Am Yisrael chai
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Am Yisrael chai

A firsthand look at Ethiopian aliyah

Ethiopean immigrants reunite with family members on arriving in Israel. (Courtesy Alisa Bodner)
Ethiopean immigrants reunite with family members on arriving in Israel. (Courtesy Alisa Bodner)

It was nearing midnight, and the 82 new olim from Gondar, Ethiopia, still had not arrived through the greetings hall.

I could continue to wait for them; the family members who had arrived to greet them had waited 10 or more years, in some cases, for this moment.

And then, as if it were carefully planned, the more than 100 family members, teens from Israeli youth movements, and activists who were waiting to greet the new immigrants charged forward past the imaginary “do not cross” line as the sliding doors opened and the first of the new immigrants walked out. In typical Israeli fashion, an airport worker helplessly tried to stop the charge of people — but they had no intention of heeding the man’s words.

The families had waited for more than a decade and nothing more would delay them from embracing their loved ones.

My eyes glanced from person to person, hoping to spot a familiar face, or perhaps one of my students from the month I spent volunteering with the Jewish community in Gondar this summer. I walked by a group of young children who were dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb in honor of the festive occasion. They were playing with a large helium balloon somebody had handed them, absolutely fascinated by this first-world toy.

I saw an emotional reunion between two brothers living in Israel and a third brother they had not seen in seven years.

I watched families shed tears of joy but also tears of sadness over loved ones who had died in Ethiopia, never making it to the Promised Land.

I continued to look around for familiar faces. Meanwhile, a group of Israeli teens from the Bnei Akiva youth movement erupted in song — “Am Yisrael Chai.” I joined them and thought back to the Hatikvah Synagogue in Gondar, where the entire congregation chanted this song after daily morning and evening prayer services — and I sang it with them. The immigrants must have chanted it thousands of times, but now they were hearing it for the first time in Israel.

The weekly erev Shabbat Bnei Akiva sing-along also flashed through my mind. The Bnei Akiva chapter in Gondar is led by 18-year-old Ermias Gebrie, who sends me messages on Whatsapp asking why his friends are making aliyah but still he is left behind. Ermias had explained that the Bnei Akiva activities in Gondar are so important for the 400 or so children who participate. When they arrive in Israel, everything will be new and different for them, but when they go to Bnei Akiva in Israel, they will see the same shirts that their Ethiopian counselors in Gondar wear, and they will feel right at home. So when I saw the Israeli Bnei Akiva teens greet the young immigrants with candy and handshakes, naturally I smiled.

I continued to walk through the crowd — and then I saw Yitzhak. Yitzhak is one of the 10-year-old boys who was in my class in Gondar. I reached my hand out to him and he returned it with a hug and a big smile. Each Thursday, my lesson with the 10-year-old girls and boys would end with us standing in a circle, linking arms and singing the Shabbat song that one of the Ethiopian teen counselors wrote and composed. This coming Shabbat, Yitzhak can sing that song in Israel.

Knesset member Dr. Avraham Neguise is one of the leading advocates for the Ethiopian aliyah, and has done phenomenal work within the Knesset to bring many Jews home. Two years ago, the Israeli government issued a ruling to bring the remaining Jews in Ethiopia to Israel but soon it rescinded this decision, because of budgetary considerations. The 8,000 Jews remaining in Ethiopia and their families in Israel are uncertain about what the future holds. Some teens in Ethiopia told me that they have classmates who refuse to study with them because they are Jewish. How is it that there are those in Israel who claim that the Jews in Ethiopia do not have Jewish roots, yet in Ethiopia those same Jews are targets of anti-Semitism?

Yitzhak and the other children will begin school in the next few days. The adults will begin ulpan. Meanwhile, aliyah still feels like a far-away dream to the friends they left behind in Ethiopia. It seems like “Am Yisrael Chai” will continue to be chanted in Gondar for a long time to come.

Alisa Bodner is a native of Fair Lawn who has lived in Jerusalem for the last seven years. She has been involved with many social initiatives to benefit underserved Israeli and Jewish populations and recently returned from volunteering with the Jewish community in Gondar, Ethiopia. For more information on how to get involved in the struggle for Ethiopian aliyah, write to her at iamalisab@gmail.com.

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