Dana Post Adler remembers hearing about the Jews of Ethiopia in the mid 1980s. She was in high school in 1985, when Operation Exodus brought 8,000 Ethiopian Jews from refugee camps in Sudan to Israel.
“I find their story incredibly inspirational and uplifting and almost magical in a way,” Ms. Adler said.
Ms. Adler grew up in Englewood Cliffs and raised her three children in Tenafly; in December, she moved to Florida. Her involvement with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — she served on its board — led to work with the umbrella Jewish Federations of North American organization and a seat on the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Zionist social service agency funded by the federations. Now she has taken on the role of North American chair of the Ethiopian National Project, an organization formed as a partnership of the Israeli government and diaspora Jewry to help in the assimilation of Israel’s Ethiopian Jews, who now number nearly 150,000. With a budget of around $3.4 million, the project’s headline program now provides afterschool programs for Ethiopian teens in 16 Israeli cities.
It was in 2007 that Ms. Adler finally experienced the journey from Ethiopia to Israel for herself, when she took part in a mission to Ethiopia for the Jewish Federations of North America.
“The trip changed my life,” she said. “We brought back 71 olim” — new immmigrants — “to Israel during that trip. I got my first hand experience.”
Ms. Adler and the other JFNA volunteers on the trip were accompanied by “some of the engineers of Operation Solomon,” the 1991 covert Israeli military operation that brought 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours as the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam was about to be overrun by rebels.
Ms. Adler had read up on Operation Solomon before the trip. “It was like the book was coming alive,” she said. “All of these people who were the principles of it were with us. They brought us to Gondor, the province in Ethiopia where the Jewish community was from, and to the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa. All of the olim were lined up with their families. They were so quiet. They were carrying their baskets of belongings on their heads.”
With her later work on the Jewish Agency board, “I’ve gotten to experience more interactions with Ethiopians. I’ve met successful Ethiopians, like the former Miss Israel” — Yityish “Titi” Aynaw won the crown in 2013 — “and restaurateurs who use microloans and members of Knesset.”
Given that, “when the director of the Ethiopian National Project reached out to me if I want to become the new North American chair, I leaped at the chance,” she said.
She started at the beginning of August. This week, the Israeli government informed the project that due to the failure to pass a state budget, state payments are on hold until December.
“It’s interesting times we’re living in,” Ms. Adler said.
She said the project’s afterschool program, which is supported in part by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, has proven results.
“Many of the Ethiopian students have to deal with the challenges of poverty, and of parents who are uneducated,” she said.
But of the participants in the program, “81 percent have gotten their matriculation certificate” — the equivalent of high school diploma. That’s compared to a matriculation rate of only 73 percent among the overall Israeli population.
But even before this week’s budget problems, the funds weren’t there to do all the work that should be done. “In the past we’ve only reached 4,000 of the 13,000 Ethiopian high school students,” she said. “We would love to reach more kids.”
Ms. Adler laid out three goals she has as leader of the Ethiopian National Project. “One of my goals is to invite Israeli philanthropists to become involved,” she said. “I would love to match up one or two Israeli philanthropists with one or two American Jewish philanthropists.”
Her prime goal is to continue to “uplift as may Ethiopian children as possible, so they can be true partners and equal in Israeli society,” she said.
“At the same time, I want to highlight the Ethiopian success stories as an inspiration. Given what’s happening in American politics, the death of George Floyd, there’s a lot of Americans who want to fight for social justice and want to be proud of themselves as Jews. If we can make a connection with Black Americans, Ethiopian Jews, and Jewish Americans, it will be really exciting. We could do this through music, through fashion, through academics. Highlight the idea that the Black community is a minority, the Jewish community is a minority, open a dialogue about what the two have in common, and what the differences are. I’d love to bring in speakers, some amazing celebrities even if it’s virtual at this point, even some music. Just to try to create connections.”
If this sounds interesting and you want to get involved, “Start with the North Jersey federation,” Ms. Adler said. “They’re very proud sponsors. Or people can reach out to me through the Ethiopian National Project website, enp.org.il.
“We’d like to see more young people excited by this. I’d love to bring together as many people as possible.”
How long does she expect to have this role?
“The last person was in it for five or six years,” she said. “I would love to be in this position three to five years at the most, and I would love to see a Jewish person of color take this position over. We need to find more Jews of color in this country and get them on this board. I’d love to mentor some of them to take over and fill my shoes.”