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.