Jewish Federations Rally to Complete Ethiopian-Jewish Aliyah February 1, 2013
In the final chapter of both a Jewish Federation effort and a personal journey for so many, a group of Ethiopian Jews gathered at the transit center in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A half-hour before sundown, the group formed two lines in the center’s small courtyard, carrying nothing but small bags and backpacks. They exited through the center’s gate, one by one, and walked silently through dirty alleys strewn with stinking trash and rotting animal bones, to the bus that would serve as the last leg of their Ethiopian journey, before boarding a plane to Israel.
“No one spoke; no one made a sound…except the soft sound of their feet taking them home,” said Gary Aidekman, the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, who accompanied the group. “Then Asher Seyum, an emissary for The Jewish Agency for Israel, began to sing. ‘Am Yisrael Chai, Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live.’ At that moment, it was clear that the people of Israel live, truly one people united, caring and responsible for each other, and will be strong together.”
Aidekman was part of a small cadre of Federation leaders that traveled to Ethiopia and Israel last month on The Jewish Federations of North America’s “Completing the Journey” mission to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews (Falas Mura) home to Israel. The mission kicked off the final year of Jewish Federation efforts that have spanned more than three decades of aliyah, which have successfully brought around 80,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. At the start of 2013, just 2,000 Falas Mura remained in Ethiopia awaiting aliyah to Israel, according to the Israeli government.
Many Ethiopians, like Seyum, experienced a much more arduous journey, filled with violence and difficulty. As a teen, Seyum and his family walked 500 miles from Gondar, Ethiopia to Sudan, only to be thrown into detention camps, where many Ethiopians were beaten or became ill. Fortunately, the government of Israel, with the help of North American Jewry, has intervened to ensure that these Ethiopian Jews, who can orally trace their lineage through seven generations, can now live freely in Israel.
This latest Federation mission raised $200,000 to help meet the goal of $6 million necessary for “Completing the Journey.” Jewish Federation efforts have so far raised $4.2 million.
The mission began in Gondar, where the group witnessed the trying conditions of Ethiopian life, and observed the unique commitment of the Falas Mura to live Jewishly, through prayer and community life. They visited schools, clinics and community centers run by Jewish Federation partner agencies, The Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and met with experts like JDC Medical Director Dr. Rick Hodes and volunteers from the Jewish Service Corps, who framed many of the issues surrounding Ethiopian-Israeli aliyah.
In Addis Ababa, mission participants accompanied the Ethiopian Jews on their last steps in Ethiopia, then traveled by plane together with the Falas Mura to Israel.
Michelle Barrack of Philadelphia, a National Young Leadership Cabinet member who participated in the mission, described the emotional experience: “A little girl came up to me, and I walked her the entire way from the transit house to the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa. She didn't want to hold her mother's hand...only mine. Then we had to say goodbye, and she didn't want to let go. When we told her that we'd see her again later that night at the airport, she let go and smiled. I cannot express how moving this was.”
Finally, the group shared in the Olims’ (new immigrants’) first steps in Israel, and learned about the absorption process and resources available to aid Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants as they integrate into Israeli society. The mission concluded with a dinner with representatives from Almaya, Coor’at and the Atzmaut project, organizations and initiatives that provide resources and services to help these immigrants thrive in their new home.
“The story of the Olim is a ray of hope. We helped them prepare to leave the only life that they have ever known,” said Barrack. “These people we ushered out of Ethiopia completed a journey from the Third World to the First World and renewed their hope for a future in which they may be self-authors and participants.”