Introduction by Julia Reitman
We are gathered in the courtyard of the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa and the assembled group of 77 immigrants are thanking us for helping them to achieve their lifelong goal of reaching Jerusalem. As mission chair, I am asked to say a few words. With tears in my eyes I can only thank them. I thank them for their courage, their patience and their resolve. Mostly though, I thank them for providing us the opportunity to fulfill a time-honoured Jewish tradition, that of tikun olam. As tears roll down all of our cheeks we are overcome with a sense of caring and responsibility for our fellow Jews, who are starting a new chapter in their lives and with whom we now share a bond and a responsibility.
The four days and three nights that we have spent in Ethiopia have felt like a surreal adventure. The objective of our mission was to experience first-hand the living conditions of the Ethiopian Jews, to accompany a group of “olim” as they journey to Israel, and to learn about their absorption into Israeli society. This year will see the end of more than three decades of aliyah, which have successfully brought around 80,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. At the start of 2013, only 2,000 eligible Falash Mura (ones who can trace their lineage through seven generations) remained in Ethiopia awaiting aliyah. As the final mission to Ethiopia from Montreal, we are about to witness this process.
Our group of twenty is diverse and includes many differing professions and backgrounds. Taking a friend’s advice, I invited my oldest daughter to join me and in so doing, inspired others to include their children. The “youngsters” add a different perspective to the group not the least of which is their energy. Joining us as well is a woman whose son-in-law made the treacherous trek from Wollecka to the Sudan as a young four-year-old child. Her desire to learn more about his experience is very personal and provides all of us in the group with a deeper connection to this journey.
Our guide, Micha Feldman is the former Israeli Consul, who ran Operation Salomon in 1991 and ensured the safe passage in twenty-four hours of 15,000 Jews out of the besieged Addis Ababa. Since that time Micha has continued to work at bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel. His knowledge of both the past and current situation and his devotion to this cause is inspiring. Speaking a perfect Amharic, he not only guides us physically but also teaches us about the culture, customs and dreams of the Ethiopian Jews. We couldn’t be in better hands.
Our journey begins in Israel with a presentation by Gad Shimron, a former Mossad agent and our very own James Bond. His talk does not disappoint, as he explains his participation in the multiple covert rescue missions that operated in the 1980s in the Sudan, a country both then and now, hostile to Israel. We learn about the arduous journey filled with violence, rape, and robbery that so many endured while walking through the mountains, only to arrive in the Sudan penniless and sick. Once there, they lived in refugee camps, many waiting for years before the rescue operations that Shimron describes allowed them to reach Israel. The stories he tells are harrowing and through them all, his love and respect for the Ethiopian Jews and for the hardships that they endured is evident.
As Shabbat ends, we depart for Addis Ababa and then immediately for Gondar, in the northern part of the country. This area has traditionally been home to the Jewish population and villages such as Wolleka, Ambover and Wozava are known as the “starting point” for those that made the trek to the Sudan. We meet Asher Seyum, a shepherd boy who was himself an original participant in the exodus of the 1980s and who has now returned with his wife Sarah, a teacher, as the JAFI representative in charge of ensuring that the last immigrants follow in his footsteps.
We gather on a hillside and look west to the Sudan. We can see the magnificent hills and valleys through which the Ethiopian Jews traveled, mostly barefoot and under cover of night. Of the 16,000 people who made the journey, approximately 4,000 perished along the way or died in the refugee camps in the Sudan. Later in the day we visit a cemetery for those whose journey was never completed and we plant trees to honor their memory and to contemplate this improbably difficult and treacherous journey.
The following day we visit the Jewish aid buildings that include a school, a synagogue where we attend morning services, a feeding center where they nourish pregnant woman and babies, classrooms used for the teaching of Hebrew and a medical facility that is basically an inoculation center and an infirmary. Slowly we begin to gain an understanding of how the absorption and acculturation process begins in Ethiopia. We tour “temporary housing huts” made of straw and mud that serve to house families in the last stages of the aliyah process. These multi-family dwellings are so rudimentary, they lack running water and electricity. Once again, we reflect on the transition that the new olim will be making from this reality to a new one Israel.
