Recently I buried my stepfather in a Jewish cemetery in eastern Baltimore. He is now surrounded by his first wife, his machatunim (in-laws) and various friends and family members. In this cemetery, with its beautifully engraved headstones with Hebrew names, birthdates and Jewish stars, our close-knit family said Kaddish.
At the cemetery, I couldn’t help but think back to my journey to Ethiopia this spring with UJA-Federation of New York, escorting Falash Mura to Israel. (The Falash Mura are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity; many are returning to Judaism.) In my mind, I compared this orderly cemetery in Baltimore to the one I had visited in Ethiopia, which we came upon after trekking 20 minutes down a dirt path, through a large field and up a steep incline. Blue and green cement-covered graves were marked by hand-painted headstones adorned with Jewish stars and the names of our Jewish brothers and sisters whose ancient ancestors had happened to travel south to Ethiopia instead of the direction my ancestors had chosen.
The graves were laid out in a haphazard way, with weeds growing throughout the hilly lot. It was not easy to maneuver around to place rocks on the graves to mark our visit. But we persevered, lit candles and said Kaddish for those buried there, as well as for all the unnamed Jews who died on their way to the Sudan in the latter part of the 20th century, trying to make their way to Israel.
Seeing this cemetery and saying Kaddish in Ethiopia touched me deeply, making me think of how we as Jews truly are one people, wherever we happen to be living. The whole trip to Ethiopia and Israel was a demonstration of how important it is that the immigration of Ethiopian Jews be completed as planned in the next three years. The Jews currently being brought to Israel are a part of a much larger Jewish community that has been integrating into Israeli society since the 1980s and the heroic Operation Solomon of 1991.
Currently there are more than 120,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel. With aid from the Jewish Agency for Israel, supported by UJA-Federation and others in the Jewish community around the world, this last group of about 7,000 olim is scheduled to make aliyah and finally be reunited with relatives who they have not seen for many years. As fellow Jews, we know the meaning of family and understand how desperate these people are to reconnect with their families and start a new path. Their futures rest on our continued support.
On our mission we met the remarkable Dr. Rick Hodes and witnessed his passion in helping people receive adequate health care in a region where little exists. We visited a community of tiny mud huts where the Jews live and learn about the Judaism their ancestors lost touch with. We saw boys and men wearing yarmulkes and tallit and studying Hebrew, and women heading toward a mikveh in an Ethiopian version of a Jewish community center. Mothers fed previously malnourished children in a community kitchen.
Our hearts were touched, and our tears flowed freely. If any of us had started the trip with any reservations about the validity and commitment of the Falash Mura, these were quieted.
On our last day in Ethiopia, we met the group of 105 Falash Mura, men and women, old and young, at the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa. We followed their bus, packed with their belongings, including their treasured brightly colored, covered round ovens for preparing their special bread. We sat with them in the Addis Ababa airport, and I have never seen such a quiet and patient group of people. Only when the excitement of finally boarding the plane after years of waiting hit them did people understandably jostle each other. Quiet descended once everyone was buckled in and exhaustion set in.
At this point, I thought of my grandparents’ journey from Russia to America and the hardships they endured so their descendants could have a brighter future. They too left the only community they knew for a place they could not imagine in their wildest dreams. They left on a boat instead of a plane, but probably felt the same combination of anticipation and fear that these Ethiopians felt.
It was moving to see the Ethiopians, as new Israelis, arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, many literally kissing the ground outside their plane. The road they face in adapting to their new home is not easy, but from what we saw and heard in Israel, it is not only possible but is happening. We met children of the earlier Falash Mura who are participating in national service, as well as those pursuing successful careers and giving back to their community.
Once families have arrived in Israel, support from UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Israeli government and others is ongoing and thorough. Programs exist for all ages to help with the difficult transition. Our group saw firsthand the value of this support, as we visited an absorption center and saw families adapting to their new lives. Children are enrolled in local schools and are succeeding with continued help. Programs like JDC-PACT (Parents and Children Together) and the Birth to Bagrut initiative are addressing cultural differences and teaching parents how to support their children’s education.
When we hear about the many wonderful things that UJA-Federation and other Jewish groups now do, we don’t often think about rescue missions anymore. But the Ethiopian Jews have been long isolated and many were persecuted and forced to give up much of their “Jewishness.” They are poor, malnourished, undereducated and longing for a chance to return to the land of their ancestors.
The Ethiopian Jews are as eager for a new life as my grandparents were. We are all part of a family linked together through shared Jewish ancestries and a desire to ensure a better future for our children. Our community has greatly helped these Jews reconnect with their heritage by resettling them in Israel. It is imperative that we continue to support this final leg of their journey. We must look into our hearts and know that these, our brothers and sisters, help create the woven fabric of our Jewish identity.
Jane Alpert is a longtime volunteer for UJA-Federation of New York and is a past co-chair of its Westchester King David Society.