It has been 15 years, but Amnon Lipkin-Shahak still clearly remembers the clothing that people wore the night he helped 14,266 Ethiopian Jews move to Israel.
"Almost everyone was in white clothes, as if they were going to a wedding," said Lipkin-Shahak, then the IDF's deputy chief of General Staff and the commander of Operation Solomon. "I understood that they knew where they were going to arrive at the end of the day. They dressed like it was a holiday because they were going to Jerusalem."
Aviva Align also remembers the clothing well; her clothes were the only thing she brought with her from Addis Ababa on the trip to Israel, where the nine-year-old would start a new life with her parents and three siblings.
They left everything when they set out from their village, she explained, because they couldn't sell or take their belongings without raising suspicion that they were leaving the country. In the compound in Addis Ababa where they waited, they each had one special outfit they waited to don until they were on their way to Israel.
"Everyone was dreaming of coming to Israel," she said. "We prayed for it to happen."
Align and Lipkin-Shahak reminisced about the fulfillment of that dream this week at a ceremony held by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Operation Solomon. The JDC has been involved in several programs to help absorb and integrate Ethiopians.
Achieving those goals has been more difficult than the original rescue mission.
The latter, according to Lipkin-Shahak, was "a pretty simple operation. It was a technical matter."
The major concerns were that the Ethiopian government would decide not to let the planes take off or that the rebel forces would attack the Jews as they were leaving. Lipkin-Shahak described the general tension in Addis as paralyzing: "Cats didn't cross the road at night." In the end, the external political situation didn't interfere with the evacuation.
But absorbing them was anything but simple. "I don't think it's easy now. I don't think it will be easy tomorrow," he said. "It will take a generation, but in the end we will succeed."
He added that the immigration had destroyed the old way of life for this community without building something new for it.
Align also said life in Israel "is hard and it will be hard," but that it had been worth it to come. She now works with Ethiopian youth in Ramle who need help transitioning to army life.
Align, now 24, was an officer in the IDF.
She acknowledged that the life she found here was different from what she had imagined it would be like as a child. Then she had imagined a "land of milk and honey" where everything was gold and no one needed to work. "I thought that the stones would be bread," she recalled.
Align hasn't found any gold. But, she said, "I'm still looking."
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