Enough promises – act now to allow Ethiopian Jews to come home!

Today, there are still 8,200 Jews in Ethiopia. Their dream is to make aliyah.

By JEROME M. EPSTEIN
October 20, 2018 21:15
3 minute read.
Ethiopian Jews prepare for Passover

Ethiopian Jews prepare for Passover. (photo credit: STRUGGLE FOR ETHIOPIAN ALIYAH/PASSOVER)

 
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When I was a parent with young children, I was often challenged to act on behalf of issues such as the rescue of Soviet Jews and of civil rights in the United States with the phrase, “What will you tell your children?” I understood that if I did not help eradicate these social blights, I would have no credible response when my children later asked why I tolerated these injustices.

Now, as a grandparent, the question: “What will you tell your children?” motivates me daily as I think about climate change, sexual abuse and bigotry. There are many excuses and reasons for inaction that one could give. But, there is no justification. If I sit back, wring my hands and do nothing, what will I say?

For years the Jewish community has listened as thousands of Jews languished in Ethiopia waiting to make aliyah. We have listened to the sounds of their plaintive cries. But, apparently, we have not heard their message. What, then, will we tell our children when they ask us why we ignored those who needed us and permitted them to suffer?

Today, there are still 8,200 Jews in Ethiopia. Their dream is to make aliyah. And while they dream, most live in small hovels without electricity or plumbing. They have little food and many of the children are medically diagnosed as “malnourished.” Some have been waiting for Israel’s authorization to make aliyah for more than 20 years. Most have been registered on Israeli government lists for making aliyah dating back to 2003 and 2010.

Equally shocking is the fact that at least 70% have first degree relatives who are already in Israel. Imagine being separated from a parent, a spouse, a child or a sibling for a decade or more! What will we tell our children when they ask what we have done to correct this situation?

The government offers reasons for this inaction. It tells us that there is no money in the budget for the aliyah of Ethiopian Jews. But, we know that budgets reflect priorities. Appropriately, there have been funds to foster aliyah from European countries. The truth is that finding funds to absorb the Ethiopian Jewish community is only a matter of priority. Funds are allocated for other societal needs. For a nation that prides itself on being a homeland and a refuge for those in need, should not the aliyah of Jews from Ethiopia be considered a high priority? What will we say to the next generation when they ask why we tolerated inaction?

Some leaders in the religious community say that those living in the Jewish community in Ethiopia are not Jewish; and some rabbis even, abhorrently, refer to them as Christians. It is true that a portion of this population was forcibly converted to Christianity in the past. But, they have returned to their Jewish heritage and, today, live a rich Jewish life. They identify completely as Jews, observing the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, and ritual purity. The Jewish Holy days are marked with traditional observance.

I have visited Ethiopia several times, and have been inspired by the attendance at daily services. Morning services in Gondar are attended by more than 1,000 men and more than 700 women. Afternoon services draw fewer participants – but the total is impressive. Just to remove doubts of those who would not accept them as Jews, as they make aliyah, each person goes through a strict process of conversion.

The excuse offered that we have no obligation to these Ethiopians because they were once not Jews may be a seductive reason, but it is simply not a justification for our inaction. Aliyah of Jewish families from Eastern Europe, including those who arrived with non-Jewish spouses, continued due to their survival being the prime concern. What will we tell our children and grandchildren when they ask why we ignored the plight of our fellow Jews?

There are many opportunities to make a difference during our lifetime. This is one of those moments. Helping to convince the Israeli government to finally bring all Ethiopian Jews who have registered to make aliyah will change lives. And, helping the Israeli society find the funds to absorb them will ensure that all who make aliyah will contribute to their new home as full participants. When my grandchildren ask me what I did to help complete the Ethiopian aliyah, I want to be able to describe my actions. May you be privileged to do the same.

The author, a rabbi, is the CEO Emeritus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).

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