Gearing up to spend their first-ever Pessah in the Land of Israel, some 100
recently arrived Ethiopian immigrants gathered at the Jewish Agency-run
absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, west of Jerusalem, on Thursday for a “mock”
Seder to learn and understand some of the religious and cultural traditions of
the festival of freedom.
“I feel so happy that I am here with all my
people in Israel,” said Dr. Tefera Kefale, who made aliya from Addis Ababa last
month with his wife and seven-year-old daughter.
“This is a very
emotional time for me and I am very grateful to be here,” said Kefale, who
described how he and his family waited for more than nine years for permission
from Israeli authorities to immigrate.
“This Jewish festival is the most
symbolic of their [the immigrants’] journey from Ethiopia to Israel,” Immigrant
Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Israel Beiteinu) said.
Last July, she
made her first visit to Ethiopia in order to assess the conditions of those
waiting to make aliya.
“It is very important for the new immigrants to
understand the significance of a Seder and to have the opportunity to
participate in one,” she said at Thursday’s event, which is one of a series of
Pessah Seders being sponsored by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International
Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Eckstein, whose organization donated
some $200,000 to fund communal Seders on Pessah eve for 5,500 Ethiopian
immigrants, was joined at Thursday’s mock Seder by Jewish Agency chairman Natan
Sharansky and other senior agency officials.
“It is very important that
we hold these communal events for everyone together,” David Mula, director of
the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, said. “It helps the new immigrants to
understand the religious message behind the Pessah festival and allows them to
enjoy the Seder.”
He said that a mass Seder for the center’s 1,200 new
immigrants – 350 of them celebrating Pessah in Israel for the first time – would
take place on Monday night. A spokesman for the International Fellowship of
Christians and Jews said that 16 additional communal Seders for Ethiopian
immigrants would take place countrywide.
Although recognized as Jews by
the Chief Rabbinate, the Ethiopian Jews coming nowadays – Falash Mura, Jews
whose ancestors converted to Christianity more than a century ago – do not make
aliya under the Law of Return but rather according to a special clause in the
Law of Entry.
Upon arrival they must undergo conversion to
Even though many of the new immigrants had the chance to
participate in organized Seders while still in Ethiopia, organizations working
within the community in Israel have found that most new Ethiopian immigrants are
unlikely to hold their own Seder.
In addition, a survey published this
week by the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture reported that one
in every five new immigrants is not likely to attend a Pessah
“This is not my first time at a Seder, but I am very happy to be
able to celebrate it here in Israel this year,” said 79- year-old Getinet
Chekol, who arrived in Israel three months ago with his wife and four of his
children. “I was waiting in Ethiopia for a long time to come here, and our
conditions were very harsh, but now we are here and celebrating.”
added, however: “It is a little difficult for me because I keep thinking about
all the people who are still waiting in Ethiopia to come here. I have many
family members such as my grandchildren and my nephews who have not yet made it
Chekol is one of several hundred immigrants to arrive since
the cabinet decided in November to allow the continued immigration of nearly
8,000 Falash Mura. Since Interior Ministry officials returned to the region to
carry out eligibility checks for those applying for aliya, a few hundred have
been flown in every month.
Termed by the government as the “final phase”
of organized aliya from Ethiopia, officials maintain that the process will be
wrapped up within the next four years.
The latest stage follows years of
government backtracking on its position regarding aliya from the East African
At the core of the debate over this complicated African
immigration story is the government’s willingness to recognize the 1999 Efrati
list, which originally included three volumes: Falash Mura living in Addis
Ababa, those in Gondar City, and others from outlying villages. Interior
Ministry officials at the time decided to focus only on those from the two
cities, ignoring the list from the villages.
However, as people left the
cities, more Falash Mura arrived from the villages, and those are the people who
today have been waiting in Gondar to immigrate to Israel.
Four years ago,
the government announced plans to wind up its aliya operation in Ethiopia, but
subsequent protests from local community members with family members still
living there, representatives of North American Jewry and several key Israeli
legislators pushed for this organized aliya program to continue.