26 minute read

TJH Speaks with Leg. Mazi Melesa Pilip

From Ethiopia to the IDF to the Nassau County Legislature

TJH speaks with Leg. Mazi Melesa Pilip

BY SUSAN SCHWAMM

Mazi, first of all, congratulations on your election to the Nassau County Legislature. Is this your first foray into politics?

Yes. It is. But I have been active and involved in many different things from a young age. In Israel, when I was in college, I was a chairwoman for the National Ethiopian Students Organization for almost two years before I moved here. I was also active politically within the community in Israel. When I moved here, I was very active also within different non-profit organizations. I would give speeches around U.S. about Israel and Ethiopian Jews, speaking with people who never heard about Israel to show them the other side of Israel, the positive side of Israel, how Israel treats minorities. I have been doing that for the past six years. I also was active with a non-profit organization that’s called Israel At Heart. The main mission of the organization is really to bring non-Jewish, African American groups to Israel and to bring Ethiopian Jews from Israel here to different conferences. This way, we can bridge the gap between the African American and Jewish communities.

I’m also very active within my community. Any time there’s an issue, I like to make sure our voice is heard. A few years ago, we didn’t like the way things were going in our community. So I organized a group of people together, and we elected a very good mayor, Dr. Pedram Bral. He’s really wonderful.

After that election, Pedram Bral asked me to be on the board, and I did that for two years. He knows that when I want to move things, I get things done. So when he was looking for somebody to run for the Nassau County Legislature, he thought about me.

There are two types of people in life. You have people who will complain from the outside and people who will take action. I like to take action.

I realized it was a great opportunity. There were a lot of things going on – Covid was shaking the country, there were issues between black and white, and there was more hate and anti-Semitism. We even started to see it in town. I thought to myself when they approached me, “I can be a good voice for the community, and I can be a bridge. I can bring all the communities together – Jewish, non-Jewish – we should all join together and make our voices heard.” And so I decided to run.

People really were very supportive. A lot of people who never voted in the past wanted to stand up for change and to vote. They heard about me. They love who I am and what I’m bringing to the table. And I really am bringing unity to the people. That’s the bottom line: to improve the gap and know that we are one nation under one G-d. And we have to be very respectful to each other and fight any type of hate.

You represent Great Neck. What commu-

nities does that encompass?

The district is a very diverse community. We have a big community of Indians, Asians, Jews – there’s a big mix.

What do you think was people’s passion that made them head to the polls this year and vote for you?

I really was working very hard the few months before the elections to get out the vote. I actually was pregnant with twins during the campaign. No one knew I was expecting twins, but I didn’t let my pregnancy slow me down. I had my twin girls just a few days before Election Day.

I was campaigning a lot those last few months. I was going from synagogue to synagogue, bringing out the vote. Sometimes I would leave Friday night to go to a shul and I would sleep at someone’s house on Friday night because I’m shomer Shabbat and I couldn’t walk back home. And then I would go to another synagogue the next day, on Shabbat, to spend time there and talk to people. Only when Shabbat was over would I go home. I did this for two months. It was intense but it was worth it. I met a lot of people. I would go to train stations and park events – any party, small or big – I was always there.

I also had great people around me who helped me with my campaign. I cannot express what it meant to have such support. These people saw that I wanted to be a bridge between communities.

When I spoke with people on the campaign trail, they liked that I grew up in Israel and joined the Israeli army. When I met with a lot of Persian Jews and Indian people and Chinese people, they liked that I was really living the American dream: One day you’re born in a third world country, and the next day you are in America and you achieve your dreams. I was able to share that with them.

You came to Israel when you were 12 years old, correct?

Yes. I came to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991. While we were waiting aliyah, there was a civil war in Ethiopia, and Israel together with the United States made a special deal with the Ethio-

pian government to have a ceasefire for 36 hours so they could airlift around 15,500 people during those hours. I was one of those people.

What was your first feeling when you reached the Holy Land?

We were happy that we were finally in our homeland. It was a dream come true. But we came from a third world country; we didn’t come with education. We were farmers without any technology, no nothing. We came to Israel, which was a modern society with high technology, so it was hard to adjust. For the first time in your life, you see cars, elevators, modern kitchens – things that for you and for me right me now are so natural.

