A modern-day Exodus

An unbelievable Passover story of how an estranged Jewish-South Sudanese-Ethiopian family reunited in Israel.

By
April 22, 2019 04:35
A.Y. KATSOF with Piath Aguar and her two children, Ayen and Bior, celebrating their new life

A.Y. KATSOF with Piath Aguar and her two children, Ayen and Bior, celebrating their new life in Israel at Katsof’s home in Eish Kodesh. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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A.Y. Katsof stood at passport control in Addis Ababa, a short, white Jewish man with two black kids. He held his breath as the airport official looked him up and down. An Israeli flag metal lapel pin shone from his jacket collar.

“Are these your children?” the airport official asked in suspicion, glaring down at the stoic seven- and 11-year-old children.

“These are the children of Israel,” Katsof responded. “I’m taking them home.”

Click. Click.

“The God of Israel is great,” the airport official said, as he placed the passports into Katsof’s hand.

The unlikely threesome sprinted to their gate and onto the plane. They made it.

“And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment” (Exodus 6:6). Jews around the world will read this passage on Friday night, as they tell the story of how God brought the Jews out from slavery in Egypt, to bring them into the Holy Land that He had promised them.

It is believed that the Jews were helped on their journey by God, who parted the Red Sea to help them escape and helped in many other ways until they reached Mount Sinai, received their eternal covenant and finally entered Israel.

Katsof is a mix between Moses and Indiana Jones, traveling for the past month across Africa to reunite an estranged Jewish South Sudanese-Ethiopian family and help bring them to Israel.

This week, they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. An identity card and a Jewish Agency representative holding a sign that read “Welcome Home” was waiting for mother Piath Aguar at the exit. Her two children, Ayen and Bior, traveling on tourists visas, will soon become citizens, too. Their grandmother, Tewabech Tashu, landed a few days later with more of the extended family.

The family is Jewish and returned to Israel via the Law of Return.
HOWEVER, JUST like the Israelites, who wandered the wilderness for 40 years before entering Israel, this family’s journey started 36 years ago.

Tashu’s family members were living in Ethiopia, and they, like many Ethiopian Jews, longed for Jerusalem. Her older brothers independently walked across the Sudanese desert to Israel. She stayed back with her father, who ultimately died waiting.

Then, Tashu also tried to cross the desert. But she was arrested and thrown into a Sudanese jail. Pretty, young and vulnerable, the prison warden took a liking to her. He released Tashu, married her, and they put her Jewish past behind. When the couple had their first daughter, they named her Piath, which means “good.”

Several years later, the prison warden took the couple’s children and moved to South Sudan, while Tashu continued her life in northern Sudan. In 2015, she saw a newscast of a group of Ethiopian-Israeli Jews who were visiting Africa as tourists, and she realized that her brothers’ dreams must have come true. She hunted down the group, begged an Israeli couple to take a video of her to share with any Ethiopians they knew back in the Holy Land.

Within months, Tashu’s brothers, Yaakov Alamo, a resident of Ofra in the West Bank, and Uri Ben-Baruch, a resident of Kibbutz Lavi up north, discovered their long-lost sister.

That’s when Katsof met her, too.

Katsof runs The Heart of Israel, a program of the Binyamin Fund, which raises money to bring the last Jews of Ethiopia back to Israel and resettle them in the biblical heartland. After meeting Tashu on a visit to Ethiopia, Katsof helped facilitate the DNA test that led to her acceptance as a Jew. Her DNA matched 100% with her brothers’, and the Interior Ministry granted her permission to come to Israel.

But Tashu wanted to return with her children. However, Piath said she could not leave without her own children, who were in the custody of their father in South Sudan. She feared that he, like Pharaoh, would not let them go.

Katsof would not allow the family’s aliyah to fail, so he flew to Uganda, which borders South Sudan, determined to help get the children to Israel.

South Sudan is a war-torn country. Citizens – those who survive – live through an endless litany of almost unimaginable horrors and human rights abuses. A report by the United Nations found that 60% of the population experience food insecurity.

In the country’s eight short years of independence, it has been submerged in a suffocating civil war. Though a ceasefire was signed between the warring parties, violence continues.

Katsof reached out to Come True, a project of the Become organization. Come True was founded in 2012, one year after the declaration of the independence of South Sudan, when the South Sudanese community was deported from Israel to their young country.

It is a small community of around 700 members, 500 of whom are children, who like the rest of South Sudanese residents, face illness, hunger and extreme poverty. Moreover, the schools are ill-equipped and few children attend. A group of Israelis are working to take children out of the country and provide them with an education.

Katsof told Aguar’s story to Come True’s Saiba Jacob Berry, who committed to calling Ayen and Bior’s father and asking him to allow his children to study in Israel.

“He calls the father and tells him about the opportunity, expecting to get turned down,” Katsof told The Jerusalem Post. Instead, the father replied, “I am a Christian, and I believe in God. If God wants my children to have a better future, I’ll take it. The alternative is to let them die in South Sudan.”

The father took his children by bus to Uganda, where Come True has a base. He signed the necessary paperwork to allow his children to be taken in by Come True and eventually come to Israel. Katsof met the children and their father in Uganda and took the children from there.

 
Together, they traveled from Uganda to Kenya, thinking they were on the first leg of their journey to Israel. But when they arrived in Kenya, police discovered that one of the children’s paperwork was wrong, and Kenya’s authorities accused Katsof of kidnapping the children. They were apprehended.

