In a small village in the Gondar section of northern Ethiopia, Joel Tauber witnessed a reunion last week.
An Ethiopian Jew who left that village as a child two decades ago, walking hundreds of miles to neighboring Sudan to join an airlift that brought him and thousands of other Ethiopian Jews to Israel, returned home.
With emotional hugs he met some old friends, members of Ethiopia’s Falash Mura community, who are still living in the village.
The man, now an adult who heads an absorption center in Israel where recent immigrants learn about Israeli life, served as a guide for a two-day mission that brought some 100 Jewish leaders from Israel and the diaspora for a firsthand look at the living conditions of the Falash Mura waiting to follow the man’s path to Israel.
"It’s clear that we have to bring the rest of the Falash Mura out, and we have to do it as quickly as possible," said Tauber, national chairman of the New York-based United Jewish Communities’ Operation Promise and leader of the mission.
Operation Promise is a $100 million initiative of UJC (in cooperation with the Jewish federations of North America, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency) announced last year to bring the remaining Falash Mura to Israel and speed their absorption into Israeli society.
Some of the Operation Promise funds will also support programs for Jews in the former Soviet Union.
An estimated 14,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to the country’s dominant Orthodox Christian religion a century ago and recently have tried to go back to their Jewish roots, remain in Ethiopia. Some are still living in the Gondar region, while others, believing their aliyah to be imminent, relocated to Addis Ababa, the capital.
Mission participants saw the desperate lives led by nearly all the Falash Mura, Tauber said in a telephone interview from Israel, where visits to absorption centers and Ethiopian Jewish programs followed the time in Ethiopia.
They saw Falash Mura living in mud huts, begging for food, receiving medical care from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee at centers in Addis Ababa and Gondar.
They heard them express fear over the prospect of not receiving approval to settle in Israel. And they watched them take part in training programs run by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in Gondar, Tauber said.
The mission participants then joined 150 Falash Mura traveling to Israel on an Ethiopian Airlines flight.
Tauber called the mission "the most intense" of scores of visits to Ethiopia conducted over recent decades by Jewish leaders and Israeli government representatives.
"It was nonstop seeing people … seeing the facts on the ground. We saw how the Ethiopians live," he said. "We saw how the Jewish community [abroad] takes care of the Ethiopians."
One veteran Ethiopian Jewish activist said he was withholding judgment on the mission’s effectiveness in speeding up the immigration process of the Falash Mura.
"I see it as a historic achievement" that the highest-ranking leaders of the organized Jewish community visited Ethiopia together on a fact-finding mission, said Abraham Neguise, the Ethiopia-born director of the South Wing to Zion advocacy organization. "Usually they go to Russia.
"It might help," he said. "Now they have started to understand" the Falash Mura’s dire living conditions.
"The community is in a very miserable condition. They are begging on the street. The community here [in Israel] and there are frustrated."
Israeli leaders "are ignoring the community," he said. "We want action. We are fed up with lip-service promises.
Tauber said he will recommend that UJC and the federation network lobby Israel to speed up the immigration of the Falash Mura.
Successive Israeli governments have pledged to speed up the immigration process, but the number making aliyah each month remains at 300, half the figure that Ariel Sharon’s government pledged to reach. In addition, the issue appeared to diminish in importance with Sharon’s ongoing medical crisis; much of the budgeted funds for the immigration process were not allocated.
In a recent meeting with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is considered the frontrunner in next month’s elections that will choose Sharon’s successor, "Olmert confirmed that [the 600-a-month figure] is still the policy of the Israeli government," Tauber said.
As part of a follow-up effort to publicize the plight of the Falash Mura, Tauber took part last week with other mission participants in a simulcast to Jewish federations in the United States and Canada.
About $45 million has been raised so far for Operation Promise, he said. "Most of the federations have not yet begun their [local fund-raising] campaigns" on behalf of the initiative. "We are just beginning to gain traction."
UJA-Federation of New York has set aside $1.7 million annually for the next three years for Operation Promise, said Susan Stern, chairman of the philanthropy’s board, who took part in the Ethiopian-Israeli mission.
Stern said she was an eyewitness to the arrival of Ethiopian Jews during the Operation Moses airlift of 1984.
Last week’s visit to Ethiopia helped "complete the cycle," she said, reinforcing her feeling "that it is important to reunite these people with their families."
Tauber pointed to the symbolism of the Ethiopian man who came to Israel on the airlift, which was supported by Jewish federations in the diaspora, and reached a position of importance at his absorption center.
"It shows what we can do," he said.