Growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 23-year-old Ataklit Tesfaye could never have imagined that one day he would be at the White House reciting Chanukah prayers alongside President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and schmoozing with Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow. But that is exactly what Tesfaye, who immigrated to Israel in 2008, was doing at this year’s annual White House Chanukah reception.
Tesfaye is a graduate of Yemin Orde Youth Village – a 77-acre campus atop Mount Carmel in northern Israel that is home to more than 400 children from around the world who have experienced traumatic situations. He participated in the lighting of a special chanukiah handcrafted by children from Yemin Orde.
In remarks before the ceremony on Dec. 17, the president said that “Yemin Orde is just one village. But the story of Chanukah teaches us that there’s no such thing as a futile act of courage, or a small act of faith. One doctor can save a life. One school can help a child. That life, that child, may change a village. One person can be the spark that changes the world.”
Tesfaye laughs when describing his first impression of the president and first lady. “They are nice people. Very nice and warm. They make you feel like you are a guest. That they believe in what you are doing, and that you are an important person.”
Tesfaye, a shaliach at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, says that he gets asked about his Ethiopian background, and that it is important to show that there are different kinds of Israelis. He says meeting the first couple and participating in the White House ceremony gave him more motivation to continue his job as an Israeli liaison before returning home to study at university.
“I think for me it’s a good opportunity. It was a big night and I think the work starts from there and continues, and I’m happy to be here working with the Jewish community,” says Tesfaye.
But the big night nearly happened without the Yemin Orde chanukiah. The 40-pound package was held up at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport and a U.S. Marine who had just finished his tour of duty at the U.S. Embassy ended up having to carry it on the flight to D.C. via Philadelphia to ensure that it got to the White House on time. Two staff members from Bethesda-based Friends of Yemin Orde met the Marine at the airport and realized that parts of the tops were broken, so they got the materials to fix the chanukiah and drove it to the White House before the ceremony.
“The menorah representing the village was beautiful. And to have Ataklit here just all worked and so the White House was happy that we could make a nice story,” says Friends of Yemin Orde Executive Director Karen Sallerson. “To have the president of the United States mention our organization and to put a light on it for others was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we were glad to be able to be part of it.”