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Don’t Abandon 2,500 Would-Be Jews In Ethiopia
Mon, 07/01/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Shira Milgrom and David Elcott
Shira Milgrom and David Elcott

We came to Africa to witness the last remnant of the ancient Jewish community of Ethiopia leave for Israel. What began as exquisite joy, seeing the community celebrating Shabbat in song, transformed into complicated and painful anguish. We came to Ethiopia to witness the end of the amazing Ethiopian Jewish aliyah only to confront what some know but few have discussed publicly — that only some of the remaining community will be going to Israel.

More than 15 years ago, a decision was reached to expand the Ethiopian aliyah from the Beta Yisrael (direct Jewish descent) to the Falash Mura — descendants of Jews who had converted to Christianity a century ago. There was strong dissent — Micha Feldman, one of the heroic architects of the Ethiopian aliyah, warned that opening the possibility of leaving Ethiopia would bring thousands with little connection to Judaism to seek a better life in Israel. His prescient words were ignored; the Ethiopian aliyah was opened up and thousands of families left their villages and came to live, study, raise their families and identify as part of the Jewish community.

The Jewish community we were with these past days is a mix of those who, but for normal bureaucratic error, would have already made aliyah, and others of the Falash Mura who have rejoined the Jewish community with fervor and commitment. We met intelligent and sweet teens who translated for us from Amharic to Hebrew, who grew up in the Jewish compound, in the Jewish school, and whose whole lives have been wrapped in being Jewish and in aliyah. They speak Hebrew, they study Judaism, they are committed to the Jewish people and, to our surprise, made up the majority of those at services. But they are not yet considered Jews nor automatically eligible for aliyah, and 2,500 of them will be left behind when the last planeload of olim takes off in late August.

Though Jewish Agency officials say “people are celebrating what will be the end of an extraordinary chapter in Jewish history,” in the Jewish Agency compound we found not celebration but tearful anxiety and the anguish of being left behind, a hidden chapter of Jewish history, gaping and wounded.

This is not a story of good and evil. The State of Israel, a nation led by white Jews of European heritage, brought black Africans with whom they shared little to settle in Israel. At huge expense, Israel created absorption centers, provided schooling and health care and job training while world Jewry raised millions to help bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. While certainly fraught with difficulties, Israel’s act of national heroism will be recorded as a remarkable moment in the history of the Jewish State. Today, Israel and the Jewish Agency feel they have gone above and beyond — and are afraid that as they let in yet one more group of “newly” Jewish- affiliated Ethiopians, thousands more will step in to take their places. So the Jewish Agency is in the final stages of its “Completing the Journey” operation. As a sovereign nation obligated to follow its rule of law and provide for the welfare of its citizens, Israel has chosen to end the aliyah of those who are not Jewish by the definition of the state.

But there also is the Jewish people that transcends the borders of the Jewish state. So many of the people we met would more than qualify for conversion — and therefore, in our communities, would be happily considered part of the Jewish people. Yet these beautiful children, teens and adults whose only identity is and has been Jewish, face the threatening reality that their school is now closed, their community center soon to be dismantled, their youth activities ended and their Torah taken away because, technically, there will no longer be Jews in Ethiopia. Our dream to witness the final chapter of Ethiopian Jewry ended up — and still is — an unfolding tragedy.

There are both ethical and practical reasons for us to intervene.

The Jewish people employed its mightiest efforts to bring more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel — and almost a half million to North America. Among these refugees were many who came based on Israel’s Law of Return but were not Jews according to the criteria of the State of Israel or of any American Jewish denomination. Overwhelmingly, they were ignorant of and disinterested in Jewish life, motivated more by escaping Communism than living Jewish lives. But Israel has been transformed by their aliyah. This memory should give us pause as we consider what stops us from doing the same for black Ethiopians who have demonstrated with their lives a passionate dedication to Judaism.

