A great miracle happened in a land far away. Despite daunting odds, a Jewish people held fast to their identity, found renewal, and we rejoiced.
Yes, this is the story of Hanukkah that happened bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, “in those days, in these times.” But it’s also a story very much of our own times…
Earlier this month, hundreds of Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel: the latest chapter in a historic undertaking that has spanned 40 years, bringing 92,000 Ethiopians to settle in Israel.
In a video documenting their arrival, we see the new olim stepping off the plane to a warm welcome. Some are wearing traditional Ethiopian garb; all are wearing masks, a sobering reminder that even miracles must accommodate a pandemic. One woman draped in a white scarf bends down to kiss the tarmac, a familiar image that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. This is what it is to witness the fulfillment of long delayed dreams.
UJA’s support of the Jewish Agency for Israel, our largest grantee, has been instrumental in the aliyah and absorption of Ethiopian Jewry, from covert rescue operations in 1984 and 1991, to this most recent wave, which is expected to bring another 2,000 new olim in the near term. And our support of the Ethiopian community does not end at the tarmac.
Over the years, we’ve made major investments in many innovative programs that have proved incredibly successful in helping Ethiopian-Israelis from early childhood to high school graduation advance academically. And for Ethiopian university graduates, Olim Beyahad (Rising Up Together), a longtime UJA grantee, provides work-related enrichment and helps graduates find suitable employment. Olim Beyahad also works to ensure that Ethiopian-Israelis have a strong presence in the media and public sector so they are seen, and their voices are heard. The intent is to promote the full integration of Ethiopian-Israelis into Israeli society.
Poignantly, it was one of the graduates of Olim Beyahad, Pnina Tamano-Shata, who oversaw this latest round of aliyah in her role as Israel's current minister of Aliyah and Integration. Pnina is the first Ethiopian-born woman to serve in Knesset, and was a participant in another UJA program. A few years ago, Pnina took part in our signature Co.Lab initiative, which brings together leaders from the diversity of Israeli society to promote social cohesion. The experience proved so powerful that she spoke about UJA during one of her first speeches before Knesset. But her Israeli story really started when she and her family were airlifted from Ethiopia in 1984 as part of Operation Moses, supported by UJA. And now she’s helping bring more of her people home.
This year, while our Hanukkah celebrations are understandably muted by the pandemic, we'll reflect on the miracles of long ago that cast light on all our lives today. With new olim now in a homeland they once could only dream about, and vaccines starting to bring the end of the pandemic within sight, there is reason to feel hope and, yes, even renewal.
In these days. In these times.
Shabbat shalom and happy Hanukkah