From Our CEO
From Ethiopia with Love
June 3rd, 2022

In Gondar, Ethiopia, earlier this week, I met a family of six living in a tiny one-room apartment.

Once home to Ethiopian royalty, Gondar today is a deeply impoverished city, with streetlamps that don’t turn on at night because electricity is spotty, and crater-filled roads that in certain places resemble the surface of the moon.

Improbably, Gondar is also home to a Jewish community center. Yes, it’s undeniably basic — with dirt floors, some of it open air and other parts covered with flimsy corrugated metal roofing. But it has many of the functions of a traditional JCC: a large community room doubling as a synagogue, kitchen, small library with Judaic books, and even a mikvah. Colorful drawings of Israeli flags, stars of David, and Hebrew and Amharic quotes from the Torah adorn the walls. Most important, the center is regularly used by thousands of people of every age. On the day I was there, the first of the Hebrew month of Sivan, many hundreds had gathered in the synagogue for the special Shacharit (morning prayer) service welcoming the new month.

Gondar is also where Ethiopians — like the family of six I visited — have waited for years to travel to Israel.

Speaking through an interpreter, the father, Demeke, explained that 25 years ago his parents had left their rural Ethiopian village, traveling to Gondar with the hope of making aliyah. Fifteen years ago, Demeke’s parents alone qualified to make aliyah and left for Israel. He hasn’t seen them since. Showing me a dated picture of his father that occupies a prominent place in their apartment, Demeke explained that his father lives in Beit Shemesh and is now very sick. The separation has weighed terribly on the entire family.

But no longer. I’m happy to report that just yesterday this family of six flew to Israel. Their wait is over.

Adding poignancy to the experience, my daughter Avital accompanied me, joining a group convened by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Agency for Israel. We came to bear witness to the second wave of “Operation Zur Israel,” which began with flights of Ethiopian olim to Israel in 2020 after years of political negotiations. Tenaciously overseeing the current operation is Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian woman to serve in Knesset, and a champion for family reunification.

This week, my daughter and I traveled on one of the two flights that brought 340 Ethiopians to Israel, part of a total of 3,000 Ethiopians who are expected to be brought within the next six months by our partner the Jewish Agency — with UJA’s support. (Notably, our New York federation has been the largest single philanthropic funder of the Jewish Agency for many decades.)

The oldest passenger on this week’s flights was 81, the youngest just one month old. Some were terrified to be on a plane for the first time. Others understandably anxious for what comes next. But there was a sense of celebration and elation throughout the four-hour flight. And I will never forget the emotion of touching down at Ben Gurion, with the raucous clapping and the singing of “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem.”   

UJA Federation of New York >> <p><em>One of the exuberant passengers on our flight. (Photo credit: Maxim Dinshtein)</em></p>

One of the exuberant passengers on our flight. (Photo credit: Maxim Dinshtein)

In many respects, the flight to Israel represents only the first step of the journey for the new olim. Once in Israel, they will spend two years in an absorption center, learning Hebrew and other critical skills, and formally converting to Judaism. Afterward, the government provides the Ethiopian olim with the funds to buy an apartment so that they have every chance of integrating into Israeli society.

Upon landing in Israel, we visited an absorption center in Beer Sheva, down south — one of 13 centers for Ethiopian olim operated by the Jewish Agency. Five more are expected to be built to accommodate new arrivals. And we met there with Ethiopian young adults who'd come to Israel in December 2020, only 18 months ago. If they are any indication of the future, it is bright. One already spoke flawless Hebrew, another fluent English, and all were progressing quickly in their studies and very happy to be in Israel.

Of course we know that, for some, the future will be a struggle.

Which is why, beyond aliyah and absorption, UJA will continue — as we have for years — to invest in a range of programming to help Ethiopian olim have greater access to educational and employment opportunities. In fact, Minister Tamano-Shata is a graduate of our programs. 

And so this Friday afternoon, as we approach Shabbat and the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating our receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai, but more fundamentally our birth as a nation, I'm thinking about the olim we accompanied who are beginning a new life in Israel as part of our Jewish nation. Going from one life to another.  

I hope the one-month-old who arrived in Israel this week might grow up to be a leader in her community. And that the 81-year-old will find a comfortable place to call home. I hope the family of six that welcomed me into their home in Gondar are now sitting at a Shabbat table with their grandfather — father and son reunited at last.    

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach