Eye-opening trip reveals scope of Ethiopian aliyah

Reading news reports and agency briefings about the herculean effort to relocate Ethiopian Jews to Israel is one thing. Experiencing the process is quite another.

Last month, four people from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay made the journey to Ethiopia to experience firsthand the historic aliyah program as it enters its homestretch — and to see how the federation’s two-year commitment of $40,000 has figured into the mix.

They were on a trip with a dozen people from North American Jewish federations. After meeting in Israel, the group flew to Gondar, where members of the Ethiopian Jewish community wait in squalid conditions for approval to move to Israel.

Claudia Felson, president of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, and her husband, Rick, at the Jewish Agency school in Gondar.

“We were so moved by what we saw, when we saw how people were living and the level of malnutrition and lack of education and everything that we take for granted,” said one of the travelers, Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the East Bay federation. “Every person we bring to Israel gives them an opportunity for a new life — arguably saving their life.”

The government of Israel decided this year to step up the rate of aliyah from Ethiopia so the immigration of the remainder of the eligible Falash Mura can be completed by October 2013. The Falash Mura are members of the Ethiopian Jewish community who converted to Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 2011, the Israeli government asked the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish Federations of North America to raise $5.5 million to help fund the final part of an operation that has been going on since the 1980s and has brought thousands of Ethiopians to Israel. The East Bay federation did its part with a two-year commitment.

On the trip to Ethiopia, Brandt and the others — including Claudia Felson, East Bay federation president — toured the waiting centers in Gondar. They visited schools, a synagogue and Jewish community center that are situated among houses made of mud and straw, where there is no electricity, no water and no bathrooms.

And there the people wait.

Soon-to-be immigrants to Israel daven at the Jewish Agency community center in Gondar. photos/courtesy jewish federation of the east bay

“Some are waiting up to five years. It’s not an immediate thing,” Felson said. “When they move to Gondar and begin waiting, they have not yet been approved, and they have to come to Israel under the Law of [Entry], and this process can take awhile.

“There’s no written records, and their claims of Jewish ancestry need to be verified, which is not a simple process,” Felson added. “The North American community has helped raise money for the operation so that this process can happen in a more manageable time period.”

The East Bay contingent, which included Felson’s husband, Rick, and Marianne Friedman of Piedmont, accompanied 93 Ethiopian Jews to the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa and then flew with them on a charter flight to Israel in mid-October. A week later, another 240 arrived at Ben Gurion Airport.

But the process is far from over when the Falash Mura arrive. Once in Israel, they are placed in one of 17 absorption centers, where most live for two years until they’re ready to be successful on their own. That’s another reason the process takes so long — the centers must have the room and space to take in new immigrants.

Felson said that the 93 Ethiopians she traveled with will be blanketed with services, counseling and education over the next two years, after which each family will get a $200,000 stipend to buy a home. Also, children of Ethiopian immigrant parents will receive free education through graduate school. All of the bills are footed by the government to help “ensure that the Ethiopians can succeed and do not become an underclass,” Felson said.

“You can’t just drop them on a street and expect them to have a life,” she added. “It’s a very, very profound commitment … It’s not just about surviving in Israel but about thriving.”

In April, when Felson and Brandt return to Israel on the East Bay’s big community trip, they plan to visit absorption centers and check in on some of the 93 Ethiopians with whom they traveled.

For more information on Ethiopian aliyah, visit www.jewishagency.org and pull down the “Making History” tab.