surprise, but Teddy being a Christian was not a big challenge to me as an Ethiopian Jew. He wasn’t the first Christian believer that I’d met. My older sister, started believing in Jesus a few years before I came to Canada. Yes, she was the first one in our family that believed in Jesus, and it was a big thing in our family. My sister was suffering from great anxiety for years. It was really a tough situation for her for a long time. My parents tried everything to help her with this. Unfortunately, nothing could help for almost eight years. My two aunties are believers in Jesus, Messianic Jews. They offered to take her to their congregation for prayer. She had been taking a lot of expensive medications that doctors had told her that she would have to take for the rest of her life. She came home from the prayer time, took the medication and she threw it in the garbage. She said, “Yeshua saved me.” And since then, she never took one of those medication. And she lived a completely different life. And that was a huge statement for us. My parents were angry about this, as you can imagine. Even though it was so hard for them to accept this fact, they got their daughter back, and their daughter is healthy. So, they were accepting it.
Tuvya: You already had three followers of Messiah Yeshua in your family: two aunts and your sister. Anybody else in your family become a believer in Yeshua?
D’vora: Yes. It’s funny, but my gramma, my mother’s mom, she believed in Yeshua, too, when she left Ethiopia. Her life was completely changed too. So, everyone in our family was seeing these transformed lives. But in Israel, belief in Yeshua, it is still the forbidden thing for us to even imagine.
Tuvya: When you meet Teddy, and he’s a Christian, it might not be the strangest thing to you. But, did you have some conversations about his faith?
D’vora: Yes, I mean very little, because I didn’t believe in Yeshua, I was just a regular Masorti (Conservative) Jewish woman. His faith didn’t shock me. I know what a believer is. I saw that Jesus was a good thing to my sister. So, Teddy and I discussed his faith. I told him I could appreciate a lot of things in it. Even so, we never thought that our lives would change the way they did.
Teddy: I got to know Debbie in those two months. I saw her character in the love that she has for her sister and nieces and the respect for her parents. If her family members in Israel were having problems, Debbie was the go-to person. I could see the high-quality person that she is. While, I wanted her to be part of my life, she had to go back to Israel for her brother’s wedding. After only two months, we weren’t sure where the relationship was going.
D’vora: So, I went back to Israel after two months for my brother’s wedding. During that time, my younger sister was preparing for the army, and I noticed she was very depressed. It was like what happened in my older sister, before she found help through faith in Yeshua. My older sister suggested we take my young sister up to Jerusalem so the elders of her Messianic congregation could pray for her. You have to know, at that time, I was pretty against taking her to do something that my family doesn’t believe. I love my older sister, but believing in Yeshua seemed to me like a betrayal. That was just not the way we believe. And yet, we have so many Messianic Jews in our family already, I was willing to do that. So, we went to Jerusalem for prayer. The pastor is an Ethiopian Jewish believer in Yeshua. When he came to my sister’s place to pray, he taught from the Bible first. He read to us from John 1:1–2.
Tuvya: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
D’vora: Yes, “and the Word was God.” In that moment something happened in me. And I remember saying in myself, “God, please make this all now work. If You are real, if that’s true, if you are Yeshua the Savior, please show me.” So, after the prayer for my sister, I basically saw a miracle in front of my eyes. My sister, she stood up after the prayer like a new person. All her fear and depression were gone. I decided right then to follow Him, Yeshua. I have not changed since then.
Tuvya: And how long after that did you see Teddy again?
D’vora: It was amazing. I flew back to Canada maybe two and a half weeks later. I came back a believer, and that was amazing. That was a huge thing. I had no idea, when I bought my ticket for a return to Canada, I never expected to go back as a believer.
Teddy: I was so happy, but we weren’t sure if they would even allow Debbie back into Canada on a tourist visa so soon after her last visit. When she was permitted entry, we felt God was showing us that we were meant to be together. We were married seven months later. But before that happened, of course, I went to Israel and asked her parents for their blessing. Thankfully, you know, I could communicate with her parents in Amharic. Her father and mother said, “We completely give you our blessing.” So, Debbie and I went back to Canada with their blessing to be married.
Teddy: Yeah, our wedding was such a complicated situation. Of course, all Debbie’s family is in Israel. My family is up northwest in Edmonton, Canada. Debbie and I were in Toronto. You can see our dilemma with such big family in Canada and Israel. So, we made the tough decision. We got married at the Toronto City Hall with friends as witnesses. And then, later, we went back to Israel as husband and wife. That was an amazing experience. They’re such a loving family. Of course, they all welcomed me. And as a believer in Jesus, I need to be sensitive about what I say so I can show respect for what they believe. Although, Debbie’s grandmother, who loves Yeshua, lives with Debbie’s parents. She is in her late 80s, and she does have any limits to share what she believes about Christ. If she needs to open her Bible and read, regardless of who’s around, she is going to do that. She doesn’t censor her beliefs at all.
Tuvya: That’s might be a surprise to some people. The New Testament and discussion of Yeshua (Jesus) is common in Israel. Those subjects are part of the history and cultural background of that Land. And public testimony about Yeshua is not illegal. And how was it meeting Teddy’s family in Edmonton?
D’vora: It was a beautiful experience. I felt so blessed by the way they accepted me. I naturally didn’t know how they would feel about me being a Jewish woman. The beautiful thing with Christian people, they see the Jewish people, and accept us with such a love. I feel like I one of them and Teddy’s mom is my mom. We have a beautiful relationship.
Tuvya: You two have real come from a variety of cultures though you are both originally from Ethiopia. You can respect the differences even in your Ethiopian experience in ways that outsiders could not begin to understand. You have experienced so many different cultures by living in Israel in Canada. Yet, in your hearts, you are bound together in one faith through Messiah Yeshua. You trust in one and the same Holy Spirit to make your lives spiritually fruitful. And you both believe in one and the same God, your heavenly Father. He gives you worth and dignity and value because Elohim loves you and you love Him. That is what a hope for spiritual harmony can look like. What a wonderful story you have to share.
Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us. Shalom and blessings on you both.