In addition, American Jewish leaders have voiced repeated concern over the “Who is a Jew?” issue each time the Knesset considered limiting the Law of Return. Our collective will is that anyone who converts to Judaism, no matter what denomination the rabbi or the convert, must be eligible for aliyah. That assertion is at the core of our relationship with Israel as the homeland and refuge of the Jewish people. The young people we met in Ethiopia have no home, no village and no community in Ethiopia besides their Jewish one. They identify as Falasha, which in Ethiopia means foreigner. To abandon them rather than embrace them would be an unparalleled act for our Jewish community that reaches out to those who have committed their lives to God, Israel and the destiny of the Jewish people.

Perhaps the initial generous impulse to allow into Jewish Ethiopia those who would not qualify for aliyah based on the Law of Return was a terrible error. But that choice was made and these families were gathered into the Jewish community. These people have dedicated their lives, like Ruth to Naomi, to Judaism and the Jewish people. We are in covenant with them as they have covenanted themselves with the people and State of Israel.

Yes, it is time to end the chapter on this historic aliyah. But draw the line in a different place. Before closing the compound, bring to Israel the last of  those who have been living in the compound at least five years or more.

The triumphant press reports and official statements are tragically premature — there still are 2,500 who desperately seek to live Jewish lives. And they are ours for we are their home, and the chiyuv — the sacred obligation to care for them — is ours.

Shira Milgrom is the longtime rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains. David Elcott is the Henry and Marilyn Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service.

Ethiopia, Jews in Ethiopia

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I am horrified that 2500 Falash Mura have been abandoned in Ethiopia. I want to stress
that the level of Jewish connection in their families only differs from their cousins
who were able to make Aliyah because of the matrilineal descent requirement.
The law of return never made that distinction historically. The reason was obvious,
That there were many Jews who suffered under the Nazis but
happened to have a Jewish father or grandfather who was married
ro a non-Jew.
As the son of a German Jewish child refugee whose family were lucky enough
to escape to the UK before it was too late I feel I must
speak out against this arbitrary distinction. In many European and N.American
Jewish families there are relatives who would have been left behind under this patrilineal
I agree with those advocating ongoing humanitarian support for those left behind in Gondar, but I
see the only long term solution as opening the process to Patrilineal descent and reopening Aliyah on that basis.
Many of these families do not lack proof of lineage or family in Israel, they just don't have an unbroken maternal line.
Incidentally one if the fastest responses to this problem has been from a Messianic Judaism group
who plan to offer medical help to replace the Jewish Agency efforts.
In my fathers case the only reason
and his sister left 7 Jewish children, 27 grandchildren and over 50 great grandchildren
When they passed away recently was that they were ble to get out of Germany in time.
No jewish child left behind is my motto!

I spent two months teaching at the Gondar Jewish school some year ago and like, Shira was struck by the quality of the people and their genuine desire to live a Jewish life. There is no reason the community cannot continue as a diaspora Jewish community. Some of the teachers and the chazzanim that operated in the school and synagogue will remain behind will not be going to Israel. But it will need the support of the outside world. The British charity MEKETA - - offers help for those who will be left behind through education, and income generating schemes. With more input, it could help to maintain Jewish life in Gondar as well.

Having been to Gondar, I can really confirm that many of the Jewish community, and especially the young people, are passionate and resolute about coming back to Judaism. They cannot go back to their old lives in the villages as their farms have been sold to neighbours, and they cannot go back to their 'Falash Mura' identity either. The lack of formal education amongst the adults, and the general sense of hopelessness, means that life will really be a struggle once the Jewish Agency leaves. However, a communal organisation called Hatikva has been founded, which is being helped by South Wing to Zion (in Israel) and Meketa (in Britain). They will provide Jewish education and mutual self-help for the community - which will indicate the commitment to Judaism of those left in Gondar.

Conversion was permissible until it became dangerous. Have we too many Jews. Obviously not. If someone wishes to live as a Jew and emigrate, it is a moral crime not to let the persons or persons to make Aliyah. Everyone worries that the Palestinians will overwhelm the Jewish population by greater fertility. More Jews in Israel a good thing and the right thing for both the State and the proposed immigrants.

