Last week, Federation CEO Dov Ben-Shimon and I were privileged to travel to Ethiopia on the Jewish Agency for Israel/Jewish Federations of North America (JAFI/JFNA) Mission. We brought 180 Ethiopians to Israel on the inaugural 2022 flight of Operation Tzur Israel which promises to reunite at least 3,000 Ethiopian Jews with their Israeli families by the end of 2022. It’s been a rocky road to get to this point… here’s why.
In 2017, my family was invited to travel to Ethiopia with other Greater MetroWest lay leaders and the legendary Abba Micha Feldmann (more about Abba Micha below) to bring what we thought were the last remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel. By the time we arrived in Ethiopia on January 1, 2018, the Israeli government had made the unfortunate decision not to reunify the remaining Ethiopian Jews with their families in Israel because they were not halachically Jewish. We were deeply troubled by the hopelessness of the conditions we witnessed. [To read more about this unforgettable trip in a blog by Amir Shacham and other participants, read this blog from January 2018.]
The Ethiopian Jewish families we met during that visit lived in one-room mud huts with dirt floors and no electricity or plumbing. Neighbors shared an outdoor communal firepit for cooking and cold water for bathing. They had sold all of their belongings, left their small villages, and gathered in Gondar in hopes of making Aliyah, only to be disappointed.
We felt responsible for our Ethiopian brothers and sisters we were leaving behind as we boarded our flight from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv in 2018. They were as much Jewish souls as we were. Getting them out of Ethiopia became something of a personal crusade of mine.
Our Greater MetroWest community has supported more than 160,000 Ethiopian Israeli Jews who have contributed to every aspect of Israeli society. Programs we support, such as Atzmaut Plus, have helped Ethiopian olim (immigrants) assimilate into Israeli life, learn the language, find jobs, and so much more. We’ve also done much to educate our own community here in New Jersey about the direness of the situation for the Jews still living in Ethiopia.
In 2018, our Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) brought Ethiopian Abere Endeshaw to speak to our Federation and share his experience about how he was able to come to the U.S. to study, but not allowed to reunite with his family in Israel.
In January 2019, then Jewish Agency CEO and now Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Greater MetroWest to discuss Ethiopian Aliyah.
In June 2019, our Federation Board passed a resolution supporting fulfillment of previous Government of Israel decisions for reunification. We were also a leader in supporting Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) which provides essential humanitarian support to people waiting in Ethiopia to make Aliyah. SSEJ provides two meals a day to all children under 5 years old and to all nursing and pregnant mothers in the Jewish community in Gondar and Addis Ababa. This nutritional support ensures that the children do not suffer from malnutrition in these critical years of development. Because of the impressive work SSEJ and the Jewish Agency do on the ground in Ethiopia, by the time the olim arrive in Israel they are healthy and in the best position possible to embark on their new life.
In 2021, our JCRC invited Abba Micha Feldmann, a former JAFI representative and Israeli consul in Ethiopia who oversaw the immigration of over 14,000 Jews from Addis Ababa in the two-day Operation Solomon airlift, to moderate a discussion of the film The Passengers, which shares the story of two young adults who travelled from Ethiopia to the U.S. to gather support to make Aliya. Here is a link to the movie and our program with Abba Micha*.
All of this build-up made last week’s trip that much more poignant for those of us who have been working toward this day for years.
On our Mission last week, we met a 37-year-old man in Gondar who left his village with his parents and five siblings when he was 14. They waited in Gondar for five years before his parents and younger siblings were able to make Aliyah. Unfortunately, he aged out of eligibility at 19 and was left behind, until now. On Thursday, he made Aliyah with his wife and their four daughters.
The difference between Operation Tzur Israel and previous Ethiopian reunifications is that, in this round, the eligibility criteria are more inclusive. Specifically, adult children are now allowed to make Aliyah with their family unit. When we arrived in Israel, we met three impressive young adult Ethiopian Jews in the Beer Sheva Olim Absorption Center who had been there for 18 months and will soon complete their conversion to Judaism and become Israeli citizens. Their English and Hebrew were impressive. Some were college educated in Ethiopia and trained in Jewish Agency vocational programs in Israel. I cannot overemphasize enough how the Government of Israel and Jewish Agency have improved in creating an environment that will enable this new wave of immigrants to succeed.
What a privilege it was to complete our Mission by flying from Addis Ababa to Israel, once again with Abba Micha, and the olim last week. We sang “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” together as we touched down in Israel. As they disembarked to take their first steps toward their new lives in Israel, I was swollen with hope. It was a Zionist dream come true. I am beyond grateful for the privilege of accompanying children, parents, and grandparents leaving the only life they ever knew behind to fulfill the Zionist dream held by generations of Ethiopian Jews. They numbered 180, from babies to 80s, all clutching their green temporary passports which will be replaced with permanent passports in two years, after they complete halachic conversions. Some had waited over 20 years for this moment. It was truly my honor to share this journey with them. It taught me that even when it seems that there is no hope, the Mission is not impossible. If we continue to work together, we can continue to save Jewish lives. Am Yisroel Chai.
*Abba Micha is known by Ethiopian Jews throughout Israel and Ethiopia because of his kindness and leadership in both Operations Moses and Solomon. He continues to work with Ethiopian families in Israel today through his work at Selah to help at risk families meet their basic needs. In 1991, he was the head of the Jewish Agency operation in Ethiopia and was responsible for determining eligibility of, and safely transporting, each of the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews airlifted in 34 hours from Addis Ababa to Israel during Operation Solomon.