Ethiopian Jews 370.
(photo credit: Moshe Shai)
Operation Wings of the Dove was celebrated at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday as
the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency proudly concluded their commitment to
enable the aliya of Ethiopian Jews. There is, for certain, a remnant of that
community whose cases must be reviewed and others whose legitimate claims of
hardship must be heard and resolved. But, we must not lose sight of the
magnificent accomplishment that has been achieved.
The North American
Conference on Ethiopian Jewry has also played a pivotal role in this aliya
narrative. It was NACOEJ that mobilized the North American Jewish community to
make the aliya of Ethiopian Jews a priority nearly three decades ago. It was
NACOEJ that helped inspire rabbis from various streams, including the Israeli
Chief Rabbinate, to agree that for the purposes of aliya, Israel should consider
the Ethiopian Jewish community to be Jewish. For most of these three decades, it
was NACOEJ that ran the food pantries to feed the hungry. It was NACOEJ that
created a “weaving business” to provide work for the unemployed in Gondar. And,
it was NACOEJ that built and ran the Gondar school.
We are proud of our
accomplishments and those of the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel. But
believe it or not, as arduous as the efforts of the past have been, they pale in
comparison to the challenges we must now confront.
Ethiopian children who
have recently come to Israel enter school with a severe disadvantage. Their
education in Gondar was not close to the level of their peers in Israeli
schools. They are struggling to learn a new language.
They are struggling
to learn a new culture. And, they are learning how to learn for the first time
in their lives.
Because in many cases their parents do not have the
educational skills to help them, these children are often at a disadvantage when
compared to the Israeli peers.
Their public school teachers strive to
nurture their learning, but the challenges are frequently greater than the
system can handle. Various organizations have created outstanding educational
programs to foster learning opportunities for these children.
example, has established Limudiah programs after school for several hours a day
in a spectrum of communities. We guide students with their homework and answer
their questions. We enrich their daily lessons.
Yes, the programs exist –
but there are not enough.
And, because of a lack of funds, some – too
many – children are overlooked or neglected. We have succeeded in fostering the
Ethiopian aliya, but we can do more.
We must do more.
and underemployment in the Ethiopian community is stimulating poverty. Various
reports indicate that 65 percent to 72 percent of Ethiopian children live below
the poverty line.
Many are hungry – which impacts on their learning as
well as their attitudes toward life. I have watched the children in Limudiah
programs voraciously eat the lunch we give them as part of the program because
for many it is the only balanced meal of the day. Then, with tears in my eyes, I
have seen children carefully pack a portion of the meal so that they will have
something to eat for dinner.
Families live in cramped conditions in
neighborhoods in which poverty is the norm. Because unemployment is so high,
there are too few models of success for children to emulate. The culture of
poverty becomes cyclical. We need to develop training programs that will help
Ethiopians acquire skills that will equip them to enter the workforce in Israel.
Then we must provide the right incentives to hire them and give them on-the-job
Adequate housing is a burning issue. When Ethiopians leave the
absorption centers, they are, indeed, granted stipends – either mortgages or
rental allotments for housing. The rental subsidies for five years permit them
to live modestly for the duration of the grant, but they are then responsible to
carry the burden on their own. Unless they have been fortunate enough to obtain
a reasonable job during that period, they have no resources to pay the rent and
must move into even more inferior quarters.
Those who receive mortgages
often find that the only apartments they can afford are in substandard housing
and in neighborhoods that do not inspire upward mobility.
time has come for all those who are concerned about the Ethiopian community to
create a consortium for providing solutions that will ameliorate the housing
crisis in an effective fashion. Together, we can do more. We must do
Now is the time for celebration of our achievements! We have
accomplished what many said would be impossible.
But our outstanding
success must now inspire further commitment to action. Without resolving the
crises in housing, education and jobs, we run the risk of creating a permanent
under-class that will plague Israel for generations to come.
a rabbi, is president of the NACOEJ and CEO emeritus of the United Synagogue of
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