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Seeing the Promise to Ethiopian Jews Fulfilled rss

By John S. Ruskay

This week, I accompanied 82 Falas Mora as they made their journey from Ethiopia home to Israel — bearing witness to the fulfillment of a promise made long ago. I was joined by 19 of our leaders, including UJA-Federation board chair Alisa Doctoroff and campaign chair Marcia Riklis, on a mission organized by the Jewish Federations of North America.

We spent two days in Northern Ethiopia learning about the life of the Falas Mora, visiting the synagogues, cemeteries, and schools they had erected to sustain their Jewish commitment even though their ancestors had converted to Christianity. In a synagogue in Gondar, we joined hundreds adorned in tallitim and tefillin for morning prayers that concluded with “Am Yisrael Chai” and “Od Avinu Chai” sung with a poignancy and passion that none of us will soon forget.

On Wednesday in Addis Ababa, we met with those preparing for aliyah, greeting them as they carried their children and belongings to assembly points, and then accompanying them on the flight and to the tarmac at Ben-Gurion airport in Israel. Later, we traveled to a Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) absorption center in Kiryat Gat, which provides individualized services to some 200 new immigrants. Natan Sharansky was there to greet us.

I first traveled to Ethiopia in 2003 to probe allegations of starvation among the Falas Mora (the allegations were exaggerated). Much has improved in the country since then. But on both visits, it was the resilience of the people that stood out. Despite living in squalid conditions, their faces reveal no resentment. In multiple ways, they express their yearning to rejoin their families and their people in Israel.

The story of the Falas Mora is long and complex. Once the Israeli rabbinate and the government of Israel determined that they were entitled entry to Israel, UJA-Federation of New York joined the effort to advocate for their quick aliyah. The saga of Ethiopian Jewry has included Operation Moses in 1984, when thousands left their villages by foot, trekking to refugee camps in southern Sudan, where those who survived the treacherous journey were brought to Israel. In 1991, more than 14,000 were miraculously airlifted to Israel over the 36-hour Operation Solomon. Over three decades, JAFI has fulfilled the dream of aliyah for some 80,000 Ethiopian Jews and there is a multiparty agreement to complete the return by early 2014.

Through our support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and JAFI, we have provided funding for food and medical care for the thousands who awaited final permission to return. Once in Israel, we’ve been at the forefront of helping Ethiopians put down lasting roots, with programs like Birth to Bagrut offering educational enrichment and support, beginning at infancy. To see the clinics created by JDC, Hebrew language classes and aliyah preparation led by JAFI, and head start and job training programs in Israel is to see yet again what it means to actualize global Jewish responsibility in every part of the world. That’s what Federations and our campaigns make possible.

Our mission was enriched by two exceptional individuals: Micha Feldman, who in 1991 was the senior JAFI professional coordinating Operation Solomon, and is affectionately called Abba Micha by large numbers of Ethiopian Jews; and Dr. Will Recant, currently assistant executive vice president of JDC, who was the first executive director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. Their knowledge of and commitment to Ethiopian Jewry is without bounds.

Micha Feldman said, “If we welcome them and provide them help to establish new lives in Israel, rest assured, what is today seen as a burden can and will be seen as an asset.” This week’s experience deepened my belief that Micha is correct. Last night in Tel Aviv, three officers in the Israeli Defense Forces joined us — each a child of Ethiopian olim. Their parents had struggled, but given educational opportunities, the children exceled. Stories like these don’t just happen. They require our continued attention, advocacy, and resources. And while the honor of witnessing the return from Gondar to Israel was filled with joy, the journey is not over, not by far. Until that day, our challenge and responsibility remain.

John S. Ruskay is executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York