Reuniting Ethiopian families: Operation Zur Israel begins

In October, the Israeli government passed a resolution to reunite 2,000 Ethiopians with their families living in Israel.

Maru Zawdu, Social Worker and Deputy Director, Canaan-Meron Absorption Center, Safed conducting an activity with newly arrived Ethiopian children at a Jewish Agency absorption center. (photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
Maru Zawdu, Social Worker and Deputy Director, Canaan-Meron Absorption Center, Safed conducting an activity with newly arrived Ethiopian children at a Jewish Agency absorption center.
(photo credit: JEWISH AGENCY)
"Whenever I meet a family, and I inform them that they are eligible to make aliyah,” says Adena Tadela, The Jewish Agency’s delegation director in Ethiopia, “it brings me back to my youth, when they told us that someday a plane would bring us to the land of Israel. For me, it is a sense of closure.” 
In 1985, the then-17-year-old Tadela emigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as part of Operation Moses. Thirty-five years later, Tadela’s days and nights are filled with frenetic activity as he prepares 2,000 Ethiopian olim (immigrants) for their aliyah to Israel, several hundred of whom will be arriving this week. 
In October 2020, the Israeli government passed a resolution to reunite 2,000 Ethiopians with their families living in Israel, and preparations for the operation, dubbed “Operation Zur Israel” (the Rock of Israel), are in full swing. Thousands of members of the Ethiopian community have been waiting in Gondar and Addis Ababa – many of them for as long as 20 years – to be reunited with their families who made aliyah. Representatives from The Jewish Agency and Israeli governmental bodies have been on the ground in Ethiopia, working to prepare them to move to Israel. 
Over the past two years, The Jewish Agency has raised significant funds to support a local nutrition program for children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. Currently, in the Gondar waiting community, 500 children receive a daily hot meal, plus food to take home, and an additional 200 nursing or pregnant women receive a daily meal, as well as food to take home. During the COVID crisis, additional assistance provided by The Jewish Agency includes COVID-19 hygiene packets with hand sanitizer and face masks. During Passover, The Jewish Agency also provided food packages for every family, including basic holiday necessities. Tadela explains that getting 2,000 Ethiopians ready for the move involves both physical and psychological preparation. “We begin with an interview about their family in Israel, we help them fill out forms, and we arrange medical checkups.” Jewish Agency staff explain the process, from the quarantine they will have to undergo upon arrival in Israel until they arrive at the absorption center for new olim.
“When I tell them for the first time that they have been approved for aliyah, they have tears in their eyes,” says Tadela. The Jewish Agency has a wi-fi network throughout its headquarters in Gondar and helps arrange virtual meetings with relatives in Israel awaiting their arrival. “We want to strengthen them psychologically so that they will arrive in Israel strong and ready, knowing what to expect.”
Jewish Agency shaliach to Ethiopia Adena Tadela in Gondar with a family that is making aliyah on Operation Zur Israel. (Jewish Agency)Jewish Agency shaliach to Ethiopia Adena Tadela in Gondar with a family that is making aliyah on Operation Zur Israel. (Jewish Agency)
Vered Achihon made aliyah from Ethiopia in 1984, when she was four years old. Today, working for The Jewish Agency, she oversees both the pre-aliyah programming that is being done in Ethiopia, as well as the educational and cultural content that they will receive in the absorption centers. The Jewish Agency is sending 10 two-person teams from their absorption centers to Ethiopia to prepare the 2,000 olim for aliyah. These emissaries explain the aliyah process and Israeli society, discuss employment prospects and point out some of the differences in parenting between Ethiopia and Israel.
“In Israel,” she explains, “parents are responsible for their child until the child turns 18. The child must attend school, and the parents have to be in contact with teachers.” In Ethiopia, by contrast, parents are not usually in contact with schools regarding their children’s progress. 
Achihon adds that members of the Home Front Command also visit the prospective olim in Ethiopia, explaining the basics of Corona prevention, and provide information about civil defense in Israel. A third group of volunteers, says Achihon, are traveling to Ethiopia to prepare the youth, with a variety of informal educational programs, teaching them Hebrew and about life in Israel in general. 