In a time where Jewish communities cannot afford to provide vital Jewish education in the US. IT is a reach to argue that limited resources should be used to bring to Israel those with such a remote distant connection to Judaism. We must focus our communal funds to the millions of Jews who are drifting from our people. Not a group in Africa with such a weak connection

lol! Is Hebrew born in Germany or Poland? Is it in Russia or Italy? lol. Hebrew was born in Africa from African culture and matured in the Mesopotamia, settled in the Levant. Don't collect Gog Ma Gog or you are anti-zion!!

I applaud the attitude and compassion of Rabbi Milgrom. I write this reply not because I disagree with her, but because there is a lot more complexity to this story and what she is advocating may be less achievable than an alternative approach.
I too have been in that compound and have met the "chosen people" -- chosen by the Ministry of the Interior according to a process of validating would-be immigrants by the criteria of an agreement reached in 2003. That agreement was a compromise between the Falash muras’ advocates and their detractors -- those who believed the Falash Mura should not be admitted to Israel. The compromise was that provable matrilineal descent would be required to establish Jewish identity (much stricter than the Law of Return).
Later on, -- I am not sure of the date at the moment -- there was a drastic slowdown in the rate of aliyah. Advocates pressed the government to take the Falash mura in faster in order to avoid death and disease among those who had lingered in the compound in Gondar for years. Another compromise arrived at this time was that those advocates (including the major players and nonprofits) who argued for a faster rate of aliyah had to agree not to pursue adding more Falash mura to the list of candidates. The attitude was based on the idea that the perfect was the enemy of the good: if advocates did not agree to desist from pushing for additional immigrant candidates ( a perfect world), they would not be able to speed up the immigration of those already accepted by the Ministry of Interior (a desirable, but not perfect, outcome). Therefore, the most experienced and effective advocates for those left behind have promised the government of Israel not to come to the aid of any Falash Mura beyond those accepted by the Ministry of Interior.
As a result, the situation now is that any Jewish organization capable of maintaining this community in Ethiopia and preparing them for aliyah has agreed never to take on that task. (The Jewish Agency, which has managed the Gondar compound only since 2011, is simply an arm of the government and has no independent policy it can pursue.) We are not even considering in all this the budgetary issues, which was a whole other battle the advocates had to fight for.
Truly, the situation is tragic for those who have been educated to be Jewish to the point that it is now more natural for them than anything else. The community they have been inspired to, and have been trained to, become part of will be dismantled and, having given up their village homes long ago, they have nowhere to go. In addition, some of their family members may already have gone to Israel. The only hope for them is that family members already there can acquire the means to bring them, at least for a visit if not for family reunification under Israel’s Law of Entry.
Rabbi Milgrom’s last paragraph points out our sacred duty to care for these abandoned Jews by bringing them to Israel. However, supporting them where they reside in Gondar may be more achievable than bringing them to Israel. Some of the original skeptics argue that the Falash Mura commitment to Judaism is contingent on their being able to go to Israel and should, for that reason, be looked at as opportunistic. No doubt, it was immigration to Israel that stimulated their return to Judaism; but nevertheless, they did return, and it is not clear that what prompted it is relevant. If those left behind were to able to prove that their commitment to Judaism endured even without immigration, the task of supporting their aliyah at some future time would be much easier. But to remain Jewish in Gondar after the Jewish Agency leaves will be a profound challenge without help from the outside. Perhaps that is where the effort should be in the short term. It has worked for 900 or so Abayudayah in Uganda.

"The Jewish people employed its mightiest efforts to bring more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union to Israel — and almost a half million to North America. Among these refugees were many who came based on Israel’s Law of Return but were not Jews according to the criteria of the State of Israel or of any American Jewish denomination. Overwhelmingly, they were ignorant of and disinterested in Jewish life, motivated more by escaping Communism than living Jewish lives. But Israel has been transformed by their aliyah. This memory should give us pause as we consider what stops us from doing the same for black Ethiopians who have demonstrated with their lives a passionate dedication to Judaism."

I can't agree more.

Leaving these 2,500 people will be the worst mistake ever for the Jewish people. Do you have some demography on these 2,500 people? By gender, by age, etc.

I pray that these people will find their way to Israel or somewhere in North America so that they can continue to live their Jewish lives.