From African Shepherd To IDF Commander: Jerusalem U Film Follows Ethiopian-Israeli Hero

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Mekonen Movie Poster

Mekonen Abebe triumphantly lifts a sheep in his Ethiopian hometown
Mekonen Abebe triumphantly lifts a sheep in his Ethiopian hometown
Mekonen Abebe (center) at his graduation from the IDF officer training school
Mekonen Abebe (center) at his graduation from the IDF officer training school

Jerusalem U, a producer of film-based educational programs about Israel and Judaism, will host the Israel premiere of their newest film, Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew, on Monday, May 30, at Yes Planet Jerusalem. The 40-minute documentary film tells the inspirational true story of Mekonen Abebe, a young Ethiopian shepherd who overcame financial and familial hardships to realize his dream of becoming an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Mekonen is a follow-up to Jerusalem U’s critically acclaimed film Beneath the Helmet: From High School to the Home Front (2014), which followed five IDF recruits, including Abebe, through their Israeli army training. In the 18 months since its release, Beneath the Helmet has been screened more than 1,000 times in locations around the world, including the Palm Beach International Film Festival and several Jewish film festivals in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“After nearly every screening of Beneath the Helmet, the audiences had burning questions about Abebe. They connected with him and wanted to know more about where he came from and how the next chapter of his story would unfold,” said Rebecca Shore, Jerusalem U’s creative director and the director of Mekonen.

“Luckily, that next chapter included Abebe’s graduation from the Bahad 1- IDF officer training school and a brief trip back to his birthplace, making for an incredibly compelling film. We tagged along with Abebe on his reflective journey to learn about the challenges he faced as a youth and to meet the people who helped him defy the odds. We couldn’t have scripted a more powerful story.”

Abebe’s father passed away the day before his family was scheduled to move to Israel. Abebe was 12 years old at the time, and this tragedy set the tone for a tumultuous immigration. However, less than a decade later, Abebe has successfully integrated into Israeli society while staying true to his Ethiopian roots and culture. Mekonen follows this intrepid and introspective young hero as he makes peace with his past in Ethiopia and embraces his bright future in Israel.

The screening event, which is open exclusively to gap-year students, will feature a live concert by Israeli music sensation Café Shahor Hazak, the Ethiopian-Israeli hip-hop duo of Uri Alamo and Ilak Sahalu. The hit song Yehei Bseder from the band’s chart-topping album, Rak Laalot, was selected to anchor the film’s soundtrack due to its upbeat tempo, as well as the similarities between the film’s story and Alamo and Sahalu’s own origin stories, specifically their hardships as Ethiopian-Israeli youths and their ultimate successes via IDF training and service.

“The exclusive nature of this screening reflects the true purpose of the film itself: to introduce young Jews around the world to Ethiopian-Israeli role models and give students an Israel story they can own and share on their respective college campuses,” explains Shore. “For Jerusalem U, it’s all about sharing empowering stories about Israelis, their connection to their country, and their values. In this regard, Mekonen continues where Beneath the Helmet left off, providing viewers with an opportunity to vicariously experience what life is like for both native and immigrant Israeli teenagers.”

Throughout the school year, more than 500 students on 20 gap-year programs took part in ‘JU Israel Gap Year,’ supplementary programming that equips North American students with the knowledge, skills, and firsthand experience to take a leading role in “messaging Israel” on college campuses across the U.S., including Princeton, Harvard, Brandeis, and George Washington Universities. Jerusalem U’s celebration of Ethiopian-Israeli role models will serve as a send-off event for this year’s cohort.

“Jerusalem U has given me the confidence to identify how I can best deliver my vision for the Israeli state. Through blogging, event planning, and public-speaking workshops, as well as the constant individualized attention from the staff, I now have a toolbox for next year at UC Davis where Israel is a hot topic,” said San Francisco, CA, native Arielle Zoken. “Equipped with the history and facts of the conflict, as well as so many powerful personal stories, I feel prepared to answer questions and provide valuable insight with regards to Israel, her people, and her neighbors.”

Students in attendance will also have the opportunity to meet Abebe and the four other soldiers featured in Beneath the Helmet. The meet-and-greet portion of the evening will be streamed live via the Jerusalem U Facebook page www.facebook.com/Jerusalemu.

Following the screening, Mekonen will be released to summer camps across the United States. A college release will follow in the fall.

For more information about Mekonen: The Journey of an African Jew, please visit mekonen.jerusalemu.org.

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