The Final Ethiopian Aliyah
I recently joined the Jewish Federation of North America to bear witness to the final chapter of the Ethiopian aliyah. It was a complex, thirty-plus year saga encompassing the transference of two groups from Ethiopia to Israel: Beta Israel (Jewish Ethiopians) and Falash Mura (converts from Judaism but still related to members of Beta Israel).
The Israeli Ministry of Interior and the Jewish Agency for Israel recently announced that this aliyah is now ending. The final olim will leave Ethiopia on August 28, 2013.
The Beta Israel aliyah was completed prior to the year 2000, but many Falash Mura applicants have waited for years while it was determined if they qualify for aliyah. Many are still waiting, but now only 400 remain who qualify to immigrate over the summer months. The Jewish Agency office in Addis Ababa will review any additional aliyah requests individually.
Although many Ethiopians continue to gather daily in the country’s Gondar Jewish Community Center to pray in traditional Orthodox Ashkenazic fashion (with Hebrew and Amharic prayer books), the Center will close by the end of the summer. It is hard to say what will become of those who gather each morning in Gondar to pray but do not qualify to go to Israel.
The Ethiopian-born Israeli consul general and Jewish Agency representative, Asher Seyum, is in charge of implementing the final chapter of the Ethiopian aliyah. Asher was raised in Gondar, Ethiopia, but at age 12 walked with his family through Sudan and was airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon. When he returned to Gondar in 2011, he changed the community culture set up by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).
He transformed the NACOEJ Gondar compound into a Jewish Community Center, and the feeding center into a dignified looking restaurant. He dramatically changed the feel of the Jewish school. He cleaned it, painted it a lovely yellow, fixed up the bathrooms, and made them clean.
He provided separate bathroom facilities for boys and girls. He planted trees, added a laboratory and computer class, and guaranteed a healthy lunch for each child consisting of a roll, fava beans or lentils, a boiled egg, and a banana. He hired better teachers, including qualified Hebrew teachers from Israel. The school became the most popular one in the region because of the school lunch and the excellent education.
Our mission came to the school to witness its transferal from the Jewish Agency/Ethiopian Jewish community to the province of Gondar. To date, 3,000 youngsters now living in Israel have studied in the school. This was the first comprehensive step of the Jewish Agency to conclude the Zionist mission in Ethiopia. The school will re-open as a government school after the rainy season in September.
We participated in this historical event before the flags of Ethiopia and the Jewish state of Israel. The children wore their school uniforms: white blazer-like jackets and blue cloth pants or skirts over their own clothes. Three adorable narrators acted as master of ceremonies, the first reading in Hebrew, the second in Amharic, and the third in English. One or two of the children had crosses tattooed on their heads. An older student leader gave an address on behalf of the students, speaking about study and hard work, about the future and his goal to attend university one day.
He did not speak about aliyah because he did not qualify. Of the 260 children attending the Jewish school on that day, half would be on their way to Israel by September. The other half would remain, not qualifying for aliyah. The Gondar government official guaranteed the remaining children that the school will “continue and become better.”
The most heart-rending part of the trip was accompanying Ethiopian-born, Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia, Beylanesh Zevadia, back to her village and family home. Beylanesh, who made aliyah at age 17, is the first Israeli of Ethiopian origin to be appointed an ambassador.
Her father was the last local chief rabbi (kes – high priest) of Ambover and the surrounding vicinity. She took us to her former Jewish school. We went with her to the synagogue where her father presided. While we recited mincha, the first of such prayers held there in decades, Ambassador Zevadia cried and prayed in the corner.
We then began the trek kilometers up the hilly terrain to her ancestral home. On the way, we met an old neighbor who called out to Beylanesh, thinking she was her sister. With her arm around Beylanesh, the barefooted, elderly lady grabbed her blanket shawl and walking stick and led her home.
Beylanesh was overcome with emotion as she approached the simple wooden family home filled with memories of her mother, father, and family. The home was dank and bare. The cooking was done out doors and the menstrual hut was beyond.
The contrast was surreal. A young woman from a rural village in a third-world country where the cattle are so thin one sees their rib cages, and the marketplace so poor that the basic foods sold are potatoes, onions and chili peppers, now returning as an ambassador from one of the most advanced technological countries in the world.
The following day, Beylanesh hosted us at an elegant buffet dinner in the ambassador’s residence in Addis Ababa. She told us her goal was to obtain member status for Israel in the African Union. The Palestinian Authority has observer status but Israel has none. Addis Abba is the seat of the African Union, so the ambassador is in the right place.
Israel contributes greatly to Ethiopia, helping her in areas of agriculture and technology, and providing humanitarian aid. Yet the ambassador still has a difficult job in advocating for Israel.
We also had the honor of meeting recent Brandeis University commencement speaker and award-winning humanitarian and physician Dr. Rick Hodes. He is the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)’s medical director, and manages its medical clinics in Gondar and Addis Ababa. He was the physician responsible for the 14,400 Ethiopians who were airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon. Today he is responsible for medical care and immunizations for those making aliyah.
The climax of our trip was the accompaniment of 53 new olim to Israel.
We met them in the rudimentary JDC accommodations in Addis and walked with them to the Israeli embassy. Upon arrival in Israel, we had the privilege of seeing some kiss the ground as they stepped on the tarmac. They were overwhelmed with joy when they met, hugged, and kissed relatives they had not seen for a long time.
To date, 50,000 Beta Israel and 41,000 Falash Mura Ethiopians have arrived in Israel. With Israeli births, there are now approximately 130,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent in Israel.
The purpose of our mission was to learn this story: to understand the world the immigrants left behind, the struggles and the hardships they endured to reach Zion and the challenges they face as they are absorbed into their new country. We marvel at the successes of such role models as Israeli Knesset member Shimon Solomon, Ambassador Beylanesh Zevadia, and glamorous Miss Israel, Yityish Aynaw.
Yet, we know that we still have a task at hand. We must raise enough funds to help those seasoned and new Ethiopian olim overcome the stark cultural and economic contrasts, and adjust to the modern Jewish state.
Dr. Judith Friedman Rosen is a historian and Jewish communal leader.