Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Architect of Ethiopian airlift warns of emigre ‘underclass’ | NJJN

Micha Feldmann with four Jewish orphans in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, four years before they were able to make aliya in August 2011.

 Photo courtesy SELAH+ enlarge image
Micha Feldmann with four Jewish orphans in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, four years before they were able to make aliya in August 2011.
Photo courtesy SELAH
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Speaking at Temple Beth Shalom, Micha Feldmann described Ethiopian Jews’ ongoing struggle to adapt to Israeli society.

 Photo by Benjamin Yavelberg
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Speaking in Livingston, an architect of the mass migration of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel described the mission he helped initiate 29 years before, almost to the day.
On Nov. 21, 1984, Israeli diplomat Micha Feldmann greeted a planeload of 283 Jews at Ben-Gurion Airport, the first of more than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews who would travel from Sudan to Israel in the following three months.
Later, as Israeli consul to Ethiopia and head of the Jewish Agency for Israel mission there, Feldmann would help lead Operation Solomon, a 1991 endeavor that brought more than 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel over the course of 36 hours.
In his talk at Temple Beth Shalom, Feldmann, author of On Wings of Eagles: The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus, related his role in the rescue, but also described the challenges faced by Israel’s 130,000 Ethiopians today.
“These are black people coming into a white society,” said Feldmann, who serves as director of the Ethiopian division of SELAH, the Israel Crisis Management Center. “They need that we embrace them. We tell them ‘welcome,’ but they do not feel that they are welcome.”
Feldman described how Ethiopian Jews still struggle with absorption on a daily basis, with only half of the eligible members of the population currently enrolled in Israeli schools. While a large percentage of Ethiopian youth join the army, many attempt to drop out in order to find ways to support their families. Parents consistently struggle to adapt to working in Israel’s advanced economy, he said.
Feldmann also said that while many Israelis accept Ethiopians as members of their society, they do not actively accept them as equals. He said he encourages his fellow citizens to help the Ethiopians reach their potential.
“We can’t allow ourselves to have a black underclass in Israel,” he said.
Feldmann described the careful and secretive negotiations, begun in the mid-1980s, to facilitate the mass aliya of the African country’s isolated Jewish population, then clustered largely in Gondar.
After five years of waiting and planning, the Ethiopian government agreed to allow for the transport of all of the Jews from the town in exchange for $36 million and on the condition that the airlift would involve only unmarked planes. In May 1991, thousands of people were flown out of Addis Ababa on jam-packed 747s.
Operation Solomon, though the biggest, was not the only extraction process that Feldmann ran. He helped transport Ethiopian children to Israeli boarding schools, and maintained detailed records in order to reconnect parents with their children. Reuniting extended families became a priority of the absorption effort, he said.
“You would imagine when we’d meet they would bring up issues like housing, health, education, employment — none of those,” he said. “The only issue that they would speak about, was ‘Where are our families?’ They described their situation as if someone had taken a knife and cut their families into two.”
Earlier that evening, Feldmann thanked leaders of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ in Whippany for their support of the Ethiopian aliya and absorption. Feldmann, who was born in Germany and lived there again after World War II, recalled how the full impact of the Ethiopian aliya struck him on a visit to Dachau.
“If Israel had been founded only 10 years earlier, there wouldn’t have been an Auschwitz, and I would have had my grandparents,” he said. “Thank God I was able to be part of making history.”
Feldmann’s talk was sponsored by the federation’s Legow Family Israel Program Center.
At Temple Beth Shalom, congregant Stuart Wainberg said he recently spent time in Ethiopia with Feldmann as a member of a Greater MetroWest mission. “Micha is one of the world’s greatest witnesses to the story,” Wainberg said. “He followed his heart on a dangerous and emotional roller-coaster that climaxed with Operation Solomon.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Ethiopian Jews | JPost | Israel News

Rabbi Yosef succeeded in revealing what had been forgotten for years: the historic truth of Beta Israel’s Jewishness.

