‘Let all who are hungry come and eat’ – unless you’re an Ethiopian Jew living in Israel

The Absorption Ministry blamed the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Agency noted that it was canceling the Passover meals to encourage the Ethiopians to take responsibility for them on their own.

April 5, 2015 21:31
3 minute read.
African migrants walk outside Holot open detention center in Israel's southern Negev desert

African migrants walk outside Holot open detention center in Israel's southern Negev desert. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Three days before Passover, thousands of Ethiopian olim received the message that their anticipated annual Passover Seders within the absorption centers were not to be... at least not this year.

The Absorption Ministry blamed the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Agency noted that it was canceling the Passover meals to encourage the Ethiopians to take responsibility for them on their own, so they could become independent. How did the JA accomplish this? It gave each immigrant a stipend of between NIS 150 and NIS 300 ($35-$70) and materials to guide them in running a Seder.

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Although this cruel decision directly impacted those living in absorption centers, the indirect impact is negatively felt by Ethiopian Jews throughout Israel. The decision will cast a grey cloud of depression over the 130,000 members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, who will perceive this as just one more act of disrespect. In a close-knit society, when a few are slighted, the pain is felt by many.

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Many received the news with shock and distress. To plan for a Seder is a challenge for a knowledgeable Jew with sufficient preparation time. What is the likelihood that parents with little background will be able to create a meaningful experience for their children? How many of us could prepare for a quality Seder with three days’ notice? Ethiopian Jews are seeking to identify with their religion, yet stumbling blocks are being thrown in their path. A significant part of the Passover experience is the drawing together of family in a warm, joyful atmosphere. Is this a realistic probability under these circumstances? Ethiopian Jews came to Israel to create new lives for themselves. They came with visions of finding Jewish meaning and creating new lives for their families. They came with the dreams of being valued and contributing members of Israeli society. Instead, they are treated with prejudice and denied opportunities that they see are received by others. They are living in crowded apartments. They have little food on their tables.

They face unemployment or underemployment. I fear that without intervention we may condemn them to become the permanent under-class of Israel.

The Jews from Ethiopia are unlike many of those who have immigrated from Europe with savoir-faire, Jewish background that is transferable to Israeli society, general educational training and skills that will facilitate job placement. Ethiopian Jews arrive knowing that they will require significant help and support if they are to succeed. Now that they are here, we dare not turn our backs on them.

This is not the moment to cast blame. It is the moment to find solutions. This year’s Seder is over, but the problems linger on. Whenever I speak of the challenges faced by Ethiopian Jews in Israel, people stare at me with disbelief, because for the most part the obstacles they face are camouflaged. It is only when their predicament becomes noteworthy, say by being denied a Seder, that a reaction is generated. If neither the Absorption Ministry nor the Jewish Agency have the resources to treat the Ethiopian community with respect, we must find the means to help them. If the government of Israel is unable to find solutions on its own, we must help. We know what the issues are! We just have to commit the resources to resolve them.

At my Passover Seder, we follow the tradition of Rabbi Naftali of Rophschitz to fill the Cup of Elijah by passing it to each individual at the table so each person can pour a little wine from the cup s/he is using. In this way, each person is helping to welcome Elijah, who is seen as the precursor of the Messiah. Each one of us can make a positive difference and help to bring Elijah into our homes and into the world. If we want Ethiopian Jews to reach their potential, we must be their partners by transforming their current unacceptable circumstances into lives filled with promise.

The author is a rabbi and president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ).

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