Our final day in Ethiopia begins as we land in Addis Ababa. Our first visit is to the home of Dr. Rick Hodes, medical director of the Joint Distribution Committee. Dr. Rick came to Africa in 1985 and has never left. He speaks to us briefly about himself and the work that he does for the JDC and he outlines many of the issues surrounding Ethiopian/Israeli aliyah. He also tells us about his lifetime commitment to treat spinal deformations related to TB. His stories are of adopting severely disabled children so that they are eligible for treatment in the US under his personal medical insurance; of a traction system of wires attached to a crown and screwed into the skull to allow patients to be ambulatory, and of treating severely disabled children, many of whom have the lung capacity of a can of Coca Cola. Hearing these stories is an emotional experience; the first of many that day.
Next we visit the Israeli Embassy. Once through the security screening, we assemble in the bottom of the compound around a rectangular strip of asphalt. Here, at the site of the former waiting area for thousands of immigrants, Micha gives us the details of the airlift that he organized for Operation Salomon. As we listen to him recount the story, we are all in awe, stuck by the enormity of this accomplishment.
It is now time to meet the olim that will be travelling with us to Israel. Dressed in new clothes and carrying heavy backpacks, they are assembled in the courtyard of the transit house. The children are animated; the adults display no outward emotion. They form two lines and exiting through the gates, walk silently through dirty alleys strewn with trash to the Israeli Embassy. The sides of the road are filled with onlookers. I wonder what they think of this procession and I wonder also what the Ethiopians are feeling as they embark on this life-changing journey. The olim are commonly referred to as Falash Mura, which means “outsider” in Amharic, and we are told that they are still regarded with suspicion. Asher begins to sing “Am Yisrael Chai”, ‘the people of Israel live,’ and we join in. Following a day of testimonies, many of us are reduced to tears as we contemplate the meaning of this important event in Jewish history – the closing of the final chapter of the exile to Africa.
While the olim travel to the airport, we go into the Embassy itself, where Ambassador Zevadia has invited us for dinner. Again we are privileged to meet someone who has herself made the journey from Gondar to Israel as a 17 year old and who is now back in her former homeland as an official of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The Ambassador has boundless energy and optimism. Her life story is an inspiration and a source of pride for both Israeli society and the Ethiopian community. We are all equally proud.
After our visit with the Ambassador, it’s time to go to the airport. In the waiting area we mingle with the olim, each of us using our limited Hebrew. On the flight to Israel I and another mission participant find ourselves in a conversation with an Israeli man seated in our row, who expresses cynicism about our mission. He talks about the integration problems and the overt racism that many Israelis feel towards these olim. I feel annoyed that he is focusing on this, which I know to be true, but which I believe diminishes this story. I feel so privileged to be witnessing the immigration of a people that have kept faith with their vow to return to Jerusalem and despite the challenges ahead, I feel that Israel’s rescue of the Ethiopian Jews is heroic. But listening to his arguments, it is clear that education and public awareness campaigns are needed to shift public opinion in Israel.
When we land in Israel, many of the Ethiopians kiss the tarmac. We proceed with them to immigration and wait through the early hours of the morning until that process ends and they are allowed to enter into the main terminal. We watch as many are reunited with their families after years of being separated; one man in our group has not seen his father in over twenty years. We are all crying as we watch this beautiful experience.
Later in the day we visit an absorption center in Ashkelon, where the olim will spend their first two years in Israel. Here, they will learn the skills required to help them transition from the primitive, agrarian lifestyle they knew in Ethiopia to the fast-paced, technologically advanced life they will experience in Israel. Faced with a future that may also include family trauma and cultural dislocation, we are reminded that it is certainly not enough to bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. We have an obligation to insure that the absorption process works and that they are given every opportunity to thrive in their new lives. That is the task ahead.
As I recount this journey, we have just celebrated Passover, the holiday that speaks to the issue of freedom. The traditional Seder concludes with the pledge “Next year in Jerusalem.” Following our mission and our exposure to the world of the Ethiopian Jews, this message resonates much more clearly. For all who participated on this journey, we know that reaching Jerusalem is indeed a gift.