Finding Hope in Ethiopia

I landed this morning in Pittsburgh from one of the most impactful experiences in my life – visiting the Jewish community of Ethiopia and accompanying new immigrants to Israel. I apologize for the lack of pictures and details in this message. I plan to share much more in the weeks ahead.

While the Wednesday flight to Israel from Ethiopia with over 200 new olim (immigrants) was a highlight, the time we spent on the ground in both Addis Ababa and Gondar provided important context about those on that flight. The poverty and squalor in which these individuals and families were living was like nothing I have ever witnessed. We visited with one family in their home in Gondar.  They have been approved by the Government of Israel to make Aliyah and are awaiting the date for their flight (they were not on the plane we took). They live in a single room in a mud walled building with no running water. They have no refrigerator or oven, just some coal they use to make coffee and cook. Five of them cram in this single room leaving little additional space for anything else. Like this family, those awaiting and hoping to make Aliyah have moved to similar housing to be in proximity to a compound operated by the SSEJ (Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry) in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Within the SSEJ compound, children and pregnant mothers are provided with essential and nutritional food. Overall, what I found most remarkable at the compound was the peoples’ motivation. Despite the tremendous and unthinkable hardships they suffer (trust me, I haven’t amply described all of them), their answers when asked why they wanted to move to Israel were surprising. While I would have expected to hear comments about having a better life for themselves and their children, nearly every person talked about their aspirations to return to Jerusalem. At the compound we joined the community for shacharit (morning) services and at the close we all stood and sang Hatikva together. Hatikva means hope and their hope is one of fulfilling a multi-generational longing to be in the land of Israel.

Our mission experience, organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federations of North America, provided us with knowledge about the history of Ethiopian Jewry, the story of Ethiopian Aliyah, the conditions for Ethiopian Jews and the complex issues in determining who is eligible to make Aliyah. We witnessed the fear on the faces of these 200+ olim as they boarded a plane (probably the first time for nearly all of them) to leave their ancestral home to fly to their new ancestral home, and we sang and clapped as we could see the coastline of Tel Aviv until landing at Ben Gurion airport. We learned about the very difficult absorption process Ethiopian Jews go through and about how some members of the Ethiopian community have risen to the highest echelons of Israeli society while others are still having great difficulty. The trip did not “sugar coat” anything.  It revealed the underlying factors, difficult, complex, emotional, and inspiring all at the same time. I cannot possible adequately encapsulate all within one Shabbat message. All I can express is how much I was influenced by the experience of the past week.

You should all be aware that the Jewish Federations have collectively committed to raising $9 million this year for this cause. Five million dollars will go towards the Aliyah and absorption and $4 million towards the SSEJ compound, specifically for nutrition and security. I know our system can handle this. We always rise up when Jews are in need and this will be no different. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

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