How do I define the word leadership? What qualities make up a leader? Do I consider myself a leader? Might there be new answers to these questions in our unprecedented times? As a young boy, Zion Gathun never considered himself a leader. Born in 1970 and raised in rural Ethiopia, Zion arrived in Israel in 1984. He had never revealed his story of personal exodus to anyone until he participated in a leadership training program for Ethiopian parents. The participants were given a homework assignment to recount to their families their own personal stories of exodus. After more than thirty years of keeping the ordeals of his journey a secret, Zion sat at his family’s Passover seder and began to speak. At the age of twelve, he informed his father that he planned to join a convoy that would walk from Ethiopia to Sudan and then be transported to Israel.
To this day, Zion cannot comprehend where his confidence and unshakable belief in this decision came from. He did not ask his father’s permission, unheard of behavior for a child, but told him. There were 63 people in the group, including two rabbis, but the majority were children, ages twelve to eighteen. Most left their parents behind. Ten paid guides led the group as they walked for two and a half months, day and night, covering approximately 2,000 kilometers. One day Zion noticed the guides huddled, speaking amongst themselves. Suddenly they turned against the small group, falsely claiming that they were close to the border of Sudan, and abandoned them. Almost immediately after their disappearance the group was attacked by a band of savage robbers. They raped the girls, stole all food, water, and possessions. The convoy was paralyzed with terror and helplessness. Zion and two friends realized that they needed to act. They set out into the desert, looking for water. They came upon a lone tree, dug up its roots, and found precious moisture there. These droplets revived the group. A day and a half later they reached the border of Sudan. Everyone survived the ordeal!
It took Zion another two years to finally reach Israel and eight more years to bring all sixty-seven members of his family home. As Zion continued his story, his nephew sitting at the family seder cried, “Uncle, who was your Moses? What Cloud of Glory led your way?” Zion paused and then answered, “My grandmother, who learned this from generations before her, spoke of Jerusalem as the center of the world, the center of our light and hope. Our vision of returning to Jerusalem gave us the strength and ability to move forward, this was what our eyes focused on in the desert, this was our Cloud of Glory. Our Moses was the Moses we found within each of ourselves, the inner leader that we discovered with each footstep of our journey.”
Zion’s personal exodus calls on us to remember that freedom was achieved through the heroic actions of humble individuals like himself. The leadership program Zion participated in was led by Eyal Bloch, a teacher at the David Yellin School of Education in Jerusalem. The goal of the program was to explore the power of inner leadership and how that strength, when called upon, influences the environment and ultimately creates transformation. Bloch’s premise was that often we need to be challenged from the outside in order to be awakened on the inside. Equipped with profound inner faith and strength, Zion’s story should shake us into remembering the power of a single person to inspire, to lead, to transform. In these precarious times, his story must propel us to ask ourselves, how can I be a leader for myself, family, community, and country?