On Aug. 28, the Jewish Agency for Israel will sponsor the final mass immigration flight of Ethiopians Jews to Israel. The operation will end a multi-decade initiative that has brought more than 100,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Over the last few months, Jewish institutions in the rural city of Gondar — once home to the country’s largest Jewish population — have been preparing to make the transition. The synagogue, in the Jewish Agency’s community center, has a growing number of empty rows. The meal program for pregnant and nursing mothers is serving less. And students in Gondar’s Jewish day school, 60 percent of whom are not classified as Jewish and therefore not qualified to make aliyah, are trying to come to terms with saying goodbye.
The New York Jewish community has been a driving force for the immigration of Ethiopian Jews, and on a final Jewish Federations of North America mission to Ethiopia in June, which included a number of people from UJA-Federation of New York, the diverse group of Jewish leaders and philanthropists struggled to digest the reality that some Ethiopians, wearing kippot and speaking Hebrew, were ineligible to make aliyah. A Jewish studies teacher at the Gondar day school, who is not as yet eligible for aliyah, captured the sense of worry for those left behind. In an attempt to keep the Jewish flame alive, he has been petitioning the Israeli government and diaspora Jewry for donated Torahs. He says, resignedly, “ain Torah, ain Yehudim” — “no Torah, no Jews.”
But for the ones approved for aliyah, there is no question of the opportunities that lay ahead, many of them funded by federations and made possible by the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. As immigrants from a third-world country, though, the adjustment will no doubt be profound — one part bitter, one part sweet.
Robyn Spector, a writer and photojournalist, is a former intern for UJA-Federation of New York.