Rock of Israel: Ethiopians fly home to the Jewish state

Surviving war, famine and the pandemic, Ethiopians make aliyah and come to Israel.

 Azanu Girmay Melese and her extended family kiss the ground at Ben-Gurion Airport on July 4. (photo credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV)
Azanu Girmay Melese and her extended family kiss the ground at Ben-Gurion Airport on July 4.
(photo credit: AVISHAG SHAAR-YASHUV)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“I am alive again,” said 86-year-old Rabbo Shabash, her eyes wet with tears, after seeing her children for the first time in close to two decades.

Sitting on the hard plastic chair in the Ben-Gurion Airport absorption hall on Monday, July 4, her hand enveloped in her daughter’s dry, wrinkled palm, Shabash could barely speak.

“God decided I’ve suffered enough,” she told The Jerusalem Report via a translator. “Now, I will no longer be alone.”

On her right side were her four daughters and son. Around the room, there were nearly 40 extended family members who had been granted permission to reunite with their mother and grandmother in Israel from Gondar, Ethiopia after 18 years. 

A fifth daughter was expected to arrive two days later. 

 Azanu Girmay Melese stands next to the  door of her home in Gondar where she waited 24 years to come to Israel. (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN) Azanu Girmay Melese stands next to the door of her home in Gondar where she waited 24 years to come to Israel. (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)

During the waiting period, the family experienced many tragedies, especially daughter Azanu Girmay Melese, 55, who moved with her mother from their village to Gondar with her husband and two young children 24 years ago in hopes of making aliyah. 

Shabash immigrated to Israel in 2004. One year later, Melese had still not been granted permission to travel. Her husband died and she was left alone to support her then four small children.

Last year, her only son – “my rock,” as she described him – was murdered in the Ethiopian civil war. His elementary school-aged daughter was not granted permission to come to Israel with the family. Instead, she will live as a Jewish orphan in Gondar.

“I never imagined that it would take so long,” Melese told the Report two days before her aliyah flight. The sadness in her eyes was heavy and palpable. “There were so many hard times. We lived hand-to-mouth; we were so hungry. 

“But I always had hope.”

The death of her son was crushing, she said. And Melese admitted that if she was making aliyah with him “my happiness would be double. But this is God’s decision. So, I look at my children who are alive and I go to Israel with a full heart for them.

“I will pray for my granddaughter to join us,” Melese continued. “She is, of course, all I have left of my son.”

Melese and her family were on a flight of 148 Ethiopian Jews who arrived in the country on July 4 through Operation Zur Israel (Rock of Israel) – Part II, which is implementing a 2015 government decision to reunite thousands of Ethiopians with their families in Israel. 

Some 3,000 Ethiopians are expected to arrive in the coming months, mostly on chartered flights paid for by the Jewish Agency and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, decades-long partners in the mission to return Jews from all corners of the world to Israel. 

This group joins a previous 2,500 Ethiopian immigrants who were granted permission to enter the country between 2015 and June 2021, before Zur Israel came to a premature and abrupt halt. 

Six months later, in November 2021, as war broke out in the Tigray region, the cabinet approved resuming the country’s efforts to bring Ethiopians of Jewish descent with first degree relatives to Israel. But an NGO, Eitan, filed a High Court petition against the move, claiming that the immigrants are not Jewish and could upset the Jewish-democratic balance in Israel. 

Judges ruled against Eitan – and Zur Israel resumed in March. 

These Ethiopians do not qualify to enter Israel under the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent, a Jewish Agency representative explained. Instead, they come to Israel under the Law of Entry. That’s because they are members of the Falash Mura community whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity at the end of the 19th century. 

While most of the Falash Mura have returned to practicing Judaism, they are not viewed as Jewish by religious law.

Every immigrant must be approved by the Interior Ministry based on a set of criteria that includes their having a parent, child or sibling living in Israel or a parent who moved to Israel but has since died. 

To date, some 800 of the 3,000 approved immigrants have flown to the country, with flights expected to continue throughout the summer and early fall. 

When the immigrants arrive in Israel, they are taken to absorption centers and asked to undergo conversion. 

Some 95,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel since the establishment of the state in 1948, explained Adane Tadele, head of the Jewish Agency delegation to Ethiopia. Around 50,000 members of the Jewish Beta Israel community came in the ‘80s and ‘90s – the majority on Operation Moses through Sudan or Operation Solomon. 

In 2013, 7,000 arrived on Operation Dove’s Wings and around 2,800 so far on Operation Zur Israel. 

Many times, the government has declared the end to Ethiopian aliyah, only to reopen the issue and agree to bring over more people waiting to reunite with their loved ones. 

