Recently on a Friday night in mid-November, I sat in the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus in Jerusalem, along with almost 100 other Angelenos, to welcome the Shabbat. As the walls of the Old City stood illuminated outside a sweeping glass window, I thought of another religious service I had attended a week earlier and thousands of miles away.
I was in a compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, sitting with 500 men, women and children, all praying in Hebrew during Shabbat. I was there as part of a small group of lay and professional leaders from the United States to try to understand a complex and confusing series of issues surrounding the Falash Mura, a group of more than 20,000 Ethiopians who claim Judaism as their faith and are eagerly awaiting aliyah.
The differences between the two services could not have been more striking. In Jerusalem, we were all well-dressed and appeared healthy. In Addis Ababa, the group was dressed in threadbare, hand-me-down clothes. Not surprisingly, many looked unhealthy.
Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries on the face of the earth, a place where more than 12 million people are victims of a drought that has created a widespread famine. Fortunately for the Jews, they are not suffering from famine.
However, even with the distribution of foodstuffs and periodic medical care from the American Jewish community, they live an existence that we can scarcely envision. A room full of mothers, many of whom appeared to be teenagers, sat with babes in arms as they waited to receive the nutritional assistance that would stabilize their physical health and to learn if they are eligible for immigration to Israel.
Standing in the hot sun, watching people quietly line up for medication from the Joint Distribution Committee to combat parasitic worms that create swollen bellies and weaken their health, I could only be thankful that most Jews worldwide do not have to suffer in these deplorable conditions.
Many of you may be surprised to learn that Jews still live in Ethiopia. After Operations Moses and Solomon, it was widely believed that the Jews from this far-off country had been brought home to Israel. The complexity of the situation for those left behind was brought to light as more Ethiopians came forward to the Israeli authorities and requested assistance in family reunification with those who had left earlier.
Although a recent finding of the Chief Rabbinate has confirmed their eligibility to apply to enter Israel, the travails of living in Ethiopia have created a humanitarian dilemma that is not black or white in its resolution.
The Falash Mura are a group of Jewish descent, whose ancestors converted to Christianity in past generations. Many of the women nursing their children had tattooed crosses on their foreheads, surely a symbol of how confusing this matter is to resolve. Yet in Addis Ababa or further north in Gondar, the traditional regional home of the Falash Mura, thousands wait for an answer that they hope will transport them from this grinding poverty to another, better reality in Israel.
Watching young children study Hebrew — an education program supported by the National Conference for Ethiopian Jewry — as their parents engaged in Jewish worship or while speaking to the elected Falash Mura communal leadership, one is constantly struck by the anomalies of acting in a compassionate and yet thoughtful fashion. Who wouldn’t want to leave if they had the chance?
That is why the process for approval is so slow. For applicants to actually qualify for aliyah, they must be related to those Beta Israel who have previously relocated to Israel. With an average of 300 people actually leaving each month, it could take years for all those who wait patiently to depart.
Yet, if 4,000 have left Ethiopia in recent years, why don’t the overall numbers seem to be diminishing? How many others will step forward and request assistance?
A few days later on a visit to the office of the prime minister, I heard the din of more than 1,000 Ethiopian Jewish activists demonstrating outside. Their desire was simple: to help their families still waiting to join them.
The demonstration was also an eloquent reminder of the democratic face of the Jewish state. People who had lived for decades as peasants in Ethiopia’s feudal system, and later under its communist regime with no rights, were now exercising their right as Israelis to demand equitable treatment.
While the prime minister acknowledged the need to find a timely resolution for the Falash Mura, I know that the present realities in Israel would mean that the aliyah and klitah (absorption) of this branch of the Jewish people could place a heavy burden on both Israelis and world Jewry at a time of so many other challenges.
At a moment when world opinion seems to be so critical of the Jewish state, and even some quarters again equating Zionism with racism, I couldn’t help but wonder how an expeditious solution might eliminate one more unfair criticism of Israel at this most challenging time.
When I later joined 5,000 other Jewish leaders at the Jerusalem Convention Center for the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, I understood that this newest challenge to the Jewish people in a far-off part of the globe would need to be placed higher on our communal agenda. We need to put our energy into the scores of other dilemmas that face the Jewish people, including growing anti-Semitism, world terrorism and Jewish assimilation.
Yet the right of all Jews to live in the Jewish state must be assured, not only as a legal right, but as a reflection of the value we place on social justice.
John Fishel is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.