“How is it not our responsibility to help them?’
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“How is it not our responsibility to help them?’

JFNNJ leaders join efforts bringing Ethiopian immigrants to Israel

Dina Bassen stands behind four Ethiopian boys at the airport. (All photos by Jason Shames; courtesy Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey
Dina Bassen stands behind four Ethiopian boys at the airport. (All photos by Jason Shames; courtesy Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey

On the morning of September 13, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s CEO, Jason M. Shames, walked into a shul in Ethiopia.

He saw more than 500 — maybe even 700 — men and woman singing the morning liturgy. Some of the melodies sounded familiar to him, and at the end they sang Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel.

Mr. Shames was there with about 80 other Federation leaders from across North America to accompany the airlift of 209 Ethiopian Jews to the land they yearn for all their lives; the land where many of them already have relatives waiting for them.

The immigrants flew to Israel on a special flight chartered by the Jewish Agency for Israel as part of Operation Zur Israel, an initiative the government approved in December 2020 to bring thousands of Ethiopians to the Jewish state. So far, 1,478 Ethiopian immigrants have arrived in Israel this year.

Since Israel was establishment in 1948, about 95,000 Ethiopians have been relocated there by the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government body for immigrant facilitation and absorption.

The Jewish Federations of North America has pledged to raise $9 million to help the Jewish Agency continue this effort and to provide humanitarian assistance for members of the Ethiopian community still awaiting their turn to make aliyah.

Suzette Diamond hugs a new immigrant.

The JFNNJ will contribute “as much money as humanly possible” toward that goal, Mr. Shames said a day after landing back in New Jersey, along with fellow delegates Dina Bassen and Robin Epstein of Tenafly and Suzette Diamond of Manhattan.

Mr. Shames, who first visited Ethiopia in 2008, is aware of the complicated backstory of Ethiopia’s Jewish communities, known collectively as Beta Israel, the House of Israel.

There are varying traditions explaining how these Jews ended up in Ethiopia around the fourth century CE. Having been isolated from mainstream Jews for at least a thousand years, they practice a biblical form of Judaism devoid of later rabbinic laws and holidays, including Purim and Chanukah. Many of their ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Their strong faith and unwavering focus on Jerusalem left no doubt in Mr. Shames’s mind that world Jewry must continue supporting the repatriation of these African Jews to their ancestral homeland. Some have been waiting a decade or more.

“It is very clear to me that however the Jewish community in Ethiopia evolved is overridden by the fact that they clearly identify as Beta Israel and practice Judaism in way that is remarkably similar to how we practice it,” he said.

There is no similarity, however, in the living conditions.

Jewish Agency Chairman Maj. Gen. (Reserve) Doron Almog, third from right, is at the airport in Gondar with members of the JFNA delegation and the Ethiopian community.

The synagogue Mr. Shames visited in Gondar was part of a facility run by the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry. SSEJ also operates a soup kitchen and a nutrition program for preschoolers that provides an egg, a milk product, juice, and a piece of bread to each child daily.

“We went into people’s homes who were on the list to go,” Mr. Shames said. “These families live in mud huts about 12 feet by 12 feet, with no electricity or plumbing. The kids run around barefoot. And despite everything, their dream is to go to Jerusalem. You see this, and you hear them talk about Jerusalem, and you think, how is it not our responsibility to help them?”

He was especially moved by his conversation with an 18-year-old man who expressed his wish to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and learn Hebrew.

The Federation delegation communicated with the aid of translators who’d arrived in Israel through either Operation Moses, in the mid-1980s, or Operation Solomon in 1991. Their families had received two years of assistance in acclimating, and many, particularly in the older generations, continued struggling to find their place in Israeli society.

“It’s not enough to bring them to Israel,” Mr. Shames said. “We also need to give them an opportunity to become an equal part of Israel.”

He will never forget the experience of flying to Israel with the 209 immigrants on September 14, he said. “None of them had ever been on an airplane, so there was an awful lot of excitement. Everyone was in the aisles handing the kids toys, candy, and stickers. When we landed, there was applause and tears.

A little girl gets ready to fly to Israel.

“You’ve seen those images of Ethiopian Jews getting on their knees and kissing the tarmac, and I can tell you that’s for real. It was very emotional.

“And there was a lot of family reunification. There was someone on our plane who hadn’t seen her father in 13 years.”

The passengers were greeted with singing and dancing, and they proceeded to a reception hall where they were addressed in their native Amharic by Israel’s Minister of Aliyah and Integration, Pnina Tamano-Shata, who was born in northern Ethiopia in 1981 and spent much of her first three years in a refugee camp in Sudan.

Ms. Tamano-Shata said that she has arranged to bring 5,000 Ethiopians to Israel in the past two years, all of them with first-degree relatives in Israel. She added that approximately 2,000 people still in Ethiopia have immediate family members, grandchildren, or grandparents living in Israel. She has appointed a project manager to lead a mission to Ethiopia to better understand how many Jews still are in that country, and “exactly how the government should deal with this issue.”

From the airport, the new arrivals were taken to immigrant absorption centers. The following day, the Federation visitors went to see one such center, in the southern city of Kiryat Gat. They sat in on classes in Hebrew language and Jewish culture and traditions. They listened as the Ethiopians talked about their difficulties and aspirations.

One woman in Kiryat Gat, who’d made aliyah with her husband and their 4-year-old child two months ago, said she never had felt safe amid the widespread lawlessness in Ethiopia. She told a harrowing story of how her younger brother had been kidnapped for ransom.

Dina Bassen, left, and Robin Epstein, both from Tenafly, stand with an Israeli flag after they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport.

“You hear that, and you realize how urgent this is,” Mr. Shames said.

“These people are every bit as Jewish as I am and are no different than any of us, but they need more help because the country they’re coming from is pretty backward. There is so much they have to learn about Western culture and lifestyle.”

To cite just one of many examples, he pointed out that in Ethiopia everyone had a smoke pit for cooking, and now they must learn to prepare food using electric or gas appliances. Even the ability to shower indoors is novel.

Mr. Shames said these encounters were a humbling reminder of how easy it is to be a practicing Jew in a place like Bergen County, with access to plenty of kosher food, schools, and shuls. In stark contrast, Ethiopian Jews are a persecuted minority with few resources, “caught between government conflict and the constant potential for civil war.”

As a Jewish communal professional, he came away with the conviction that global Jewry has an obligation to step up immediately and provide whatever Ethiopian immigrants need to reach Israel and forge new lives there.

“This is what the ingathering of the exiles is all about,” he said. “This is the moment.”

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