‘Back in Temple times’

The Ethiopian Jews are considered to be part of the lost tribe of Dan, who fled Jerusalem after the Assyrian conquest in 721 BCE for Kush, modern-day Ethiopia and Sudan. They were cut off from the Jewish community for centuries and only encountered rabbinic Judaism around 100 years ago, explained A.Y. Katsof, whose organization, the Heart of Israel, has raised tens of thousands of dollars to help support Ethiopian Aliyah. 

“When I am in Ethiopia, I feel like I am back in Temple times,” Katsof said. “We sit in these little huts with the families and hear their stories, see how they make their clothes and cook their food and you can imagine what it must have been like in ancient times.”

The people live simply, sustaining themselves predominantly on injera, Ethiopian bread made of teff flour. 

“They are always happy, always smiling, never complaining – there is a magic to it,” Katsof said. 

 Ethiopian women say their morning prayers at the community synagogue in Gondar. (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN) Ethiopian women say their morning prayers at the community synagogue in Gondar. (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)

However, almost half of the Jewish children in Ethiopia are chronically malnourished, according to the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ). Their parents are considered to be “transient members” of the Gondar and Addis Ababa communities, as they migrate there only to apply for aliyah. 

As such, despite decades-long waits, they are often unable to get steady work. Instead, men stand on the street corners each morning and beg for a job. 

SSEJ provides twice daily meals to more than 500 children and around 200 pregnant and nursing mothers through private donations. Last year, it gave out more than a million pounds in emergency food distributions to more than 14,000 people, organization founder Alison Feit told the Report.

It also provides after-school programs in Hebrew, Jewish studies and prayer to 800 children in grades 1-12, and Jewish summer camp for 1,800 kids.

The Jewish Agency and its team of around 25 staff members provide some economic and medical support to the community in waiting, as well.

Lack of education and a low-tech culture makes it harder for Ethiopians to acclimate in Israel. The government earmarked more than 550 million shekels for the absorption of Zur Israel immigrants.

“When immigrants come from Russia, they are doctors and mathematicians,” Katsof said. “Many Ethiopians live on social security and their children turn to crime. Their different culture and their color aren’t easy in Israel.”

“Many Ethiopians live on social security and their children turn to crime. Their different culture and their color aren’t easy in Israel.”

A.Y. Katsof

To soften their landing, the Jewish Agency provides a minimum of 10 months in an absorption center, including a Hebrew language immersion program, job training and placements for younger immigrants, as well as workshops on Israeli culture and health practices, explained Shira Safrash Aman, who works at the Jewish Agency’s Bet Alfa absorption center and has been supporting Operation Zur Israel since 2020.

The agency also provides as much as 80% support toward the down payment on a house for Ethiopian immigrants and makes public housing available for older olim. 

‘We believe we are Jews’

Liya Kebede Tefera, 29, said her family has been waiting for 24 years to move to Israel. She and her non-Jewish husband, Biniam Zewudie Demoz, 33, and their three children were just granted entry to Israel. 

She arrived in Israel with her sister, her sister’s husband and their four children. But Tefera told the Report from her home in Gondar that many of her family members died waiting, including her grandmother, great uncles and aunts. 

“We believe that we are Jews,” Tefera said, “and we need answers.”

Tefera raised her family to love Israel despite living in limbo while the Jewih state gambled with her fate, she said, as her toddler hoisted a baby carrier on his back and pretended to be an IDF paratrooper.

“I want my children to stand for Israel,” Tefera said. 

Affluent by Ethiopian standards, Tefera is a physicist and her husband is a professor. She said that after they finish at the absorption center, she hopes to contribute to Israeli society. 

“I want Israel to understand that Ethiopians do not only receive, they can also give back,” Tefera stressed. 

Not far away, Balewuken Tegene Asres and Addisie Esubalew Malede were also preparing for aliyah with their three young girls, ages 9, 6 and 2. They have been living in a two-by-three-foot hut in Gondar for the last 12 years. 

Asres’s grandmother made aliyah 11 years ago and his parents and brothers two years ago. His parents were only allowed to bring single children with them, so Asres was left behind. 

“In the village we worked the land, and we had what we made for ourselves,” Asres said. “In Gondar, life is much harder.”

He pointed to his peeling white walls and smiled. Asres said the current house, whose cost is offset by a small stipend his mother sends from Israel to Ethiopia, is better than the last one. The family has mud floors, no toilet or running water. 

“I know logically that we are boarding the plane to Israel in a couple of days, but I still cannot believe it is happening,” Asres said. “I am afraid I am living in a dream and someone will wake me up.”

