Operation Wings of the Dove

With regard to the Ethiopian aliya, as arduous as the efforts of the past have been, they pale in comparison to the challenges we must now confront.

By JEROME D. EPSTEIN
September 1, 2013 22:34
4 minute read.
Ethiopian Jews arrive in Israel

Ethiopian Jews 370. (photo credit: Moshe Shai)

 
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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.

NACOEJ, for 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.

Unemployment 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 training.

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.

Perhaps the 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 more.

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.

The author, a rabbi, is president of the NACOEJ and CEO emeritus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

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