An exodus in progress

For the 115 Ethiopians who made aliyah last month, their arrival is both a manifestation of a dream realized, but also bittersweet, as many family members are still in limbo back home.

A young couple who were among the 72 immigrants from Ethiopia whom Israel welcomed last month in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A young couple who were among the 72 immigrants from Ethiopia whom Israel welcomed last month in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With the outbreak of the coronavirus, so many of the things we're used to doing have been put on hold. But for an organization whose very mission is to facilitate aliyah and protect and connect the Jewish people around the world, shutting down until this pandemic subsides is simply not an option. Particularly with Passover fast approaching.
For years, The Jewish Agency has been ensuring that the Jewish communities awaiting Aliyah in Gondar and Addis Ababa have had the provisions they need to celebrate the Passover holiday properly. Up until now, that meant - among other things - supervising the baking of the essential unleavened bread locally. With coronavirus restrictions in place, however, that was going to be impossible this year, so “Plan B” went into effect and half a ton of the stuff was shipped out in time for the Seder.
But this year, circumstances were such that The Jewish Agency was also called upon to provide out-of-the-ordinary pre-Passover emergency assistance, both to prevent introduction of Covid-19 into the local community and to offer succor, in particular, to the older, at-risk demographic. That request was met, among other ways, with 57,600 bars of soap and 78,000 meals.
As gratifying as it is to be able to meet these needs of the Jewish community in Ethiopia, even more to the Jewish Agency’s liking is the opportunity it has had over the past several weeks to facilitate the aliyah of 115 of its members. After so many years of longing, those who have just arrived will finally be celebrating Passover with their prayer for “next year in Jerusalem” answered.
Here are a few of their stories:
After waiting in Gondar for nearly 12 years for permission to make aliyah, Asmare Kasahun Desta finally arrived in Israel on March 24, together with his wife and six children. It was an extraordinarily emotional moment for him, but one also tempered by the circumstances. As is the case with all new immigrants coming during the coronavirus pandemic, his family and the 64 other members of the Ethiopian Jewish community who arrived with them were immediately quarantined in a dedicated absorption facility, meaning it would be another two weeks before he’d at last get to see his ailing 82-year old mother whom he hadn’t seen since she was allowed to make aliyah more than a decade ago.
Mituku, one of Asmare’s five siblings who has been in Israel since 2008, told me this week that “My brother is so very, very happy to be here and so thankful,” and is now anxiously awaiting the reunion. “We still have three sisters and another brother in Ethiopia,” he explained, “and our mother cries every day over our family being separated like this. She’s very sick and wants only to live long enough to see us all together again. She prays for that every day.”
It’s a prayer that touches me profoundly. I care deeply about bringing home all those still longing for Zion, but it is the Kasahun family that personalizes for me the predicament of the entire community. Just over a year ago, I was in Ethiopia on behalf of the Jewish Agency and by chance visited Asmare in his home, a single-room, dirt-floor, mud-made hovel with no running water or electricity, typical to that of all his neighbors. At the time, he showed me pictures of his parents and siblings who were already in Israel and beseeched me to do everything and anything I could to unite them all – an assignment still pending.
Another of the new olim is Degarge Demlie, 35, who, after 11 years of waiting, arrived here last month with his wife, Workie, and their two young children. A mechanic by training, Degarge was also a prominent member of the community’s governing council in Gondar, serving as its secretary, and involved for years in promoting its members’ interests.
Long separated from his parents and five siblings who were brought home years ago, he is thrilled to be reunited with them. But his happy ending, too, is marred by a phenomenon far too common to be ignored. Now it is Workie who is separated from her mother and five siblings, as they are still in Ethiopia awaiting notification of their turn to come.  
Amsalu Ayenew is one more of the new immigrants. While Degarge was involved in the organizational life of the community, he was deeply engaged in its spiritual side. Only 22, Amsalu’s entire life has been one of waiting, but also one imbued with a mission. Prior to his aliyah, he served as both a cantor for the Gondar synagogue and a Jewish studies teacher. He grew up under the tutelage of Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who has dedicated more than 30 years to the well-being of the community, forever traveling back and forth between Ethiopia and his home in Haifa, often twice a month.
Amsalu is one of his protégés, a group of some 40 promising young leaders, men and women, whom he has cultivated among the younger generation in both Gondar and the capital, Addis Ababa, providing them with high-level Judaica courses, Hebrew language instruction, and preparation for life in Israel – taught both by himself and an ongoing succession of volunteer teachers he organizes.   
Now, Amsalu, after leading his congregation a thousand times and more in the singing of Hatikvah, with which every service in Gondar concludes, his “hope never lost” has been rewarded with his being brought to Israel together with his mother and five brothers and sisters, joyfully reunited with his grandparents and nine aunts and uncles who were permitted to make aliyah a decade ago. He is, of course, elated to be here, but similarly, not without a twinge of regret. His father died two years ago in Gondar, his lifelong dream of settling in the Land of Israel unfulfilled.
For many involved, the as yet to be resolved conundrum of relatives being separated is particularly vexing. It is against this background that a distinguished council of kessim (spiritual leaders of the Ethiopian Jewish community) and eminent Orthodox rabbis published yet another declaration in mid-March attesting to the Jewish lineage of the community. Referencing the fundamental responsibility that all Jews bear for one another, the document calls for expediting their aliyah – especially in light of the coronavirus that poses particular dangers for this vulnerable population.
Until their call is heeded, and the several thousand still in limbo join us, there is every reason to celebrate the influx of the 115 who have just arrived, the 602 who preceded them in 2019, and the 153 expected within the next couple of weeks. The chronicle of their years of waiting is heartbreaking; the story of their homecoming inspirational.
May the strong hand and outstretched arm of the State of Israel now speedily embrace those who will again be concluding their Seder with a heartfelt intonation of “Next year in Jerusalem.” As the rest of us will most probably be celebrating the holiday with too many empty chairs around the table in any case, might I suggest that you symbolically invite one of them to join you. In commemorating one exodus during this Festival of Freedom, let us not forget that there is another yet in progress.
The writer serves as deputy chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.