Dressed in shiny new shoes and suits, and in traditional white cotton clothing, 90 Falash Mura immigrants arrived from Ethiopia Thursday morning to start their new lives. While the arrival of such immigrants is almost a weekly occurrence, this group was accompanied on its journey from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv by some 170 Jewish community professionals and lay leaders from 48 Jewish Federations across North America. This was the largest delegation of Diaspora Jews to ever visit the African nation, and its visit marked the beginning of the end of the process of Ethiopian aliya.
All Ethiopian olim to be here within a year, JA promises
Ori Konforti, a senior Jewish Agency official in Ethiopia, had told the high-level visitors in Addis Ababa that all remaining Ethiopians eligible to make aliya will be in Israel within a year, and then, "give or take a month, all Israeli government and JAFI [Jewish Agency for Israel] operations in Ethiopia will end."
The unprecedented Campaign Chairs and Directors Mission was dispatched to Ethiopia "so that they would understand the significance of this aliya and the challenges Israel faces in absorbing 110,000 Ethiopian Israelis," said Doron Krakow, United Jewish Communities' senior vice president for Israel and Oversees Affairs. "The goal is to give them [Jewish community leaders] sufficient background to understanding the needs of the Ethiopian community in Israel and motivate them ahead of their 2008 annual campaigns."
The final year of Ethiopian aliya is expected to see the arrival of some 4,000 Falash Mura (Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity). Konforti told the delegation 1,816 Falash Mura already had official permission to emigrate, and another 2,301 were expected to receive their assurances by the High Holy Days.
The visiting group spent time observing the last stages of preparation before aliya in both the Ethiopian capital and in the northern city of Gondar.
The trip was sponsored by the UJC, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, all of which have played an active role in bringing to Israel more than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews and Falash Mura. Although the Falash Mura are not recognized as Jews, they are eligible to make aliya under an amendment to the Law of Entry.
"I feel so privileged to be witnessing history," Bonnie Jennis, Women's Campaign chair for the Federation of Rhode Island, told The Jerusalem Post at Addis Ababa International Airport, as she photographed the latest new Ethiopian-Israelis. She used a Polaroid camera and handed out the snap shots to each immigrant as a memento of the special journey.
"I don't know what lies ahead for them," Jennis said. "I know there will be challenges, but I hope that Israeli society, with our help, will be able to pull together and they will succeed in their new lives."
The US participants - from Sarasota, Florida; Tucson, Arizona; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; northern New Jersey and elsewhere - capped off their stay in Ethiopia with a ceremony at the Israeli Embassy compound in Addis Ababa on Wednesday night. Singing "Hatikva" while embracing the new immigrants and holding their hands, the American Jews wished the families, many with young children, good luck in their new lives.
Eight Jewish Agency officials, themselves immigrants from Ethiopia who have achieved measurable success in Israel, thanked US Jewry for playing a hand in changing their fates and spoke to the new immigrants in Amharic, offering support in coping with "a new language and culture and transition into modern society."
Following Operation Promise in 2005, US Jewry has been extremely active in supporting the immigration and absorption of Ethiopia's remaining Falash Mura, who, according to official Israeli government estimates, total 4,991. US Jews have pledged to raise $160 million to aid the process.
UJC officials told the Post that Jewish communal work in Ethiopia was now winding down and that this trip was aimed at providing campaign directors and professionals with substantial background information about the Ethiopian Jewish community.
"This trip met all my expectations and beyond," said Leslie Rosenthal of United Jewish Federation of Metro West, which covers Essex, Morris and Sussex counties, and part of Union County, in northern New Jersey.
"I've had the opportunity to see them arrive in Israel and it was very emotional," she said. "To see the whole story has been very meaningful."
But the journey left some UJC fund-raising campaign directors with a difficult problem: How to present to their communities the case of the Falash Mura in Ethiopia - with estimates that more than 4,000 of them will be refused entry to Israel because they do not meet government criteria - compared to the less extreme but still important needs of the immigrant population in Israel.
"This situation highlights our dilemma of what to fund," said lay leader Mitch Frumkin from Middlesex County, New Jersey. "The little Jewish kids [eligible under Israeli government policy to make aliya] that we saw had much more than the other kids, and even they had nothing."
"There will always be people on the fringe," said Marty Haberer, associate executive director of the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation. "We cannot save the problems of the whole world, we can only do it one person at a time."