Hundreds of thousands turn out for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's funeral in Jerusalem, October 7, 2013.
Hundreds of thousands turn out for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's funeral in Jerusalem, October 7, 2013. Photo: Koby Gideon/GPO
In one of my lectures about the halachic (pertaining to Jewish law) status of Jews in Israel, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent expressed his concern about the future of the entire Ethiopian community in Israel. He raised his hand and asked, “Who will protect us if something happens to Rabbi Ovadia?” When I asked him what he meant, he explained that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the one responsible for him being able to move to Israel, since “Rabbi Ovadia was the only one who made the halachic ruling that we are Ethiopian Jews. As long as he lives, he will protect us. I am fearful that after he dies, they’ll send us back to Ethiopia, since there won’t be anyone else to protect us,” the boy said with palpable fear in his voice.

Throughout the years, Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian rabbis affiliated with the Shas party have proclaimed in the days preceding Knesset and municipal elections that Ethiopian immigrants in Israel are in debt to Rabbi Yosef for recognizing their halachic status as Jews, and that they must therefore vote for Shas. I’ve heard people say, “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef brought you here... because of him we are here... you owe it to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.”

Indeed, many members of the Ethiopian community, as well as many Israelis in general, believe that Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel not because of their historical right as Jews, but as a result of Rabbi Yosef’s ruling that they were in fact Jews.

Everyone agrees that Rabbi Yosef’s 1973 ruling, which recognized Ethiopian Jews’ religious status, was the most important factor in making their aliya possible. His ruling brought about a complete turnaround in attitudes of the government and the Jewish Agency. There is no end to our appreciation of him for making this historic ruling, which was just one among many others.

At that time, the State of Israel and the rabbinic world were quite ambivalent about how to deal with the situation.

Some rabbis disagreed with the ruling; they based their decisions on research indicating that we had non- Jewish origins. The Israeli government’s attitude toward Ethiopian Jews was hesitant at best.

As one Jewish Agency representative remarked at the time, “To the detriment of the Falasha community, the powers that be are hesitant to accept their legitimacy. The hearts of the poor and innocent Falasha vacillated between hope and despair.

Their lives and their children’s lives, and their feelings of loyalty, became victims of a cruel game.”

This was the background to Rabbi Yosef’s appearance on the scene, and his landmark ruling that “the Falashas are Jews whom we must rescue before they become assimilated.

We must quickly bring them to Israel. As the book of Jeremiah says, ‘The sons will return home.’” Where did Rabbi Yosef find the strength to say this? In one of the Beit Hillel conferences, Rabbi Daniel Hershkowitz, the president of Bar-Ilan University, asked: what is the most important part of a two-story house? His answer was the stairs that connect the two floors. In my opinion, this was the secret of Rabbi Yosef’s greatness. He had two traits that made him one of the greatest geniuses of our generation: while on the one hand he was incredibly courageous, and on the other he was a great Talmudic scholar, he had the fantastic ability to bring the two together, and also to connect with the people. There are plenty of Talmudic scholars who lack courage and plenty of courageous people who are not scholarly. Rabbi Yosef was a combination of the two.

A number of years ago a yeshiva student asked me, “Did you have bibles back in Ethiopia? Did you pray? Do you have the same Torah as we do?” This question reminded me of an incident that took place in the 1950s, when a renowned Ashkenazi haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi asked Rabbi Yosef, who was of Iraqi (ancient Babylon) origin, “Do you have the same Talmud as we do?” To which Rabbi Ovadia replied, “And which Talmud does the esteemed rabbi have? The Babylonian Talmud! That means you have our Talmud!” There’s no doubt that Rabbi Yosef’s ruling was unprecedented and historic, however, he only did what was expected of a courageous Talmudic scholar. Just as a physicist is required to uncover truths in nature, so too is the halachic scholar expected to reveal truths in the Torah. And just as a physician weaves certain materials together in an effort to cure people’s ailments, so too does a halachic scholar.

Because of his genius and greatness, Rabbi Yosef succeeded in revealing what had been forgotten for thousands of years: the historic truth of Beta Israel’s Jewishness. In this respect, Rabbi Ovadia is an outstanding example of what a halachic genius with a little bit of courage can do to find solutions within halacha.

And to the student I referred to at the beginning of this article, I would reply: You are our brother. Have no fear. You are an integral part of the Jewish people.

