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I am writing this on a plane from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Israel. Jewish Cleveland community leader, Jeffrey Wild, and I traveled to Ethiopia with the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). The trip was designed to teach us more about the Ethiopian Jewish community’s history and current reality; and allow us to accompany 180 Ethiopians as they made Aliyah as part of Operation Tzur Yisrael Chapter Two to be reunified with family in Israel.
In total, over 92,000 Ethiopian Jews have made Aliyah and there are currently over 145,000 first- and second-generation Ethiopian Israelis living in Israel. At the same time, there are approximately 13,000 people living in what is referred to as Ethiopia’s “community in waiting.” They are waiting for their turn and hoping that they will be found eligible to make Aliyah. Many of them have family in Israel and have been waiting to be reunited for decades. The current operation is focused on family reunification for 3,000 Ethiopians with first degree relatives in Israel.
Understanding the deep faith of the Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jewish) community is foundational to understanding their strong connection to Israel. Sigal Kanotopsky, director of the Jewish Agency Northeast Region (in the United States), shared her personal journey through Sudan to Israel at five-years old during the 1980s. Her parents talked and dreamt of Jerusalem, always seeing Ethiopia as a “temporary” stop on the journey. They traveled by foot through the mountain range at night and hid during the day until eventually reaching a refugee camp in Sudan. The family suffered tremendous losses along this journey, as did many others. 4,000 children and adults lost their lives on their journey to Israel through Sudan. The Ethiopian Jewish community lives with this pain still today.
It is hard to put to words the visible hardship that we saw in Ethiopia. While waiting for word on whether they are eligible or not to make Aliyah, people struggle to survive. They are stuck – far from their home villages and no opportunity to work. We met a young adult who was being interviewed for Aliyah. In Ethiopia, he is an orphan. In Israel, he has family. In his eyes, we saw every young adult we know. With each story we heard sisters, brothers, parents, and children that want to be together.
At a shacharit (morning prayer) service in Gondar, Ethiopia, I found myself quickly realizing that the several hundred strangers praying were part of our extended Jewish family. I was overcome with a sense of connectedness and sameness. As we moved through the service the steps were all familiar. I looked around the large space and thought to myself – they were at Sinai just as all Jews of the past, present, and future were when we received the Torah.
As we boarded the plane to Israel with our Ethiopian brothers and sisters, the tension was palpable. For these 180 people, this flight is the culmination of generations of longing for Israel. So, when the flight took off, it’s no surprise that the cabin immediately filled with singing, and applause. All of us – together.
On this Shavuot, may you feel the strength that comes from knowing we all stand together at Sinai.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.
Erika B. Rudin-Luria
p.s.: On June 9, 2022, our community will come together at Federation’s annual meeting. This year, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich will share insights on the Jewish community in Poland, as well as the Polish community response to the refugees from Ukraine. We hope you will join us.
p.p.s: If you’d like to help support Ethiopian Aliyah and successful integration into Israeli society or address their humanitarian needs in Ethiopia, please contact Rachel Lappen, Federation’s chief development officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org.