Also, we were now a minority. All of a sudden, your skin color is different. You went to school, maybe you’re the only Ethiopian person, or even Jew maybe, in the whole class. You don’t speak the language. You don’t have friends. It was hard, but you know what? Sometimes when you go through hard times that makes you even stronger. So it was a good journey for me personally. I was very stubborn to be successful. And even though I had my difficulties, I never gave up.

How many children were in your family? I have three sisters. They all live in Israel.

You joined the IDF’s elite unit called the Tzanchanim.

Serving in the army was something that was very important to me because one of the things I remember about the day I arrived in Israel was that I saw female soldiers. They were giving us blankets, trying to accommodate us in a nice way. They were so young, and I admired them so much. So when the time came to serve the country, I said, “There’s no way I’m not going to serve. I want to be just like those soldiers who were helping us.” When I came to my dad and told him that I wanted to serve in the army, he told me, “No, you’re too skinny. You’re too young. No way you’re going to go and join the army.” But I had a very strong will and I told him, “No, I’m going to go.” And even though they were unhappy initially, when I came back from the training with the uniform and the weapon, he was very proud. He was so happy that his little girl was serving in the Israeli army.

So getting back to moving to Israel, I was full of happiness when I moved to Israel. I felt that I was just like everybody else. Giving back to the country that gave so much to me and to my community takes so much meaning and going to the army was an amazing experience. I learned a lot. I got more mature. In the army, you grow so much. At the end of the army, you’re a totally different person. You know what you want to do in the future.

When did you move to the United States?

I went to Haifa University after the army. I met my husband there. My husband, Adalbert, was born in Ukraine, grew up in the U.S., and came

Being sworn in on January 3, 2022

to study medicine in Israel, and we met there in school. We wanted to get married and start a family. But moving to the U.S. was a hard decision because I was very active in Israel. I knew who I was. And then I had to move to a new country, with a new culture, with no family. It was a hard decision. But then Hashem has His own way sometimes to lead us to different places.

So we moved here after we got married in Israel. Initially, we weren’t settled because we were traveling for my husband’s residency and fellowship – he’s a cardiologist. But now, we found Great Neck. We needed a community with kosher food and close access to our synagogue, and we found Great Neck ten years ago. It has become our home.

Your husband is a Ukrainian Jew, and

you are an Ethiopian Jew. What are dif-

ferent traditions that you pass down to your children from each of your families’ traditions?

Truthfully, our kids are very American, but for us, it’s about reminding them that they’re Jewish and that they should be proud Jews.

I’m trying to teach them Hebrew. But it’s hard because we don’t speak Hebrew in the house, although my older son can speak and understand Hebrew a little better. Every summer, we go to Israel. For me, I want them to connect to the country and to see my own community there. It’s important that they are exposed to more people like me.

In terms of food, well, some of my children will eat Ethiopian food if I make it and some won’t. It’s the same with Russian and Ukrainian food.

What are some Ethiopian dishes?

Really, most of the time it’s the same chicken as other cuisines but it’s about different spices. It’s more of an Indian-type flavor.

You are being sworn into office on January 3. What are your goals when you reach the Nassau County Legislature?

You know, a big part of the downtown area of Great Neck is dying. There are a lot of businesses there, but they were really hit by Covid and that truly impacted them. We used to have a movie theater there; it’s no longer there. We really need to revitalize our downtown area. That’s really an important goal of mine, and Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman knows this. I’d like to see how we can work to help the small businesses. We can help them with branding and social media, among other things. It’s heartbreaking to see different businesses closing down. I’m here to help them.

As you know, I have seven kids now, but five of them are in public school. During the campaign, my second son came to me and said, “Mom, my friends told me, ‘We will support your mother, but can you make sure she can bring the movie theater and the ice cream back to us?’” That was on kids’ minds – and also on their parents’ minds – our businesses.

It’s nice that your children and their

friends are involved and active partici-

pants in the election process.

Yes. I was very proud of them. One of things we love to do is to involve the younger generation.