The author is the rabbi of Kedoshei Yisrael Community in Kiryat Gat, member of Tzohar and a Jewish philosophy doctoral student at Bar Ilan University, Translated by Hannah Hochner.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews gather in Jerusalem to celebrate return to Israel on Sig’d holiday | JPost | Israel News

Biblical holiday held annually 50 days after Yom Kippur to pray for repentance, and deliverance to Jerusalem.
Ethiopians celebrate Sig'd in Jerusalem, 2013.
Ethiopians celebrate Sig'd in Jerusalem, 2013. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis from across the nation gathered in the capital Thursday to celebrate Sigd, a holiday marked 50 days after Yom Kippur by repenting for sins and praying for a return to Zion, the coming of the Messiah and a Third Temple.

Officially designated a national holiday in Israel in 2009, it is said that Sigd was observed for 2,500 years by Jews in Ethiopia. Since their mass exodus from the country, mostly in the 1980s and early 1990s, Ethiopian Israelis now gather annually in Jerusalem to mark the day.

Thursday’s ceremony, held at the Sherover Promenade in the southeastern part of the city, was attended by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, Minister of Education Shai Piron, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, and numerous MKs, rabbis and priests.

“Today is important because this holiday began in Ethiopia a long time ago,” said Tamir Sanbatao, 32, of Petah Tikva, who immigrated with eight family members during Operation Moses in 1984.

Sanbatao, now the father of three, noted that in Ethiopia the holiday was observed in a fashion far different from Thursday’s festivities, which included dozens of food vendors, singing and dancing.

“In Ethiopia we fasted the entire day and climbed a local mountain to pray for forgiveness and deliverance to Jerusalem. Now that we’re here we pray the Messiah will come and that a third Temple will be built,” he said.

“Even though we’re celebrating today,: he explained, “we’re still waiting and praying for this day to come.”

Thirty-eight-year-old Mevrat Lior Perdu, arrived with his family during Operation Moses and is a teacher living in Azor, near Tel Aviv.

“This holiday is very special because in the Kaballah it says that there are 49 gates to go to heaven after Yom Kippur, and if someone didn’t get forgiveness he has a second chance on the 50th day, which is today,” Perdu said.

While he is pleased to live in Israel, he added that his “journey” will not end until the Messiah comes and the Third Temple is built.

“We are still on our journey here because we will not reach the last stop until that time,” he said. “We will never quit until then.”

Meanwhile, actor and producer Shai Fredo – who founded the Sigdiada Festival in Tel Aviv two years ago to celebrate Ethiopian culture with other Israelis as a prelude to Sigd – described the holiday as “beautiful.”

“It’s a beautiful day for us because in Ethiopia we’ve celebrated it for 2,500 years,” Fredo said. “Finally, after thousands of years, we are here and we can pray and celebrate to say thank you to God for taking us here.”

He added that he hoped one day the holiday would be embraced by the entire nation.

“This holiday is for everyone, not just the Ethiopian people,” he said. “The reason I started the Sigdiada Festival was to show other Jews the beauty and diversity of our culture.”

Pnina Rada of Tel Aviv, who came during Operation Moses at the age of seven, echoed Fredo’s sentiments.

“I’m deeply, deeply happy that we are keeping this holiday because it’s the reason we’re here,” she said. “The adventure now is to make this a holiday for all of Israeli society.”

Asked if she believed whether the Ethiopian immigrant community had been truly integrated into society, Rada said much work still needed to be done.

“I don’t think we’re in a place of 100 percent integration because we are still not getting good jobs or being adequately represented in businesses,” she said, attributing this to general ignorance about Ethiopian people and culture.

“People think they know everything about Ethiopians, but they don’t and we want them to know the diversity of our culture,” Rada added.

“We don’t want people to think of us as ‘uneducated Ethiopians.’” While she conceded that complete integration remained a problem, she was optimistic that one day Ethiopians would be viewed as an integral part of Israeli society.

“I hope there will be a time when Israeli society sees Ethiopian people as an important part of it, and I think we are on our way,” she said.

The Ethiopian mass exodus to Israel began during the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who murdered thousands of African Jews, separated families, displaced survivors, orphaned children and forbade all from practicing Judaism. This oppression – compounded by unparalleled famine, the highest infant mortality rate in the world and the constant threat of war – resulted in an untenable existence for the country’s tens of thousands of Jews.

Under the auspices of the Israeli government, covert rescue missions known as Operations Moses and Joshua, and 1991’s massive Operation Solomon, saved more than 21,000 Ethiopian- Jewish lives.