In normal times, over a hundred people gather every Shabbat at the Hatikva Synagogue in Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia. However, as cantor Baye Tesfa told The Jerusalem Post, the center has been closed for over a month as a measure to contain the coronavirus outbreak which is threatening a community already in a very vulnerable situation.
“Even before the pandemic, the condition of people here was not good, we don’t have real houses and most of the community does not have a job, so you can only imagine what our present condition is…,” Tesfa explained.
“Of course, we are worried, we are completely exposed to the infection,” he added. “The situation in Ethiopia is getting bad.”
According to estimations, between 7,500 and 14,000 Jews currently live in Ethiopia, some 3,000 in Addis Abeba and the rest in the city of Gondar. Many are descendants of people who converted to Christianity and have returned to Jewish practice.
While the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country stands at only 239, with five deaths, the dire condition of its health system and the almost complete lack of testing capacity suggests that a clear picture of the situation is not available. In the meantime, international health organizations warn that in Africa the worse is yet to come and the continent is awfully unprepared. According to a study by the Imperial College in London quoted by Reuters, Ethiopia has only 557 ventilators and might need over 9,000.
“This is a community already living on the edge, they are the poorest in one of the poorest countries in the world,” explained Joseph Feit, a representative of Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ), who has been working with the Ethiopian Jewish community for the past 30 years.
For the past few years, SSEJ has run programs through local organizations providing services such as medical care to children in Gondar, many of whom are chronically malnourished, summer camps, afternoon programs and adult education initiatives.
“About a month and a half ago I started to be very worried about the virus,” Feit pointed out explaining how the disease could bring catastrophe to the community. “Hygiene is a very nice idea, but they could not afford soap, nor they have access to running water. If we talk about social distancing, they are living in 6-8 people in one-room hovels, with no toilet and often no electricity.”
Feit pointed out that he started addressing different organizations to look for help, highlighting that in the past groups such as the Jewish Federation of North America or the American Joint Distribution Committee had not offered their assistance.
“In spite of our $750,000 annual budget, SSEJ has no overhead, no office in the US or Israel, only one employee in Ethiopia. This was clearly beyond our possibilities,” he said.
Some funds have since been provided by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Mandel Foundation, who donated about $160,000 each as well as from some other donors. SSEJ was able to send food, soap, medical supplies such as masks and no-touch thermometers. They are also training a group of health care facilitators to teach people good practices. A second shipment of essential goods should be organized in the coming days.
However, the definitive solution to the plight of Ethiopian Jews for which they have been waiting for years is the possibility to make aliyah and move to Israel, where the vast majority of them already have first degree relatives. Many of them have been waiting for as many as twenty years.
“In 2015 the government of Benjamin Netanyahu passed a unanimous resolution to bring the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to Israel by the end of 2020, yet this has not been implemented fully,” activist Alisa Bodner told the Post “Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz issued countless promises on this issue ahead of the elections. Especially with an imminent crisis, the Israeli government should not wait any longer to implement an action plan to airlift the remaining community members. Should a crisis strike, it will be a major stain on our government, knowing that it acted too late.”
Advocating for the step are also several prominent national religious rabbis, who urged the Israeli authorities to expedite the process and Jewish organization around the world to help. Among others sharing the appeal were Rabbi Yaakov Medan, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion, one of its founders, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, Rabbi Re’em HaCohen, head of Yeshivat Otniel, former Knesset member and Yeshiva head at Maale Gilboa Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, former Education Minister Shai Piron and Tzohar founders Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Yuval Cherlov.
“As the Ethiopian communities are under the threat of coronavirus, and forced into isolation in tight quarters of poverty and inadequacy and yearning to rejoin their families and nation, we call on the heads of state and Israeli society to sound their cry and return them to Zion,” read the open letter. “And we call upon Jewish relief organizations throughout the world to take all possible measures to protect these impoverished Jews from the ravages of this dreaded disease.”