Sometimes, it’s easy to read a continual drip-drip-drip of headlines and forget about the people behind them.
Take, for example, the headlines these past couple of years about the Falash Mura, the former-and-perhaps-future Jews of Ethiopia, who want to move to Israel.
In November 2015, the Israeli cabinet approved the immigration of 9,000 of Ethiopians of Jewish descent. That seemed to close a chapter on a three-and-a-half decade saga of secret rescues, public advocacy, and mass immigration. And then nothing.
And next there was the headline this June, saying “Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel for the first time in seven months.”
Wait a minute. What happened? And what about the real people there?
It turned out that Israel had budgeted only enough money to bring 100 Ethiopians to Israel each month. At that rate, it would take eight years for all of them to make it to Israel. But almost all of even that small allocation remained unspent, and the Falash Mura remained in Ethiopia.
All this is immensely frustrating for Barbara Ribakove Gordon of New York, who founded the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in 1982, when the Jews of Ethiopia weren’t even on the American Jewish community’s radar. Despite that, there were real people suffering, so she went about making headlines. That helped lead to Operation Moses, which brought 8,000 Jews to Israel in 1984, and Operation Solomon, which brought 14,000 more in 1991.
Now, Ms. Gordon worries about the thousands of Falash Mura still in Ethiopia, people whom her organization can’t care for directly.
“The condition of the people in Ethiopia is very poor,” she said. “They left their homes and villages and farms years and years ago, because they had to be in Addis Ababa or Gondar City to register for aliya. They have been hanging on in Gondar and Addis Ababa for a long time. Now you have this group that has no home, that persists in rented hovels, in many cases supported only by what their families in Israel can scrape together to send them. It’s very difficult and painful.”
These are the last remnant of the Falash Mura — “Jews who made a pro forma conversion to Christianity. Some a hundred years ago, some far, far more recently,” she said.
Despite their conversions, they didn’t assimilate into the Christian majority. They and their neighbors knew they were different.
In part, this was because their Jewish identity went beyond religious creed.
“In Ethiopia, only the Jews were metal workers and potters,” Ms. Gordon said. “Both of those crafts required being able to control fire, which in many parts of Africa was considered to have help from the devil.
“This was taken very seriously. The men who were metal workers were considered to be powerful, evil magicians. When I was going to Ethiopia in the 1980s, there were Jews in jail on charges of having cast a spell on somebody’s crop or somebody’s children.”
The Falash Mura continued practicing these crafts, “years after they had supposedly become Christian. There was no question about it. They themselves knew they were Jews even if they were no longer practicing. The Christians knew they were Jews. They were in a kind of religious limbo.”
For many years, NACOEJ ran schools and feeding centers in Ethiopia. In 2011, it closed up shop in Ethiopia, giving its programs to the Jewish Agency as part of an agreement that would lead to a resumption of aliyah. “It did get the aliyah started, but it has never been completed,” Ms. Gordon said.
For the past year and a half, NACOEJ has been funding programs that the Ethiopian Jews run themselves. In particular, the programs provide food for children. “We’re now very concerned about a report from a health clinic in Gondar,” Ms. Gordon said. “It found that over half of the children are seriously malnourished. Some are also ill with things like malaria, typhus, intestinal parasites, pneumonia.
“It is clear that a great deal of attention has to be paid to feeding these kids. I have no doubt that most of them, if they survive, will be in Israel eventually. The only question is what shape will they be in when they get there. We very much want them to arrive healthy.”
Helping the Ethiopians in Israel also long has been one of NACOEJ’s missions. “We decided the future of the community in Israel depended on education, and that was what we wanted to work in,” Ms. Gordon said.
The first project was having American Jews sponsor Ethiopian college students to provide living stipends.
“The government of Israel was paying for their college education. But they were having difficulties, since their families couldn’t support them,” Ms. Gordon said. “Thousands and thousands have graduated as a result.”
Diana Yacobi of Englewood is one of the sponsors. She sits on the board of NACOEJ.
Her interest in Ethiopian Jews was sparked by their embroidery. In 1990, when thousands of Jews were in Addis Ababa before they were allowed to emigrate, NACOEJ commissioned needlework from them, to give them jobs. As many as a thousand workers created pillowcases, tallit bags, challah covers, and other objects featuring Ethiopian Jewish life and Jewish themes.
“At one point, I went in and bought a whole bunch,” Ms. Yacobi said. “Based on that gesture I became more involved.”
She has been sponsoring high school students through NACOEJ. “Each child requires a $350 supplement to pay for their textbooks and school trips,” she said. “Their parents can’t afford that.”
As a sponsor, she has been able to “shepherd kids through their high school years.”
She has a chance to meet the students when she visits Israel. “It keeps these kids connected, keeps them afloat, gives them resources to participate with all the other students,” she said.
“There are many more Ethiopians who are moving ahead in Israeli society. There are many who are not succeeding, who go through the system and struggle. There are stories of the young Ethiopians in the army caught between a rock and a hard place. Because they’re helping a sibling or had to do something at home, they don’t get back to the army base on time and bump up against the system that penalizes them.”
NACOEJ offers younger students Limudiah — a supplementary classroom program that adds 10 hours of education to the school week and offers lunch every day. “Right now, we have 718 students in 16 schools in seven communities,” Ms. Gordon said.
That number includes some non-Ethiopian students.
“A year ago, the government mandated that all programs for Ethiopians that take place in government facilities must be integrated,” she said. “Now we have about 30 percent non-Ethiopians in the Limudiah classroom. I wish the government would pay for it, but that hasn’t happened yet.
“We have been told when it comes to going to high school, people can always tell which of the kids have been to Limudiah, because they are well prepared,” she said.
But Ms. Gordon wants to focus on the people, not the problems.
“We have Ethiopian judges, lawyers, medical doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists, rabbis, Knesset members, other government functionaries, authors, dancers, singers, actors, filmmakers,” she said.
“We have Miss Israel” — Yityish Titi Aynaw, who won the title in 2013 — “and while she was never in one of our programs, we recently had the librarian of the year. He was somebody we rescued from Ethiopia as a child, who had been crippled by polio and couldn’t work. He graduated from Bar Ilan University with a NACOEJ sponsor and became a librarian.
“We think there is very great evidence that even though the early years are hard and expensive, the Ethiopian community is a great asset to Israel and will be a greater one as time goes on. We think the ones who are waiting in Ethiopia now will get into Israel and make Israel very proud too.