GONDAR, Ethiopia – In an attempt to ease daily living conditions for thousands of Ethiopian Jews waiting to immigrate to Israel, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) agreed this week to make a $350,000 donation to cover the community’s basic nutritional needs.

Currently there are up to 4,500 Falash Mura – Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity more than a century ago – who have received final approval for aliya from the Israeli government.

However, apart from children under six, and pregnant or nursing mothers, only those in the final stages of aliya preparation – roughly two months before their departure – are eligible to receive food aid.

“I was shocked to discover that people who already have a permit to go to Israel are not being fed at all,” Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the IFCJ’s founder and director, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday during a four-day mission to Ethiopia.

Eckstein, who visited the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) community center and feeding station in Gondar, said he had witnessed with his own eyes mothers giving food to their young children but refraining themselves from eating.

“We should not be in this kind of situation,” commented the rabbi, whose organization plans to donate up to $5 million over the next five years to what the government and JAFI claim is the final phase of organized aliya from Ethiopia.

On Thursday morning, 91 Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel as part of this final push. They belong to a group of some 8,600 Falash Mura that the government committed last year to bringing to Israel over the next three years. So far this year, more than 2,800 people have made aliya.

One Gondar family, who received a permit in recent months but is still waiting for final notification to immigrate, told the Post that while being able to feed their three-year-old daughter at the JAFI center was a big help, they had little means to purchase food for themselves or their four other children.

It is almost impossible for the Falash Mura to find stable work in Gondar, both because of their uncertain status and because unemployment in the city is extremely high, explained the Balata family, adding that they did receive some financial support from relatives already in Israel, but most of that went toward paying rent on a humble one-room abode.

“There are [few] opportunities to work, but I try to when I can,” said the 44- year-old father, who has been waiting for more than seven years to immigrate to Israel. “The minute we tell people we are going to Israel, they do not really want to employ us.”

In the past, the family said, they would receive a bag of teff, an Ethiopian grain used to make the local staple of enjera and other dishes, but that ended two years ago when the previous charity running the Falash Mura community center started to pull back on its services.

Just over a year ago, under pressure from Ethiopian families now in Israel and a number of US Jewish groups, the government made a commitment to bring to Israel what it says is the final recognized group of Falash Mura. Under the decision, JAFI was appointed to take over operations in Gondar, replacing the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).

Since this past March, JAFI has formally been running pre-aliya programs for the Gondar community with a $7 m. budget based on donations from the IFCJ and international Jewry, aiming to wind up group immigration sometime in 2014.

In recent months, however, both JAFI and the Israeli government have come under fire for reducing the flow of immigrants from 200 to only 110 per month after the Finance Ministry raised concerns that large numbers of new olim could be a social and economic burden on the state. Fears have also been aired that JAFI will run out of space in absorption centers, where the immigrants live for the first few years of their new lives in the country.

Last month, hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants staged a protest outside the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, claiming that slowing down the rate of aliya would be detrimental to the community and could worsen what some believe is already a humanitarian crisis for the Falash Mura in Gondar. The community is also fearful that, as has happened in the past, the government could reverse its decision to allow these people to immigrate.

However, Yehuda Sharf, JAFI’s director of aliya, absorption and special operations, said he believed all those eligible for aliya according to government directives would be in Israel by March 2014.

“If there is any kind of delay, it will be for only a few months, but within the next 27 months, we will bring everyone to Israel,” he said, adding also that he did not expect there to be any problems finding additional space in absorption centers.

The Falash Mura were officially recognized in 2002 as part of the Jewish people by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, and they make aliya under a special clause in the Law of Entry. In order to be eligible for immigration, community members must be able to show a matrilineal connection to Judaism, have direct relatives already living in Israel and appear on a 1999 survey of Ethiopian Jewry conducted by former Interior Ministry directorgeneral David Efrati. The immigrants must also undergo a conversion to Judaism upon arrival.

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