Next to the dining room in the Beta Israel feeding compound in Gondar an unusual scene is unfolding. While the women and children claim their daily rations next door, their male counterparts also sit on long metal benches but instead of nourishing themselves with food sustenance, they are keenly tasting their first fruits of Judaism.
These men, who wear neat hand-knitted kippot and follow their teacher's directions with prayer books in hand, are among thousands of Ethiopian citizens claiming to be Falash Mura or descendents of Jews forced to convert to Christianity a century ago and who are interested in returning to their Jewish roots and moving to Israel.
Many of them claim to have close family already living in Israel and want to join them. Many simply want to escape the poverty of Africa and provide themselves and their children with a better future.
However, for many of them that future does not lie in the Promised Land, at least not according to the current policy of the Israeli government. Government and Jewish Agency officials based in Ethiopia estimate that the remaining 5,000 or so Falash Mura eligible to make aliya will all do so within the coming year.
That estimate is based on a list compiled by David Efrati, who conducted a census in 1999 of who was eligible under a special amendment to the Law of Entry. Efrati listed 26,196 people suitable for aliya under those terms and, to date, roughly 22,000 have already made the move.
However, according to various estimates given out last month during a mission to Ethiopia by some 170 professionals and lay leaders of US Jewish federations, thousands more remain in limbo in both Gondar and Addis Ababa receiving welfare, health services and Jewish education from organizations such as the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Coalition of Ethiopian Jews, all with funding coming from the United Jewish Communities.
"In Ethiopia today there are those who already have permission to emigrate and are just waiting to leave, those who are just waiting to formally receive permission to make aliya and those who have been refused immigration visas but still dream that one day an Israeli Hercules will fly in and airlift them to Israel," agency official Ori Konforti told professionals in Addis Ababa before the US mission arrived.
While Israeli Ambassador Ya'acov Amitai denied that such a potential Jewish community exists, JDC representatives noted that in Addis Ababa, a special medical clinic was providing medical aid to those who considered themselves Jews but who have been denied Israeli citizenship.
One of the medical professionals at the clinic, Dr. Girma, confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that 2,193 Falash Mura were treated there on a regular basis and, as our group arrived to tour the facility, many of them were outside staging a protest to raise awareness of their plight. Waving colorful tapestries decorated with scenes of Shabbat candle-lighting and Hanukka lights, hundreds implored the Jewish officials to take up their battle.
Men wearing kippot handed out an open letter claiming that they had been waiting in Addis Ababa for more than 10 years to hear from the Israeli government if they could make aliya. Their letter highlighted that at least 650 of the people treated at the clinic have familial ties to Israel and that they are in desperate need of assistance, such as schooling and food, which the clinic does not provide.
Avraham Neguise, director of the Israel-based advocacy group South Wing to Zion, which has been petitioning the government to bring in all those with ties to Israel or Judaism, estimates that upwards of 15,000 are still waiting to make aliya. He told the Post recently that "the battle would continue until every last remaining Jew gets to Israel" and refuted claims by government officials that the Falash Mura aliya was now winding down.
"The situation is ridiculous," says Neguise. "If we leave them there, Israel will pay the price years from now. We are talking about a community, about people's relatives who will have been left over there. There should be no debate on who can come."