Ethiopian Jews continue to wait despite promises

On Yom Kippur I sat with thousands of Jews in the Jewish compound in Gondar. Their synagogue is a shelter partially enclosed with a sheet metal roof, plastic sheeting, a dirt floor and thin metal benches. Outside the synagogue, cows and goats mingle with the people. The language of the prayer is Amharic; the congregants are all Ethiopians; they are extremely poor and many live in huts made of branches and grass.

I am deeply moved by these people who live such a harsh existence and still maintain their Jewish identity. One can feel their personal yearnings, their hopes, and their prayers for well-being, for strength and courage to face each new day. There is one unspoken prayer that they share in common that permeates the service: “We want to go to Israel. We have been promised that we could.” They have been waiting for years and wonder if the waiting will ever end.

In the morning before Kol Nidre, I tour the three compounds that comprise the Jewish community: the synagogue and feeding center; the school with 2500 children; and a weaving and metal work center. Guiding me was Getu Zemene, 47, chair of the Association of the Gondar Beta Israel.

He is filled with boundless energy and enthusiasm as he proudly shows me these compounds, which provide services to the remaining 9,000 Jews here in Gondar. They are Jews who come from hundreds of miles around, from small villages where they primarily work as farmers.

They live in a country that has been scarred by famine, disease and poverty. They are waiting for Israel to reconnect them with their loved ones. Central to sustaining this community is the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry whose commitment has only deepened over the years. NACOEJ provides the funds that make the compound programs, run by the community itself, viable.

Getu is fully aware of the contemporary world and yet lives with people who are in many ways still in the 19th century. Most of these Jews have never seen a television and technology is incomprehensible to them. Yet as I worship with these people who live in abject poverty, I am taken by their devotion, their dignity and their kindness. I see sadness in the eyes of the children, but I also see souls filled with brightness and hope.

The Israeli government officially accepted the Beta Israel in 1975, following a ruling by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who proclaimed that they were legitimate descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. Yet they are still waiting for Israel to fulfill its sacred promise and rescue the rest of the community.

Israel has done magnificent work for the Ethiopian Jews. Operation Moses, begun in November 1984, resulted in the rescue of about 33,000 Jews who had walked hundreds of miles to the Sudan, where they were airlifted to Israel. In May 1991, Operation Solomon brought about 20,000 Jews from Addis Ababa to Israel over the course of 36 hours. For a while several hundred a month were going to Israel, but recently the Israeli government has allowed no more than a 150 a month, a figure that will hold in 2007.

Many of those left are Falash Mura — Jews whose families at one point had converted to Christianity and have now returned to Judaism.

Getu doesn’t understand why these Jews are still in Ethiopia. The community members have been registered as Jews and apparently there is funding to bring them to Israel. It appears that we now need a new plan to bring the rest out. Let’s call it Operation Miriam — Miriam was known for her patience, strength, and determination.

I feel privileged to have observed Yom Kippur with the Beta Israel here in Gondar. Judaism is not taken for granted — it is the anchor of the congregants’ lives. Being with them has reminded me of the Jewish values that guide me: to live a life where each day is sanctified and to never stand “idly by” the injustices which surround us.

I leave Getu and the community deeply moved by having observed this day with them — and also pained with the awareness that this day of self-affliction is lifestyle for them, not a once a year observance. I leave feeling profoundly sad as I look at Getu, who has tears in his eyes. The burden of leadership weighs heavily on him. His Jewishness is on his father’s side, he knows that his destiny may never take him to the promised land, but his only request is that his people are allowed to go to Israel. He wants them to be reunited with their immediate families in Israel. We embrace, wondering where life will take Getu and this community. Next year in Jerusalem?

Rabbi Lee Bycel is senior adviser for global strategy at International Medical Corps, and began his career as assistant rabbi at Congregation Rodef Shalom in San Rafael.

Rabbi Lee Bycel
Rabbi Lee Bycel

Rabbi Lee Bycel is the Sinton Visiting Professor of Holocaust, Genocide and Refugee Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of the upcoming “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope in Their Own Words.”