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NJ activists see ‘last’ journey out of Africa
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NJ activists see ‘last’ journey out of Africa

Jewish Agency emissary to Ethiopia Asher Seyum leading the group of olim on a walk between the JDC Transit Center and the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa.
Jewish Agency emissary to Ethiopia Asher Seyum leading the group of olim on a walk between the JDC Transit Center and the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa.

The trip he undertook to Ethiopia in June was dubbed “Completing the Journey,” but it was clear to Stuart Wainberg that what he was witnessing was far from the final chapter of the three-decade effort to resettle some 90,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Touring Ethiopia just weeks before the Jewish Agency for Israel announced it would hand over its aid compounds to local authorities at the end of August (see sidebar), Wainberg’s group saw that there are still hundreds of people struggling to be classified as Jews and therefore qualify for future airlifts to Israel.

“It won’t be completed until every last drop of Jewish blood is out of Ethiopia,” Wainberg said of the mass aliya. “There is no future for the Jews there.”

Wainberg and fellow Livingston resident Alice Goldfarb, both longtime activists with the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, were among 43 members of a mission organized by the Jewish Federations of North America. They traveled to the African nation with representatives from the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the three organizations that — with support from Jewish federations — have been conducting the resettlement program.

The group included Beylanesh Sevadia, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, who herself made aliya when she was 17. She took the group from the mission on an emotional visit to her childhood village.

Mission members spent three days in the country, visiting federation-supported institutions involved in the aliya effort, including schools, a health clinic, and community centers. They also attended the hand-over to the Ethiopian government of a Jewish school in Gondar, thereby ending the major Jewish presence in the country. The group then accompanied 58 Ethiopian Jews who had been accepted on their climactic journey. “All through the trip there were moments of realizing just how great a transition they face,” Wainberg said. “They were coming from a place where people live as they did 1,000 years ago to an ultra-modern, aggressive society, moving ahead 10 years with every minute.”

Wainberg, a member of the Israel Program Center of Greater MetroWest, plans to stay in touch with a mother and her family he met aboard that flight, helping them as they put down roots in Israel. For the past decade, he also has been helping another Ethiopian family, whose son was “twinned” with his own son at the time of his bar mitzva. The families have spent time together in Israel, and the boy has vacationed with the Wainbergs in the United States.

“Going to Ethiopia and seeing where they came from gave me a whole new perspective and a deeper appreciation for what that family — and all the others — have had to handle,” Wainberg said. He said he wished more Israelis could be given that appreciation too, to make them more supportive of the Ethiopian immigrants.

Goldfarb, a member of the federation’s Women’s Philanthropy board, has been a supporter of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry for a number of years, and had visited one of the resettlement centers in Israel. When her sister told her about the mission and suggested they go together, she jumped at this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Writing about the trip, she listed some of her “defining moments.” They included “the kavana [motivation] shown by participants in the morning prayer service, the singing of ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ by people to whom it meant the world, and learning about the humanitarianism of Dr. Rich Hodes [the JDC’s Ethiopia-based medical director], surely one of the 36 most righteous people on earth.”

She was moved by the elation of people accepted for aliya, seeing the people all dressed up at the Transit Home in Addis Ababa, and watching “the precious faces of the children throughout our trip, and seeing people bow down to kiss the soil of Yisrael.” But, she added, “my big concern is for the people not accepted for aliya, and for families that are now separated.”

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