Two weeks ago I was among a group of eight lay leaders participating in a Jewish Federations of North America mission to Ethiopia. We observed the operations of our partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and visited historic sites of the Beta Israel community in the Gondar region. I experienced many meaningful moments and heard many powerful stories. I’d like to share one.
But before I do, let me provide some background.
There are currently 130,000 Ethiopians who are Israeli citizens, 50,000 of them part of Beta Israel — those who were born in Ethiopia and practiced Judaism for almost two millennia. In addition, there are 40,000 Falas Mora, those who were born in Ethiopia but converted to Christianity, often many generations ago (in many cases through forced conversions); most have converted back to Judaism. Finally, there are another 40,000 of both backgrounds who were born in Israel.
The government of Israel approved the immigration of 8,000 Falas Mora in early 2011; the final 2,000 should reach Israel in an exodus scheduled to end by late 2013 or early 2014. Israel has asked North American Jewry to become partners in preparing these olim (immigrants) for aliya, to assist with their transportation, and to provide supportive services such as health clinics, education, and social services, both in Ethiopia and in Israel.
North American Jewry has historically taken on the funding of these extraordinary aliya operations, the largest being Operation Exodus, which assisted 700,000 olim from the former Soviet Union. In 1991, the North American Jewish community paid the $35 million ransom that permitted 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to escape the African nation within 36 hours in the midst of a civil war. The community also paid for a substantial part of the costs of their resettlement.
The “Completing the Journey” campaign is a $5.5 million JFNA effort to assist the remaining Falas Mora make aliya and integrate into Israeli society.
The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s portion of this campaign is $170,000. Federation executive vice president Max Kleinman has raised $40,000 to date.
Now, back to the story.
Twenty-four hours before departing Ethiopia, the new olim arrived at a Jewish Agency transit center in Addis Ababa. They were given new clothes and completed the last of the paperwork needed to exit Ethiopia and enter Israel. Members of our mission witnessed the last leg of the journey of some 70 of the olim who were scheduled to fly to Israel later that evening.
Our mission visited the center twice on our last day in Ethiopia. The first time we distributed new clothes to these soon-to-be new immigrants; the second time we walked with them to the bus that would take them to the airport. The center was clean but certainly no palace. There were rooms with mattresses on the floor and a modest open courtyard.
We arrived for our second visit in late afternoon, about a half hour before sundown. We walked from our bus to the center along narrow, dirty alleys strewn with trash and animal bones. I picked up a ram’s horn thinking I would take it home, but the smell was just too awful. We entered the center one by one through a narrow gate.
In the center’s courtyard the olim stood along the exterior wall arranged in two lines. All they had were small carry-on bags or backpacks. They were absolutely quiet. Even the children were still. Sometimes silence is deafening.
We exited the center’s gate, again one by one. We walked through the dusty and dirty alleys. People from the neighborhood stood and stared but did not say a word. The olim stayed in two lines. No one spoke; all we heard was the soft sound of their feet taking them home.
The walk took about 20 minutes, the silence continuing all along the way. The faces of the olim were neither happy nor sad, just serious. This was an exodus march and the olim understood the awe of the moment.
Asher Seyum, an Israeli consul and Jewish Agency director of operations, led the procession. Some 30 years ago, as a young teen, Asher undertook a more difficult exodus march. He and members of his family walked some 500 miles from Gondar to Sudan on their journey to reach Zion. They traveled at night and hid by day. After three weeks, when they made it to Sudan, they were thrown into detention camps. Many were beaten and many became ill. At least 2,000 Ethiopian Jews died in those camps. Fortunately, the government of Israel, with the help of North American Jewry, rescued these Jews as part of Operation Moses.
About 100 yards from the bus, Asher began to sing “Am Yisrael Chai” — the people of Israel live. The olim joined in and so did we. At that moment it was clear that the people of Israel live, truly one people united, caring and responsible for each other, and strong together. Am Yisrael chai!