Ethiopian olim celebrate Seder amid controversy

Issue of Ethiopian aliya and the state’s ability to successfully absorb the new immigrants is still a point of contention.

Seder with Ethiopian olim 370 (Do not reuse) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Seder with Ethiopian olim 370 (Do not reuse)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
Gearing up to spend their first-ever Passover in Israel, more than 60 recently-arrived Ethiopian olim gathered on Monday at the Jewish Agencyrun Absorption Center in Mevaseret Zion for a “mock Seder,” to learn about some of the religious and cultural traditions of the upcoming festival of freedom.
In addition to following the traditional service, the new immigrants – some of whom had been waiting in Ethiopia for more than ten years before being permitted to make aliya – heard speeches from Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which provides funding for many programs in the immigrant community.
Sharansky shared his own personal story of escape from the Soviet Union with participants, and said he could identify with the new immigrants’ feelings upon starting their new lives in the Jewish homeland.
While Monday’s celebration – which also included Israel’s incoming ambassador to Ethiopia, Belaynesh Zevadia – was moving, the issue of Ethiopian aliya and the state’s ability to successfully absorb the new immigrants is still a point of contention.
Just over a month ago, the government finally agreed to dramatically increase the number of new immigrants arriving in Israel on a monthly basis – from 110 to 250 people.
Activists and supporters of this move say it will help alleviate the suffering of those forced to wait for years in poor humanitarian conditions in Gondar, a town in northern Ethiopia.
While the announcement was well-received by those working with the Falash Mura – Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity more than a century ago – advocates say the promise has yet to be fulfilled.
On Monday, Jewish Agency spokesman Haviv Rettig Gur explained that roughly 150 new immigrants from Ethiopia arrived in Israel last month, with another 200 expected in April.
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“While the government approved an increase to 250 in late February, it takes a few weeks to implement that increase,” he said. “We did not have 250 seats reserved for March on the Ethiopian Airlines flights that facilitate the aliya.”
Rettig Gur said that the standing agreement with the airline is currently being renegotiated in order to increase the number in keeping with the government’s commitments.
“It is not a problem for us to bring in any number that the government asks us to bring in,” Rettig Gur said. He confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that a Jewish Agencyowned facility in the South is already being eyed as an additional absorption center, to house the increased number of new olim slated to arrive over the next few months.
However, another Jewish Agency source said the onus was on the government to provide additional funding for absorption programs. A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the matter on Monday.
In November 2010, the government declared a “historic” push to wind up the flow of group aliya from Ethiopia within three years. To date, 6,000 Falash Mura have been officially approved for immigration – and while half of the group has already arrived in Israel, the rest continue to wait.
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar officially recognized the Falash Mura as part of the Jewish people in 2002, and they were granted the right to make aliya under a special clause in the Law of Entry. As part of this, they are required to undergo conversion to Judaism upon arrival.
Although many of the new immigrants had the opportunity to participate in organized Seders while still in Ethiopia, organizations working within the community have found that most Ethiopian new immigrants are unlikely to hold their own Seders at home, and many participate in group events held throughout the country.