The next day at the synagogue, where hundreds of Jews wore white and said their morning prayers, Yenatu Liji Erk Setu confirmed the families’ sentiments.

“The Jews belong in Israel,” he said, though he has not yet been approved for aliyah. “I dream of living in Israel. One day, God will grant me this privilege.”

 Azanu Girmay Melese reunites with her mother, who made aliyah 18 years ago. (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN) Azanu Girmay Melese reunites with her mother, who made aliyah 18 years ago. (credit: MAAYAN HOFFMAN)

Lost tribes reunited

As soon as the government grants aliyah permission, the Fellowship steps in to help bring the approved individuals to Israel. It has been supporting aliyah since 1992. 

The Fellowship produced the first black dolls in Israel and translated the country’s first Tanakh and siddur into Amharic, the language Ethiopians speak, for the new immigrants.

The Fellowship also built 20 Ethiopian spiritual centers to help sustain their unique culture. Fellowship CEO Yael Eckstein, who took over the organization from her father Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein in 2019 after his untimely death, was in Gondar to accompany the olim. 

“When you are here [in Ethiopia], you see this is a diamond,” Eckstein told the Report. “Their culture is so precious and so unique and so beautiful. We don’t want to see them come to Israel and lose that.”

She highlighted one of the challenges Ethiopian families face: The younger generation looks at their parents and grandparents with almost awe in Ethiopia, but when they get to Israel and start acclimating into society, learn Hebrew and get jobs, they often end up supporting multiple generation families in small apartments. This can cause the younger people to lose that respect and reverence for the older generation, because the roles are flipped.

What Ethiopian families bring to Israel is no less than those from other societies, Eckstein stressed. “They are very smart people who come from a different culture but have the same desire to succeed,” she said.

The Fellowship works with the Jewish Agency to provide suitable job opportunities, such as through Egged and the Israel Electric Corporation, where new citizens can find steady employment without the necessity of a college degree

For the older generation, who may never break out of the cycle of poverty, the Fellowship provides weekly food packages to help them live out their final years in dignity. 

The majority of Fellowship funds come from Christians around the world who believe in the “Ingathering of the Exiles,” as described in the Torah. Eckstein said that she too believes that the Ethiopians’ return to Israel is biblical prophecy fulfilled, describing it as a “shining light” in what is becoming an increasingly dark world. 

“It looks like things are getting harder and harder, darker and darker, more and more hopeless, and this aliyah is kind of the balance of that,” Eckstein said.

Her grandfather, his brothers and a couple of cousins were the sole survivors of her mother Bonnie Eckstein’s family, most of whom perished in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

“They were religious, and my grandfather would study Torah,” Eckstein said. “I often imagine him reading how one day that the Jewish people would go back to Israel and how we would have our own country – reading the words of Isaiah and Ezekiel about Jews coming from the four corners of the world and the lost tribes being reunited in Israel.

“More than 70% of the Nazis identified as Christians, and in the prophecies, it says that Christians will be making this happen. You had to be crazy not to lose faith.”

However, she said that to be alive today and to see tens of thousands of Christians from around the world helping the Ethiopians return home – bringing the lost tribes to our modern country with a Jewish government and a Jewish army – is something words cannot fully describe.”

‘This is our destiny’

Two days before Melese and her siblings left for Israel, they celebrated their aliyah with their neighbors – a modest outdoor gathering. Raindrops danced on their faces and they twisted their shoulders and clucked their tongues in traditional Ethiopian song.  

“Even Moses did not get to walk on the land of Israel,” said Workie Girmay Melese, Azanu Melese’s sister. “This is our destiny.”

She said she expected that moving to Israel would not be easy, but those challenges would be overcome by the thrill of arriving where she has always known that she belongs.

“During the waiting period, we had many challenges,” Workie Melese said. “The hardest part was when grandchildren and great grandchildren were born and our mother could not meet them. 

“When we suffered from hunger and disease, we would try to hide it from our mother so that she would not be heartbroken,” she said. “When my nephew died, we did not want to tell her so she would not have to mourn alone.”

Now, there would be no more loneliness, no more fear, she said. 

As the plane landed in the late afternoon Tel Aviv sun, the family disembarked and repeatedly kissed the ground.

Azanu Melese fell on the concrete in prayer, her arms outstretched as she called to God in appreciation of His heavenly embrace. 

“It is hard for me to put my happiness into words,” she said, tears swelling up in her eyes – this time drops of joy. 

“I am very grateful to everyone who helped me come to Israel, she said. “Me, my mother – our whole family – today, we were reborn.” ■