Now that I've had some time to reflect on the GA from last week, I realized I forgot to tell you about one aspect that was so meaningful for me personally but really goes to the heart of what the GA is about and the conversation that needs to be happening between the Jews of the Diaspora and the Jews of Israel.
Three years ago, I was privileged to attend the national Campaign Chairs and Campaign Directors Mission to Ethiopia and Israel. (Every year, the lay and staff leadership of the 157 federations of North America travel to various parts of the globe and Israel to see your dollars at work and to share ideas. It's known informally as the CCCD Mission.) It was an arduous trip, just in terms of travel. We all gathered in Tel Aviv, then flew that same night to Addis Abiba. From there, we flew to Gondar, the large marketplace town that was in the heart of the region where Ethiopian Jews had lived for centuries. We then climbed into jeeps that carried us deep into the hills, heading towards Ambover, where there had been a synagogue and a Jewish school. We were accompanied to Ethiopia by eight young Ethiopian Israeli olim, all of whom had been born in Ethiopia and who had made aliyah to Israel as part of either Operation Moses or Operation Solomon, the two rescue operations that brought the large majority of the Ethiopian Jewish population home to Eretz Yisroel.
As the jeeps climbed higher and higher into the mountains, we stopped to cross a one lane wooden bridge that only one vehicle could take at a time. We were stopped at a small cluster of houses made of mud and brick. The only way to tell which of the buildings were for the humans and which for the cows, sheep, and goats was that there was slightly more mud holding together the huts meant for the humans. This small village was actually the original home of one of the young Ethiopian Israelis on our trip, Leah Beteolin. I was with Leah when we reached Ambover, a larger collection of the same mud huts. We met young children, six or seven years old, who are responsible for herding the grazing animals, spending hours a day by themselves on this job. Some had shirts and no shorts, some had shorts and no shirt, some had sandals, some had boots - it was the rainy season and we were in mud up to our ankles - but very rarely did we see any child with a full set of clothes and shoes. I watched Leah's face closely - she is a beautiful young woman with a very expressive face - and I could see her try to take in that if her parents had not had the courage to walk out of her village and into the Sudan with the hope of reaching Israel, indeed, if you and I and the Jews of North America had not been there to help them, she would have been one of these children, with no education, no future, cut off from the Jewish world. For me, it was as if I was watching my grandfather return to the small shtetl in the Ukraine where he was born.
Leah's family did make it to Israel and, with her mother's insistence, received her education, is now the manager of two Partnership 2000 relationships in Israel, and is also in her last semester of law school. Leah - who came to Israel as a result of the outreached hands of Israel and Jews of the Diaspora - is creating and strengthening the relationship between Jews in Toronto and in Switzerland with Jews in Israel. It's a pretty amazing story, and I was so proud to see Leah on the stage of the plenary where Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke, telling her story. She is young enough to be my daughter, but I view her as a true friend and peer in the work of connecting the Jewish people.
Before and since the GA, there have been many articles about the relationships or lack thereof between Israel and the Diaspora. I reject the assessment of Natasha Mozgovaya in the November 16 online edition of Ha'aretz, the Israeli newspaper. Mozgovaya claims that the 3,000 attendees who heard Leah's story and that of two other young olim were "moved - but somewhat less so than in the past." Without interviewing the entire audience, I'm not sure how she reached that conclusion. I much prefer to agree with Seth Cohen, writing for the November 17 edition of the eJewishphilanthopy digest. (www.ejewishphilanthropy.com/encountering-Israel-at-the-GA) Cohen's experience at the GA was more like mine. He was "struck by the fact that even though we were in the heart of Washington D.C., at the heart of my experience was the number of conversations and encounters I had that related to Israel."
My encounter with a young Ethiopian Israeli three years ago has forged a strong bond with Leah, and an even stronger bond with Israel. I would recommend that we adopt the recommendation of Seth Cohen: "Let us all continue to gather the partial pieces of our common love of Israel, and let us remember that while the ingathering of our people is powerful, it is the ingathering of our ideas and efforts that can truly transform Israel's encounter with the world - an encounter where the whole is certainly more than the sum of its parts."