“The more that I can expose them to what happens in Israel, and what they have to do in Israel, the easier it will be for them to deal with it,” says Achihon. “Aliyah from Ethiopia is different than it was 20 years ago,” she adds. “Now, there is greater awareness with Facebook about what is going on. They hear from relatives who are here. My job is to tell them the difference between what they may have heard and the reality. I don’t tell them that aliyah is easy. I tell them that it is a difficult process, but there are people who want to help them, and it is all in their hands. At the absorption centers, there are people who will help them integrate into Israeli society, but it is ultimately their responsibility to do so.” 
Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog greeting new olim from Ethiopia, May 2020  (Jewish Agency)Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog greeting new olim from Ethiopia, May 2020 (Jewish Agency)
After their two-week quarantine, the new immigrants will be taken to their absorption centers, where they will begin their acclimation to life in Israel. The Jewish Agency’s Maru Zawdu is a social worker and deputy director at the Canaan-Meron Absorption Center in Safed and works with new Ethiopian olim who arrive in Israel. 
“Ethiopia has a different culture, different behaviors, a different style of dress, and different foods,” explains Zawdu. “When they land, they are in culture shock. Everything is very different.” It is for that reason, he says, that the absorption of these new immigrants is done gradually. While staff at the absorption centers teach them about life in their new country, they make certain that their existing traditions are preserved and valued. “They are coming from a different culture to a competitive, industrialized world.” 
Zawdu himself arrived in Israel in the late 1980s at the age of 10, after walking for two and a half months from his Ethiopian village to Sudan. He still recalls arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport during Hanukkah and being given a sufgania (Hanukkah jelly donut). He had no idea what it was and thought it was a type of sponge. 
While the families are in quarantine, The Jewish Agency will be readying their apartments in the absorption centers, delivering radiators and clothing for the cold weather. Once they arrive, they first bring them foods they recognize from Ethiopia, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Residents in the absorption centers expecting their arrival will prepare injera, Ethiopian flatbread, and dabo, a type of wheat bread that is served on special occasions. 
Each family at the absorption center is assigned a counselor (madrich) who speaks Amharic. The new immigrants will attend a Hebrew language ulpan, will learn Israeli customs, and will be provided with help in finding employment. Staff from the absorption center will show the new immigrants how to maintain their apartments, shop, and absorb the basics of everyday life in Israel. 
Zawdu explains that the new immigrants have been waiting for years for the opportunity to reunite with their families. “These olim left their villages and rented apartments in Gondar and Addis Ababa. They sold everything they had, and they couldn’t return to those villages.” 
Vered Achihon, Jewish Agency Content Manager, Education Society and Culture.Vered Achihon, Jewish Agency Content Manager, Education Society and Culture.
The Jewish Agency is able to carry out the important work of bringing Ethiopian olim home and reuniting families with the help of its partners – the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod, and with generous support from Jewish donors, foundations, and Christian friends of Israel from around the world. Aliyah from Ethiopia during the coronavirus pandemic is all the more complicated and costly. A fundraising effort is underway to support this important mission (https://donate.jafina.org/ZurIsrael). 
Jane Sherman, Chair of JAFINA fundraising for Ethiopian Aliyah, says, “I am so proud to be leading the fundraising efforts to reunite hundreds of Ethiopian families. These families have been waiting too many years under difficult conditions and I am grateful that The Jewish Agency will bring the first 2,000 home to Israel.” 
Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog adds, “We are excited to welcome thousands of olim who will reunite with their families after many years. The State of Israel is obliged to put an end to this painful, generations-long saga.” 
“It makes me happy that I can help them fulfill the dream of their lives, to reach the Holy Land,” says Adena Tadela. “I call upon Israeli society to accept them with open arms. These people have dreamed of this for many years. They love Israel and want to integrate into Israeli society. I call upon the public to help at any point that they meet a new immigrant from Ethiopia.” 
This article was written in cooperation with The Jewish Agency for Israel.