Ethiopian Jewry: Challenges and Journeys

Beta Israel synagogue in the Ethiopian village of Woloka

by Alex Kadis

How did people decide to pack up everything they own, their families, their entire lives, and walk a hazardous journey of more than 1,000 miles towards Jerusalem? Israel was but a land of myth, flowing with milk and honey. Even though these Ethiopian refugees had never seen it, they knew Jerusalem so well. Their entire lives they had heard the stories that had been passed down for generations, and with those stories came the yearning for “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to travel to Ethiopia and see firsthand the origins of Ethiopian-Israeli Jewry. I learned about the strife that they overcame to live in Israel, and the great challenges that lie ahead for their community, and the Jewish community as a whole. I was told incredible stories while I was there; Liat Damoza, a Missions Coordinator for The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), was kind enough to let me share her story.

Liat and her family fled Ethiopia when she was three years old. Her parents, and many like hers, found the strength in the traditions of their ancestors and in an ancient desire – for all Jews to return and live in Israel.

“The source of our community was our home, and our home was Israel. It was even in the name of our community… Beit Yisrael”, Liat said, “this passion… this dream to go to Zion… once they [her parents] knew it was even possible, they wanted to go for it – even on the level of rumor”.

According to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), nearly one quarter of all Ethiopian-Israelis made their Aliyah in the past decade. Nearly half (47%) of the immigrants are children 19 and under. 18% of women are single-parent mothers. The Israeli government spends nearly three times as munch money per person on housing, income, basic education and ulpanim for Ethiopian immigrants than on other oleh.

And so Liat and her family began to walk. They and a few others went on foot for a dozen nights, hiding from soldiers during the day. Liat’s father carried her most of the way and her mother had just given birth not long before. When they reached the Sudanese boarder, her father used some basic Arabic to convince a guard to let them in.

They then found themselves in a refugee camp. “Everyone was struggling for survival… at any cost. There was a lot of tension and sanitary conditions were very bad… less than the minimum. People died every day,” she said. “I can’t imagine how it was for an adult to realize that he might be next, or his family might be next. I didn’t understand it as a child, and that, in a way, protected me.”

A year and a half later, strangers arrived and told them to follow, as he climbed into the belly of a giant, noisy bird covered in bright lights. The plane took off from its makeshift dirt runway (a flat piece of ground that the pilots found), landing a few hours later in Israel. A year later, Operation Moses began, bringing home most of the remaining Beta Israeli Jews from Ethiopia.

While the Beta Israeli Jews have all finally been relocated to Israel, there are still thousands of the Falash Mura. The Falash Mura are the descendants of Jews who converted away from Judiasm one or two generations ago. The Israeli government has determined that about 8,000 of the Falash Mura will be eligible to make their way to Israel. This is wonderful news, but there are great challenges ahead.

Ethiopian-Israelis face an incredibly difficult road ahead:

  • Ethiopian olim are 37% more likely to be impoverished than the general Jewish-Israeli population.
  • Ethiopian-Israeli children are 41% more likely to be impoverished than their peers.
  • Ethiopian-Israeli children are overrepresented in all frameworks for children at risk, including risk of abuse and neglect leading to juvenile offenses and prison.
  • Adults are twice as likely to be offenders compared to their peers.

These are numbers that need to change, and programs by the JDC, including Parents and Children Together (PACT), the Ethiopian National Project (ENP), Women of Valor and the national 5 year plan are working hard to make a difference.

We flew home with sixty new immigrants to Israel – and it was like they stepped into a time machine, and were brought thousands of years into the future. In Ethiopia I saw what I can only describe as a biblical lifestyle. Oxen and donkeys pulling wooden plows through fields full of rocks. These fields seem like they could never produce crops – yet apparently the land could be fertile, if cultivated correctly. We brought coloring books and crayons for the children, which they greatly enjoyed. But we didn’t realize that many of the adults and teenagers, having never held a crayon in their life, also wanted to color – and show off their new-found coloring talents.

The Israeli government and JAFI are working hard to make the transition from Ethiopia to Israel as smooth as possible, but the responsibility is daunting. The new Israelis live in JAFI absorption centers for the first 18-24 months after they make Aliya, where they learn Hebrew, Israeli culture and life skills that will assist them in the new life in Israel. There are also programs like PACT, run by the JDC, that do a fantastic job of helping to close the gap between the new arrivals and the sabras (native Israelis). These efforts need our support.

We need leaders to advocate on behalf of those who cannot yet advocate for themselves. Israel cannot absorb thousands of immigrants who need and deserve our help, without the backing of the world Jewish community. We must lend our voices and support to the causes that are meaningful to us – and not just the ones we see everyday. They had the strength to make the incredible journey to get here; we have to help them succeed.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense leadership issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.