The fate of the fenced-in compound in northern Ethiopia that serves as the central feeding and education location for thousands of Falash Mura awaiting immigration to Israel is now likely in the hands of local Jewish federations.
This follows the recent decision of the United Jewish Communities to halt its financial support of the programs, which became effective last week.
The compound will have to curtail many of its activities to forestall closing the entire site, in Gondar, according to spokesmen for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.
UJC, the umbrella group for the federation system has been the primary funder of the compound, which is run by an indigenous Ethiopian Jewish nongovernmental organization with money routed through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to NACOEJ. UJC informed major Jewish federations in April that earmarked funds from the $160 million Operation Promise fundraising campaign, launched three years ago, would run out at the end of May. Part of the money went to Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union.
In a memo to executives of the 19 largest local federations, UJC President Howard Rieger pointed out that the “government of Israel plans to end the current flow of Falash Mura from Ethiopia to Israel in early June, even while over 8,000 others who claim to be eligible remain in Ethiopia, seeking entry to Israel. At some point this will clearly become a political issue.”
Individual federations are free to provide money to the Gondar compound, but none have indicated yet whether they will, said Jim Lodge, UJC vice president responsible for Israel and overseas activities.
UJA-Federation of New York will earmark about $180,000 — $63,000 to NACOEJ for its compound, $120,000 to the JDC for its medical programs — to the Falash Mura in Gondar in its 2008-09 budget, said David Mallach, managing director of the philanthropy’s Commission on the Jewish People.
“We are planning to give some continuing funding,” he said.
For the last three years, UJC has provided some $70,000 a month for the programs at the compound, including food programs for children and adults, language and religion classes for the people who expect to make aliyah, and daily religious services. Without the UJC funding, some of the food programs may be stopped, while the children’s schools will remain open for the near future, said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of New York-based NACOEJ, which is about to build its own school in Gondar.
The UJC announcement comes three years after the closing of a NACOEJ-supported compound in the capital, Addis Ababa, which followed a series of complaints raised by people described as disgruntled members of the Falash Mura community.
“It is very painful for the [Ethiopian Jewish] community that the UJC is going to stop providing the minimum assistance for these future citizens of Israel still in Ethiopia,” said Avraham Neguise, chairman of the South Wing to Zion advocacy group.
“This is a tremendous blow. It’s a tragedy,” Gordon said. “I know [UJC officials] feel very badly about it.” Gordon said NACOEJ, which has initiated a direct appeal to some individual federations, might begin a fundraising drive among its supporters to make up some of the lost money.
“The solution to this tragedy is to bring [to Israel] the people who are eligible,” she said.
Of the estimated 8,000 remaining Falash Mura who have applied to go to Israel, about half receive some sort of assistance at the compound, she said.
The UJC announcement will have “no impact” on the medical care the Joint Distribution Committee provides to Falash Mura in Ethiopia, said Steve Schwager, JDC executive vice president.
The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity a century ago and have sought in recent decades to rejoin the Jewish fold and live in Israel. Their authenticity as Jews has been the subject of ongoing debate in Israel — many prominent rabbis have recognized them as Jews, sometimes pending a symbolic conversion, while other leaders, including many politicians and members of Israel’s recognized Ethiopian Jewish community, have been skeptical about the Jewish roots of the Falash Mura.
About 26,000 Falash Mura have immigrated to Israel, constituting about a third of the total number of Ethiopian immigrants.
In 2005 the cabinet decided that it would stop bringing Falash Mura at the end of this month; all the eligible Falash Mura would have left Ethiopia by now, the cabinet said.
In a reversal of a recent position, the government this week decided to consider examining the eligibility for immigration of an additional 8,700 Falash Mura.
Pro-Falash Mura activists have accused the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, which is responsible for aliyah, of making an inadequate effort to further the aliyah of the Falash Mura.
UJC is likely to find funds elsewhere in its budget for the NACOEJ compound if the government increases its efforts to bring the remaining Falash Mura to Israel, said Joseph Feit, a past NACOEJ president and longtime activist on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry.
The UJC decision to halt funding to the compound “was financial,” Lodge said. “We’re out of money. We’re sorry we’re out of that money.” UJC has no plans to initiate another separate fundraising campaign for the Falash Mura, he said.
“UJC has no independent policy” on the Jewish status of the Falash Mura, said Nachman Shai, director general of UJC operations in Israel. “We are following the lead of the Israeli government,” Shai told the Jerusalem Post. “If the activities of the Israeli government are completed then so are ours. Our aim is to help Jewish communities around the world and to bring those eligible under the laws of this country on aliyah.”