Here and there: Waiting and longing

Right now, some 9,000 Ethiopian Jews are living in appalling camp conditions in Addis Ababa and Gondar.

Adis Mekonen, recipient of the ESRA scholarship for student leaders, who is giving back to his community (photo credit: Courtesy)
Adis Mekonen, recipient of the ESRA scholarship for student leaders, who is giving back to his community
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ESRA, the organization I am privileged to co-chair, recently held its annual Scholarship Award evening for students involved in its Students Build a Community project. This is the flagship project of ESRA, which, together with the Netanya Municipality, supports the program. Carefully chosen students are given the opportunity of mentoring children from deprived backgrounds in exchange for living rent-free in the areas (and apartment blocks) where these youngsters reside. It has proven to be a win/win situation for both the mentored kids on the block and the students themselves.
One of the recipients of the ESRA scholarship is Adis Mekonen, who arrived in Israel at the age of 12 with his mother and five siblings. (His father remained in Ethiopia because, Mekonen told me, he was not Jewish and therefore did not qualify for immigration.) On Mekonen’s arrival, he immediately entered the education system and received help with his Hebrew. From junior high school he was sent to a boarding school while simultaneously working every weekend to help support his mother and siblings. He served in the IDF for three years; it was during this period that his father died.
On completing his military service, he took himself off to Ethiopia in order to discover his roots. This experience changed his life, both providing motivation and strengthening his wish to succeed in the future.
Mekonen is a success story: he is currently studying business administration at Netanya College. He has also initiated a small start-up with a computer-based physical game he developed for kids’ use.
This embraces both computer skills and physical activity. With all of this, he has still found the time to be one of our students building a community.
Mentoring the kids on the block three times a week, and as a recipient of an ESRA scholarship, he has committed himself to giving extra support to the project. Currently working and living in the Nordau area of Netanya, he mentors four children, two of whom are of Ethiopian origin. When I spoke with him recently and asked what it meant to him to be giving his time in this way, his immediate response was: “Every child has to be able to hope, and it is my hope that I can help him on his way.”
What a wonderful example he is to those he mentors.
NETANYA IS home to some 15,000 Israelis of Ethiopian origin. ESRA started work some eight years ago in the Heftziba neighborhood, where, to this day, virtually 100 percent of the residents are of Ethiopian origin. Since then, the program has been extended to the Nordau, Sela and Neot Shaked neighborhoods.
At the beginning of this school year, out of 38 students mentoring some 160 children, 34 are of Ethiopian background.
What better example could their pupils have than seeing the status their mentors have achieved? I could not help but think of my conversation with Mekonen, when, in mid-November, I learned of the Interior Ministry’s proposal (subsequently approved by the government) to bring the “remaining” Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
This decision is in stark contrast to 2013, when it was announced that aliya from Ethiopia had been completed.
Right now, some 9,000 Ethiopian Jews are living in appalling camp conditions in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Many left their homes years ago to come to these cities at the behest of the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government. Unfortunately, these potential immigrants do not enjoy help from humanitarian organizations, as was the case previously.
More than 85 percent have family living in Israel. According to MK David Amsalem (Likud), chair of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, “it is inconceivable that Jews want to immigrate to Israel but are prevented from doing so.”
Some 500 Ethiopian-Israelis serving in the IDF have close relatives among those waiting to be brought to Israel. Parents and children have been separated and currently do not enjoy help from humanitarian organizations that were formerly active.
THE POLICY of the Interior Ministry relating to the Jewishness of these potential immigrants is somewhat confusing.
On the one hand, there is a strict rule that they have a Jewish mother (halachic ruling); on the other hand, there is talk of allowing those who are not in this category to convert either prior to their aliya or on arrival. However, the big question is whether the Chief Rabbinate, which has made it virtually impossible for potential converts from the former Soviet Union to actually convert, will – in reality – prevent a high proportion of Ethiopians awaiting entry to Israel from actually coming. This, sadly, has happened time and again with potential immigrants from Ethiopia and was probably the case with Mekonen’s father.
The latest decision on aliya from Ethiopia came while Silvan Shalom headed the Interior Ministry. Now that he has resigned and the government has approved the appointment of Arye Deri in his stead, we can but wonder just how lenient the ministry will be with a proportion of immigrants whose Jewishness would not tally with the halachic definition.
Will Deri hasten the process of bringing home these 9,000, as was promised by his predecessor and the government in November 2015? We can only hope that Deri, as head of Shas, will emulate the party’s late religious head, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who in 1973, as Sephardi chief rabbi, ruled that the Ethiopian community was Jewish according to Halacha. It was this ruling that paved the way for immigration to Israel. Today, we need to ensure, with the utmost urgency, that for those whose mother is not Jewish, a more sympathetic way is found toward conversion.
HERE WE are in January 2016 and still no word as to when, exactly, the “last group” of Ethiopian Jews will be brought to Israel.
We can but hope that if and when they do arrive, there will be a plan for their successful absorption. Too often we have noted that the government sets up a committee – which frequently comprises representatives of various ministries – while neglecting to co-opt members of the Ethiopian Israeli community to participate.
Surely, it is they who would be able to offer constructive ideas based on their own absorption experience.
Having said this, I come back to a statement I made some time ago: The non-governmental sector is far better equipped to assist in the absorption process than is the government. However, funding is necessary. May I be so bold as to suggest that the government and its relevant ministries provide organizations such as ESRA with the requisite funding to increase its proven success in the field? Winston Churchill once famously said: “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” For sure, it is a “job” worth finishing, and one we hope will provide many more success stories like that of Mekonen. 
The writer is co-chairperson of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. She is also active in public affairs.