Katsof called a friend back in the West Bank who he knew had connections in Africa. That friend, in turn, connected Katsof with Pastor Dennis Nthumbi, a local politician and lover of Israel, who was willing to advocate for Katsof and help him navigate the corrupt Kenyan system. “These children don’t exist in a computer anywhere,” explained Katsof. “They made me fly their father into Kenya, who was then drilled before the South Sudanese ambassador to Kenya for 20 minutes until he had proved he was the father.”

 
Katsof said the authorities tried to convince the dad not to relinquish his children, but “by grace of God, he stood firm, saying, ‘My father used to tell me how the Jews left Egypt for the Promised Land. I want that for my children, too.’”


They were freed.

Katsof and the children, now accompanied by Nthumbi, continued on to Gondar. But the journey was not over yet. When they arrived in Ethiopia, they learned that the children did not have the necessary documentation again – this time for immigration to Israel. The only way to get it would be to send the children back to their father in South Sudan and ask him to procure the paperwork.

“This could take weeks,” said Katsof. “It meant sending them back to the mercy of a father who could easily change his mind.

“I cried like a baby that night,” he continued. “We had come so far, but I was convinced we had lost them.”

Nthumbi, however, would not let Katsof lose hope. He told the Post, “The matter looked dangerous and hopeless, but my first response to danger is courage and hope. A.Y. is the kindest man on earth, and he was willing to put his life on the line for others,” so Nthumbi said he believed God would help.

Nthumbi called a bishop, who called a pastor he knew back in South Sudan, who held the father’s hand through the whole process, ensuring he did not deflect. And one week later, a photo of the needed documentation arrived to Katsof’s phone with a message, “The God of Israel is mighty.”

“I now knew it would be OK,” Katsof said.

It took another week, more travels, more paperwork, bureaucracy, lots of sweat and tears, until, on Sunday, Katsof, the kids and Aguar arrived at the airport to board their flight. Aguar went ahead and Katsof accompanied the kids to passport control, as per the plan.

Now, the family is living with Katsof in the West Bank, and they were reunited with their relatives in Ofra and Kibbutz Lavi, who themselves arrived on a Jewish Agency flight from Ethiopia on April 17.

Sources close to the Jewish Agency corroborated the details of Katsof’s story.

“I believe in miracles,” Aguar told the Post two days after her arrival. “I just want to thank Israel for taking me back. In Sudan, everyone is out for themselves. Here, the people are one.”

BUT THE reality is that not everyone in Israel feels like Aguar.

While in her first days in Israel she’s seen acceptance, the religious status of many Ethiopian Jews who cannot as easily prove their Jewish roots is fraught with controversy. Unlike the Beta Israel, of which Aguar is one, some 8,000 Falash Mura have waited decades to come to the Holy Land.

The Falash Mura are not considered Jewish by Jewish law, as they converted – albeit not through any formal means, in most cases – to Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2002, the late Sephardi chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the Falash Mura had converted to Christianity because of fear and persecution.

A few years later, another Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, concluded that the Falash Mura are, “beyond a doubt, Jewish.”

Nonetheless, any Falash Mura who move to Israel undergo a formal conversion process, and even those who have converted sometimes still face religious persecution in the Jewish state.

Special government decisions have granted these Ethiopians permission to come to Israel in waves over the past decades – but not all of them.

Israel made two landmark rulings in 2003 and 2010, tasking the Jewish Agency with bringing thousands of Falash Mura to Israel. The 2010 cabinet decision delineated three criteria for Falash Mura making aliyah: that an individual has Jewish lineage from his mother’s side; that the individual apply from Ethiopia; and that his family in Israel also submit a request. Only those who met these criteria were brought to Israel in 2013.

Facing political pressure from Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee head Avraham Neguise (Likud), in November 2015, the government made a formal decision to bring the remainder of the Falash Mura to Israel, based on family reunification. The decision was not, however, made in conjunction with a budgetary allocation to cover its costs, so its implementation was stalled. In 2017, the government budgeted for the immigration of 1,300 people, who arrived during that year.

Another 1,000 are slated to come this year, some of whom have already arrived.

But there are no plans yet for the remaining Ethiopian Jews.

Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog has said that the government should quickly bring all those still left behind, and that the agency would be ready to absorb them at any time.

“There is no reason for suspicion and various excuses to prevent the completion of this process,” he said at an event earlier this year, noting that all the immigrants would undergo a conversion process during their absorption in Israel, as ruled by “my late grandfather Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, and the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.”

A source at the agency said that Ayen and Bior coming on tourist visas would not hinder the aliyah process, and that many children of Ethiopian immigrants have to go through this procedure, ultimately taking a DNA test to prove their heritage.

Israel Gantz, head of the Benjamin Regional Council, played a strategic role in the success of the mission, too. He said The Heart of Israel and Katsof together spent close to $25,000 to save this family, mostly raised from private donors.

“When I found out that this family was the family of one of our residents in Ofra, I knew we had to do all we could to help,” Gantz told the Post. “I consider it saving a life.

“At the Passover Seder, we say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’” Gantz continued. “All of these people are waiting to come to Israel and be reunited with their families. We, as Jews, have a responsibility for one another. I welcome them with open arms."
 

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