Remember, they’re the future. We have to pass Remember, they’re the future. We have to pass the leadership to them one day. They are the ones the leadership to them one day. They are the ones Remember, they’re the future. We have to pass who are going to lead this town, this country, at who are going to lead this town, this country, at the leadership to them one day. They are the ones one point. So that is something we were trying to one point. So that is something we were trying to who are going to lead this town, this country, at encourage, to find plans about how to make them encourage, to find plans about how to make them one point. So that is something we were trying to involved. involved. encourage, to find plans about how to make them involved. Speaking about the young people, there’s Speaking about the young people, there’s a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sena lot of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sen-

Speaking about the young people, there’s timent on college campuses. Some people timent on college campuses. Some people

a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sen-generate a rhetoric that Israel is an apartgenerate a rhetoric that Israel is an apart-

timent on college campuses. Some people heid state. What would you say to these heid state. What would you say to these

generate a rhetoric that Israel is an apart-people who are making these comments people who are making these comments

heid state. What would you say to these and how can other young people respond and how can other young people respond people who are making these comments to them? to them?

and how can other young people respond This is very sad because they don’t know the This is very sad because they don’t know the to them? truth about Israel. And it’s sad that the media is truth about Israel. And it’s sad that the media is This is very sad because they don’t know the showing just one side – the Palestinian side. Even showing just one side – the Palestinian side. Even truth about Israel. And it’s sad that the media is during the last war with Gaza with Hamas, they during the last war with Gaza with Hamas, they showing just one side – the Palestinian side. Even showed how the Hamas and Palestinians are sufshowed how the Hamas and Palestinians are sufduring the last war with Gaza with Hamas, they fering. But nobody shows our side, how the Israeli fering. But nobody shows our side, how the Israeli showed how the Hamas and Palestinians are suf-kids are growing up hearing these rockets and not kids are growing up hearing these rockets and not fering. But nobody shows our side, how the Israeli having a normal life. So the media is not giving having a normal life. So the media is not giving kids are growing up hearing these rockets and not you a fair view on what is happening. you a fair view on what is happening. having a normal life. So the media is not giving These people don’t know that truth about These people don’t know that truth about you a fair view on what is happening. Israel. Israel is not just a White people country. Israel. Israel is not just a White people country. These people don’t know that truth about In Israel, you can see diversity – Blacks, Jews, In Israel, you can see diversity – Blacks, Jews, Israel. Israel is not just a White people country. non-Jews, Arabs…. I went to Haifa University. non-Jews, Arabs…. I went to Haifa University. In Israel, you can see diversity – Blacks, Jews, At least four or five of my friends were Arabs. At least four or five of my friends were Arabs. non-Jews, Arabs…. I went to Haifa University. Some of them were even Muslim Arabs, sitting Some of them were even Muslim Arabs, sitting At least four or five of my friends were Arabs. with me. Some of them were Christian Arabs. In with me. Some of them were Christian Arabs. In Some of them were even Muslim Arabs, sitting Haifa University – I’m not kidding – it’s like half Haifa University – I’m not kidding – it’s like half with me. Some of them were Christian Arabs. In of the students are Arab. They get scholarships of the students are Arab. They get scholarships Haifa University – I’m not kidding – it’s like half from the government, like I got scholarships from from the government, like I got scholarships from of the students are Arab. They get scholarships the government. Israel provides for education for the government. Israel provides for education for from the government, like I got scholarships from minorities. I got my master’s degree there, and I minorities. I got my master’s degree there, and I the government. Israel provides for education for didn’t have to pay anything. The government paid didn’t have to pay anything. The government paid minorities. I got my master’s degree there, and I because the government understands that in orbecause the government understands that in ordidn’t have to pay anything. The government paid der to close gaps and in order to create a healthy der to close gaps and in order to create a healthy because the government understands that in or-environment and a healthy society it’s through environment and a healthy society it’s through der to close gaps and in order to create a healthy education. If I wasn’t living in Israel, I wouldn’t education. If I wasn’t living in Israel, I wouldn’t environment and a healthy society it’s through be educated. I wouldn’t have a master’s degree. be educated. I wouldn’t have a master’s degree. education. If I wasn’t living in Israel, I wouldn’t And I wouldn’t have a sister who’s a judge in Israel And I wouldn’t have a sister who’s a judge in Israel be educated. I wouldn’t have a master’s degree. and another sister who’s a police officer in a high and another sister who’s a police officer in a high And I wouldn’t have a sister who’s a judge in Israel position in Israel. position in Israel. and another sister who’s a police officer in a high We need to educate these people who don’t We need to educate these people who don’t position in Israel. know the real truth about Israel. They think Isknow the real truth about Israel. They think IsWe need to educate these people who don’t rael is a country that just cares about itself. But rael is a country that just cares about itself. But know the real truth about Israel. They think Is-they’re so wrong. It’s a complete lie. For people they’re so wrong. It’s a complete lie. For people rael is a country that just cares about itself. But like me, it’s our job to talk about Israel. No country like me, it’s our job to talk about Israel. No country they’re so wrong. It’s a complete lie. For people is perfect. It’s true, there are some areas Israel is perfect. It’s true, there are some areas Israel like me, it’s our job to talk about Israel. No country needs to improve in the future. But at least Israel needs to improve in the future. But at least Israel is perfect. It’s true, there are some areas Israel is a country really giving people equal opportuniis a country really giving people equal opportunineeds to improve in the future. But at least Israel ty for all Israeli citizens. That’s a fact, and people ty for all Israeli citizens. That’s a fact, and people is a country really giving people equal opportuni-have to realize that. Our job is to educate people have to realize that. Our job is to educate people ty for all Israeli citizens. That’s a fact, and people about the truth. Our students need organizations about the truth. Our students need organizations have to realize that. Our job is to educate people that give them the tools so they will be educated that give them the tools so they will be educated about the truth. Our students need organizations and they can know the truths so they can become and they can know the truths so they can become that give them the tools so they will be educated ambassadors for the Jewish people and Israel. ambassadors for the Jewish people and Israel. and they can know the truths so they can become ambassadors for the Jewish people and Israel. Mazi, you smash every stereotype of a Mazi, you smash every stereotype of a

