The time is now to right the wrongs done to Ethiopian Jewry

A privately funded 2017 study concluded that supplemental nutritional assistance is urgently needed for children aged zero to five who are chronically malnourished.

New olim from Ethiopia attend a dinner in Israel.   (photo credit: REUTERS)
New olim from Ethiopia attend a dinner in Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Growing up in a Jewish community in New Jersey, the message of “kol yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh,” meaning “We are all responsible for one another,” surrounded me from all directions. When a crisis emerged around the globe – especially in a Jewish community – the local synagogues and religious schools would be at the forefront of relief efforts and charity drives. It is this Jewish value of mutual responsibility that has led our people for generations to the four corners of the Earth in order to repair a Jewish community that is in need of healing.
World Jewry prides itself on acts of tikkun olam. The Joint Distribution Committee website describes itself as, “The global Jewish 9-1-1. We put Jewish values into action when the world needs it most.” And according to the Jewish Federations of North America website, “For decades we’ve ensured humanitarian relief for those who’ve needed it most. Federation holds out a safety net. And we’ll never let it fall.”
It is therefore appalling and disgraceful that the international Jewish community that spreads its generous hands wide and far to support vulnerable populations has turned a deaf ear to our own brothers and sisters in the Jewish community in Ethiopia, who are languishing in poverty and sickness as they await to enter the gates of the Promised Land.
The approximately 7,500 members of the remaining Jewish community in Ethiopia are descendants of Jews who underwent forced conversion to Christianity over a century ago and have since returned to strict adherence to Jewish practice. More than two decades ago, these individuals began to leave their villages and gather in temporary camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa in order to immigrate to Israel. During this time, Israeli officials split families apart, often leaving behind a few children while the remaining siblings and parents were permitted to immigrate. Though officials promised that in just a short time, the family members would be brought to Israel, in many cases over a decade has passed and these promises are yet to be fulfilled. A 2015 government resolution was unanimously passed that pledged to bring those of Jewish lineage in Gondar and Addis Ababa to Israel, but its implementation has been stalled.
The makeshift synagogue in Gondar lies in not the friendliest and safest of neighborhoods. Though community members suffer from harassment from their Christian neighbors, they are steadfast in their observance of Jewish law and custom. Teenage boys tuck in their tzitzit when exiting the synagogue, and the youth conceal their Jewish star necklaces when walking the long journey home.
Furthermore, basic needs are not being met in the community. A privately funded 2017 study concluded that supplemental nutritional assistance is urgently needed for children aged zero to five who are chronically malnourished. As United Nations reports and medical literature indicate, mental and physical damage caused by chronic malnutrition of young children is often irreversible. The unofficial estimates are that over 3,000 children, adults and elderly have perished while awaiting immigration to Israel, often due to sickness and malnourishment that could have been treated if resources were available. The Jewish cemetery is nearly at capacity with no room to bury the dead.
Yet the international Jewish community has forsaken this community, ignoring its plight, its cries for recognition and the sweet tunes of its innocent youth who sing “hinei mah tov uh mah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad” – “how goodly is it when we all sit together in unity.” This is shameful.
Last week, The Jerusalem Post reported on the meetings of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, during which a strategic plan that will guide the organization’s vision over the next decade was approved. Among many points, the plan vows to strengthen the connection between the Diaspora and Israel and to expand the number of Jewish Agency shlichim, or emissaries, serving in Jewish communities around the world. During the closing plenary of the meetings, Chairman Isaac Herzog spoke of the necessity to protect the Jewish nation wherever it may be.
While the rest of world Jewry has turned its back on the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry living in impoverished conditions and unsafe environments, it is my hope that the Jewish Agency’s strategic plan will include a vision of support for and inclusion of this population who are yearning to be recognized as members of the Jewish nation.
Chairman Herzog, you have a historic opportunity to right an incredible wrong and wash away this stain on the international Jewish community. “V’im lo achshav, eimatai” – “If not now, when?”
Living in Israel for the past nine years, Alisa Bodner is involved with various initiatives to strengthen connections between Jewish communities abroad and Israel. She has been at the forefront of the struggle to bring the remainder of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel since returning from volunteering in Gondar.