As Rabbi Jerome Epstein left the synagogue in the Ethiopian city of Gondar Tuesday morning, a dozen children were pounding on the door of the closed food pantry next door.
The children, ages 4 to 7, had come to the pantry as they had for months, apparently “too young to understand that the cupboard is now bare,” said Rabbi Epstein, executive vice-president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“It was a striking thing, seeing them pounding on the door, hungry and not realizing it was closed,” he added. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
The children are some of the 8,700 Ethiopians known as Falash Mura — descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity — living in or near a fenced-in compound in Gondar, and some are starving. The crisis comes less than two months after the United Jewish Communities stopped buying food for them and a week before a school lunch program ends.
“Some [of the Falash Mura] have money they get from their meager jobs but a lot are just going hungry,” the rabbi said. “They get food from wherever they get it, but it’s hard to tell what they are eating. You can just look at them and tell they are hungry. … You don’t have to look very hard.”
As Rabbi Epstein toured the compound and strongly urged the American Jewish community to resume the food program, UJC, which had in the past made the Falash Mura’s plight a funding priority, may be stepping into the breach. It dispatched two senior executives to Gondar this week to learn what is happening.
“I have every expectation that they will find the situation to be of deep concern,” said Jim Lodge, the UJC’s vice president of Israel and overseas activities. “We’re troubled. Rabbi Epstein’s report only confirms our own hunch.”
He said Bruce Sholk, chair of UJC’s Ethiopian Israeli Work Group, and Barbara Promislow, a senior staff person in Israel, plan to convene a committee when they return to review their findings.
“It may be that at that point we will reissue, in intensified form, a request to federations” to reinstate the food program in Gondar, Lodge said. UJC, the umbrella group for the country’s federations, provided some $70,000 a month for the food program at the Gondar compound but that money ran out in May. UJA-Federation of New York has earmarked $180,000 in its 2008-2009 budget to food and medical programs in Gondar.
Rabbi Epstein, in a phone call from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, said also that he was “frustrated and upset with the condition of these people, and very upset that we have not been able to convince the government of Israel to honor the commitment it made to them” in 2003.
At that time, the government of Ariel Sharon promised to evaluate each of the Ethiopians in the compound to see whether he or she was eligible to immigrate to Israel. Since 2004, the Israeli government had been accepting 300 Falash Mura each month, but that process stopped in June.
“I can understand Israel saying that it would look at the 8,700 and no more,” Rabbi Epstein said. “Whether that is fair or not is another question, but I’m saying you made a promise to look at these cases and you must do that.”
Lodge said that if the government of Israel “does not come to [the same] conclusion, the UJC has to make an evaluation of that. Our lay and professional leadership have in the past and present advocated positions consistent with Rabbi Epstein.”
Their action comes as the Knesset is preparing to debate a bill that if adopted would compel the Interior Ministry to resume evaluating the Falash Mura to determine which ones are eligible to make aliyah under a special clause in the Law of Entry.
But Israel’s Minister of Interior, Meir Sheetrit, told The Jewish Week Tuesday that since 1990 nearly 90,000 Ethiopian Jews and Falash Mura have already immigrated to Israel, most in massive airlifts.
“There is an end to everything,” he said. “We are not going to make any more operations” to bring thousands of Ethiopians to Israel at once.
Asked about Rabbi Epstein’s call for Israel to reconsider that position, Sheetrit replied: “I don’t think we can do it because some synagogue or congregation makes a decision about this.” Rabbi Epstein represents the Conservative movement’s congregational arm, which accounts for about a quarter of affiliated Jews in the country.
Besides, he continued, “Israel is open to everyone who has the right to come to Israel. Everybody who has family in Israel, who has relatives, who is entitled to come to Israel, can make an application. Our immigration authority checks every application and if he can come, he will come. If not, he will not. We are going to act like every other country in the world.”
But Orlee Guttman, director of operations for the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, argued that Israel is not like every other country.
“God forbid we should ever be like any other country,” she said. “If Israel holds itself to a higher standard, as we believe it does, we help Jews who are not able to come on their own, such as Yemenites several decades ago and the Ethiopians in this decade. … They don’t have enough money to feed themselves, how are they going to pay for a plane ticket?”
Sheetrit, however, dismissed concerns that the people in the compound are going hungry.
“It’s not a problem of the State of Israel to take care of people coming to every compound in the world,” he insisted. “It’s not our task. We take care of 90,000 [Ethiopian] people who are in Israel.”
The sponsor of the Knesset bill, Michael Eitan of the Likud Party, told the Jerusalem Post that this was the “first time in Israel’s history that there are Jews waiting in camps to make aliyah but the state is not willing to even check their right to come here.
“It’s a real embarrassment, especially after [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert reminded [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown how the British had stopped Jews from immigrating here before the creation of the state.”
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post last year, Sheetrit said the immigration of the Falash Mura was a task that was impossible to complete.
“Who needs them?” he asked. “They are all Christians. We need to take care of the future of Israel and this [aliyah] will never finish.”
He charged that even after Israel brought to Israel all of those in the compound, the area was refilled with more Ethiopians because “all kinds of groups with personal interests and who are making a living off of this, have started working on bringing in more.”
Guttman pointed out that the Falash Mura have been determined to be Jews by both of Israel’s chief rabbis. And Rabbi Epstein said most have relatives in Israel.
“There were at least 1,200 of them at [morning prayer] services and when we later had a dialogue with them, someone asked how many of you have parents, brothers and sisters or children in Israel,” he recalled. “My estimate is that if not 100 percent answered yes, then it was 98 or 99 percent. Almost all of them did. Is it possible some of them may be lying? Sure, but that is what the [immigration] investigation is all about.
“My guess is that a large proportion are Jewish or are living as Jews. This morning all of the men put on a tallit and they ran out of tefillin. I listened to the people davening [praying], and they were davening. Most were davening in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, but they all said the Shema in Hebrew.”
Rabbi Epstein said that although there may be a number who are not Jewish according to Jewish law, family reunification should be considered in determining whether to allow them to resettle in Israel.
“We brought in a lot of people from the former Soviet Union who were not halachically Jewish [according to Jewish law], that is why 300,000 people today are waiting for conversions,” Rabbi Epstein added. “What is different about these people? Why aren’t they allowed family reunification? If they have parents or children living in Israel, how do you keep families apart? It’s cruel.”