Republican politician. You came from Republican politician. You came from Mazi, you smash every stereotype of a another country. You’re a female. You’re another country. You’re a female. You’re Republican politician. You came from Ethiopian. You’re Jewish. That must have Ethiopian. You’re Jewish. That must have another country. You’re a female. You’re Ethiopian. You’re Jewish. That must have

With County Executive With County Executive Bruce BlakemanBruce Blakeman With County Executive Bruce Blakeman Supporting our law enforcement With Police Commissioner Supporting our law enforcement With Police Commissioner Patrick RyderPatrick Ryder

Supporting our law enforcement With Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder

been pretty empowering when you won.

Absolutely. I really owe a lot to Chairman Joseph Cairo, the leader of the Republican Party in Nassau County. He really made sure to choose people – smart people, first of all, hardworking people – who really want to work hard. Many of us who ran were female. At least four of us were African American. The Republican Party is welcoming of everyone. We all work as a team. We know when we work together, we will do better as a society.

Absolutely. You are the mother of seven children, two of them newborn twins. How do you do it all?

The more you are busy, the more productive you are. If I’m not busy, I’m lazy. When I have a lot of things to do, then I’m running like a soldier.

I had four boys and a girl before and then we just had two girls.

First, I’m a mother. And I’m always going to be a mother, and I’m always going to be involved with my kids and care for them. Education is something so important to me and my husband, my Ukrainian husband. You know how Ukrainians, Russians, are when it comes to education. My kids, they know not to mess up with that. They have to do well with their work. No compromising here. It’s all hard work.

They love playing soccer, so we make sure each one of them has at least one sport. And we are there to support them, and I have family help.

And after all, as I was saying, so much of what I

been pretty empowering when you won.

Absolutely. I really owe a lot to Chairman Joseph Cairo, the leader of the Republican Party in did over the past few months during the campaign Nassau County. He really made sure to choose was really for the future of our kids. We want them people – smart people, first of all, hardworking to be the next generation who going to lead the people – who really want to work hard. Many of us country. We want them to feel proud. It doesn’t who ran were female. At least four of us were Afri- matter who they are. Everything I’m doing now, can American. The Republican Party is welcoming I’m really doing for them and their generation. of everyone. We all work as a team. We know when we work together, we will do better as a society. What’s your message for your district as

you start your term?

Absolutely. You are the mother of seven Firstly, I want to thank the people of the 10th children, two of them newborn twins. How District and the Great Neck community for voting do you do it all? – some of them went out to vote for the first time

The more you are busy, the more productive in their lives. People think sometimes that local you are. If I’m not busy, I’m lazy. When I have a elections aren’t important, but through this camlot of things to do, then I’m running like a soldier. paign they realized that everything starts locally.

I had four boys and a girl before and then we When you build from the foundation in the correct just had two girls. way, it’s apparent later on.

