Judaic Studies minor Alexa Smith spent part of her summer traveling to Ethiopia to visit the remaining Jewish Communities in Gondar and Addis. Alexa traveled with Ethiopian Israeli Jews who were returning to their villages for the first time since leaving Ethiopia.
When I was 12 years old, I began brainstorming ideas for my Mitzvah Project. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, a “Mitzvah Project” is stemmed from the Jewish value, Tikkun Olam or in English, “repairing the world.” It is a way for a Jewish young adult to give back to his or her community. I wanted to have my own significant impact that would make an impact in Israel, the Jewish homeland.
I decided for my Mitzvah Project that I would raise money for the Ethiopian Jewish families in Rishon LeZion, Israel. I raised enough money to send 11 underprivileged Ethiopian Jews to pre-school on full scholarship to give them a head start in Israel society. When I was in high school, I received a grant to provide the community center with mountain bikes so the local teenagers would have extra-curricular activities after school. My connection to this community deepened as I grew older and I felt that there was so much more to learn about the people of Rishon LeZion.
Through my relationship with the Greater MetroWest Jewish Federation, I had been involved with the Ethiopian Jewish Community in the Ramat Eliyahu section of our sister community Rishon LeZion for 8 years. Last year, when I was invited to participate in the Selah Mission to Ethiopia, I simply could not pass up the opportunity. The trip was led by Micha Feldman, who was the orchestrator of Operation Solomon in which the Israeli government airlifted 14,000 Ethiopian Jews over a two-day period in May 1991.
We were in Ethiopia for 5 days, touring with approximately 20 Americans and 10 Israelis, including 5 Ethiopian Israelis to visit the villages in which they grew up. One of the main goals of the trip was to learn more about Ethiopian Jews and the hazardous journeys they survived to become Israelis.
Most of our trip was based in Gondar, where many Ethiopian Jews lived before making Aliyah. The Jewish Agency required Ethiopian Jews to move from their small villages on the outskirts to a central location to prepare them for Aliyah (migration to Israel). This is how the Jewish Community Center in Gondar, Ethiopia was established.
The trip was organized to replicate the experience of Ethiopian Jews. We started by touring an Ethiopian village that used to be home to Jews who had traveled to Israel. We saw the Synagogue, the Jewish cemetery and the old market place where Ethiopian Jewish women would sell pottery.
We then retraced the steps of the Ethiopian Jewish people’s exodus and aliyah to Israel by hiking the Semian Mountains. These were the very mountains where Ethiopian Jews marched hundreds of miles in the pitch black to Sudan refugee camps in the middle of the night in the 1980s as part of Operation Moses. We listened to a few of their stories as we over looked the never-ending trail that led them to Sudan. Finally we made it to the Jewish Community Center in Gondar where Jewish families moved in while awaiting the aliyah process.
Ethiopian Jews call themselves Beta Israel. There are currently approximately 140,000 Ethiopian Israelis living in Israel. In 2013, Israel declared that all of the Jews in Ethiopia had been rescued and brought to Israel. However, when rescuing these Jews, families were divided leaving around 11,000 Falash Mara in Ethiopia with first degree relatives in Israel. These Falash Mara do not qualify under the Law of Return because they cannot document that they have at least one grandparent who is halachically Jewish. In many cases, due to discrimination of Jews and poor economic opportunities, Ethiopian Jews converted to Christianity generations ago so that they could own land and provide for their families.
Both the Beta Israel and Falash Mara moved to the Jewish Community Center in Gondar, Ethiopia to prepare for aliyah. The Jewish Agency then determined who is eligible for aliyah. After all the Beta Israel left, the Israeli government enacted a Law of Reunification to permit Falash Mara to make aliyah if they have a first degree Israeli relative who has sponsored them and they agree to convert to Judaism in accordance with Orthodox practice upon arrival to Israel. Last year 1,300 Falash Mara were brought to Israel and moved to absorption centers in Israel. However, there are still approximately 8,000 remaining Ethiopian Jews in Ethiopia. 7,000 of these people remain at the community center in Gondar, patiently awaiting their approval to make aliyah and these were the people who we met on our trip.
At our visit to the community center we were able to observe children taking classes in Hebrew, hundreds of women and men praying in Hebrew during a Jewish Shabbat service, and were even invited into the homes of the community members. I had to hold back tears when I was invited into one of the homes because it was so heartbreaking to see the conditions in which they lived. It is the nature of the Ethiopians we met to not focus on their problems, but rather to remain patiently optimistic. It is such an inspiration to witness how these beautiful, soft spoken gentle people count their blessings and remain hopeful in their process of making aliyah.
We ended our time in Ethiopia by visiting the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa where Ethiopian Jews were able to receive a visa to enter Israel. Here, the group stood together in a circle, hand in hand, and sang Israel’s national anthem. As I stood at the Israeli Embassy singing Hatikvah with Ethiopian Israelis in Addis Ababa, I was overwhelmed with happiness knowing that Israel has acted as a safe place for Ethiopian Jews.
I believe that as a Jew, I am responsible for other Jews. I believe it is our responsibility to tell this story and let the Israeli government know that as Diaspora Jews, we prioritize opening the doors to allow the remaining 8,000 Ethiopian Falash Mara to make aliyah as soon as possible.