First, I’m a mother. And I’m always going to be I urge people to continue to be involved. Never a mother, and I’m always going to be involved with say, “Oh, I don’t care. My voice doesn’t count.” Your my kids and care for them. Education is some- voice counts, and we saw that. So if you don’t like thing so important to me and my husband, my something, instead of just complaining from the Ukrainian husband. You know how Ukrainians, side, be the voice, stand up for what’s right and for Russians, are when it comes to education. My kids, the thing you believe, and support the community. they know not to mess up with that. They have to I also think we need to be respectful to each do well with their work. No compromising here. other. I think this country, in the last few years, It’s all hard work. really lost the unity and the respect for each other.

They love playing soccer, so we make sure each We got to the point where leaders were attacking one of them has at least one sport. And we are each other. It’s unnecessary. It’s such a problem there to support them, and I have family help. for our kids, for the next generation, to see that.

And after all, as I was saying, so much of what I We have to be role models for our children and be very respectful to each other even when we don’t agree on certain issues.

been pretty empowering when you won. did over the past few months during the campaign

Absolutely. I really owe a lot to Chairman Jo- was really for the future of our kids. We want them seph Cairo, the leader of the Republican Party in to be the next generation who going to lead the Nassau County. He really made sure to choose country. We want them to feel proud. It doesn’t people – smart people, first of all, hardworking matter who they are. Everything I’m doing now, people – who really want to work hard. Many of us I’m really doing for them and their generation. who ran were female. At least four of us were African American. The Republican Party is welcoming What’s your message for your district as of everyone. We all work as a team. We know when you start your term? we work together, we will do better as a society. Firstly, I want to thank the people of the 10th District and the Great Neck community for voting Absolutely. You are the mother of seven – some of them went out to vote for the first time children, two of them newborn twins. How in their lives. People think sometimes that local do you do it all? elections aren’t important, but through this cam-

The more you are busy, the more productive paign they realized that everything starts locally. you are. If I’m not busy, I’m lazy. When I have a When you build from the foundation in the correct lot of things to do, then I’m running like a soldier. way, it’s apparent later on.

I had four boys and a girl before and then we I urge people to continue to be involved. Never just had two girls. say, “Oh, I don’t care. My voice doesn’t count.” Your

First, I’m a mother. And I’m always going to be voice counts, and we saw that. So if you don’t like a mother, and I’m always going to be involved with something, instead of just complaining from the my kids and care for them. Education is some- side, be the voice, stand up for what’s right and for thing so important to me and my husband, my the thing you believe, and support the community. Ukrainian husband. You know how Ukrainians, I also think we need to be respectful to each Russians, are when it comes to education. My kids, other. I think this country, in the last few years, they know not to mess up with that. They have to really lost the unity and the respect for each other. do well with their work. No compromising here. We got to the point where leaders were attacking It’s all hard work. each other. It’s unnecessary. It’s such a problem

They love playing soccer, so we make sure each for our kids, for the next generation, to see that. one of them has at least one sport. And we are We have to be role models for our children and be there to support them, and I have family help. very respectful to each other even when we don’t

And after all, as I was saying, so much of what I agree on certain issues.

did over the past few months during the campaign was really for the future of our kids. We want them to be the next generation who going to lead the country. We want them to feel proud. It doesn’t matter who they are. Everything I’m doing now, I’m really doing for them and their generation.

What’s your message for your district as you start your term?

Firstly, I want to thank the people of the 10th District and the Great Neck community for voting – some of them went out to vote for the first time in their lives. People think sometimes that local elections aren’t important, but through this campaign they realized that everything starts locally. When you build from the foundation in the correct way, it’s apparent later on.

I urge people to continue to be involved. Never say, “Oh, I don’t care. My voice doesn’t count.” Your voice counts, and we saw that. So if you don’t like something, instead of just complaining from the side, be the voice, stand up for what’s right and for the thing you believe, and support the community.

I also think we need to be respectful to each other. I think this country, in the last few years, really lost the unity and the respect for each other. We got to the point where leaders were attacking each other. It’s unnecessary. It’s such a problem for our kids, for the next generation, to see that. We have to be role models for our children and be very respectful to each other even when we don’t agree on certain issues.

“One day you’re born in a third world country, and the “One day you’re born in a third world country, and the “One day you’re born in a third world country, and the next day you are in America and you achieve your dreams.” next day you are in America and you achieve your dreams.” next day you are in America and you achieve your dreams.”