Shira Goodman made a historic journey last month that took her from Philadelphia to the Ethiopian communities of Addis Ababa and Gondar and, ultimately, the Jewish homeland of Israel. Her travel companions were an eclectic mix of leaders from Jewish federations all over North America and a plane load of Ethiopian Jewish men, women and children beginning new lives in the Jewish state.
Goodman was participating on the last “Completing the Journey” mission sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America to bring the remaining Falash Mura to Israel.
Fewer than 2,000 Falash Mura — descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to the country’s dominant Christian religion a century ago but in recent decades returned to the Jewish community — remain in Gondar, awaiting their opportunity to make aliyah.
They represent the final phase of a journey, supported by Jewish federations and North American Jewry, that has spanned more than three decades and has resulted in some 120,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel.
Officials involved in their emigration announced in June that two chartered flights in late August would bring the 400 remaining Falash Mura to Israel.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, in conjunction with the national federation system, is launching a special fundraising campaign to help resettle the last of the Ethiopian immigrants.
Goodman’s mission with JFNA began in Gondar, where her group, she said, witnessed the primitive and challenging conditions of Ethiopian life, and observed the steadfast commitment of the Falash Mura to live Jewishly, through prayer and community life. They visited schools, clinics and community centers run by Jewish Federation’s partner agencies, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Goodman said the tour of the childhood home of Shlomo Neguse Molla, the first Ethiopian Jew to serve as deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, was particularly poignant. “We learned of Molla’s attempts to immigrate to Israel on foot in 1984 and his dramatic rescue by Israeli forces in Sudan,” Goodman said, adding that “one of Molla’s traveling companions was not as lucky — he was shot and killed by Sudanese forces.”
Indeed, thousands lost their lives in the Sudan trying to make aliyah as Goodman learned during a visit to the site of an abandoned Jewish cemetery in the Ethiopian community of Woloka that was transformed into a memorial to those who died.
In Addis Ababa, mission participants accompanied the Ethiopian Jews on their last steps in Ethiopia and then traveled by plane together with the Falash Mura for the four hour flight to Israel.
For Michelle Barrack, who traveled on a similar JFNA mission in January 2013, memories of her final day in Ethiopia remain strong.
“We presented the families with gifts of new clothing to begin their new lives in Israel,” said Barrack, who traveled with her friend Robin Zappin, both of whom are members of the National Young Women’s Cabinet. “I watched one man break into smiles as he tried on a new suit jacket, caring little about the fact that it was far too long.”
On the group’s walk from the transit house to the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, one little girl grabbed Barrack’s hand. “She pulled me along, joyfully anticipating her new adventures in Israel,” Barrack said. En route to the bus that would take them to the airport, the group walked in silence, passing streets filled with garbage and animal remains, she said. “All one could hear were the footsteps of these people making their personal exodus to Israel.”
As they boarded the bus, Asher Seyum, an emissary for the Jewish Agency for Israel, led the group in a chorus of “Am Yisrael Chai — The People of Israel Live.” Seyum made a similar yet far more dangerous journey when he was just a teen, walking with his family some 500 miles from Gondar to the Sudan where they were thrown into detention camps before reaching their final destination of Israel.
Zappin recalled that she and Barrack stayed up all night on the flight with the Ethiopian Jewish families, helping them with their seatbelts and unwrapping blankets to make them more comfortable. Zappin marveled at the exuberance of one teenage boy who “played with all the buttons on the plane and ate all the meals.”
When the Ethiopians arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, Barrack witnessed what many before her had also seen: “As they walked off the plane, each and every person kissed the ground,” she said.
Both women said they were moved by the emotional reunions at the airport with friends and relatives who had come over during Operations Moses and Solomon — major rescue and relief operations sponsored in large part by North American Jewry. “There were tears of joy as people kissed loved ones they hadn’t seen in many years,” Barrack said.
Completing the Journey
Lana Dishler, who is co-chairing Philadelphia’s “Completing the Journey” fundraising initiative with Michele Levin, Holly Nelson and Gail Norry, calls the saga of Ethiopian Jewish aliyah “an extremely compelling story that shows our Jewish people at its very finest.” She and her husband, Bernie, were activists in the Soviet Jewish refusenik movement — the 40-year struggle that led to the liberation of 1.5 million Soviet Jews — many of whom began new lives in Israel. She sees many parallels between the two groups of emigres, both of whom wish to embrace their Jewish heritage.
Dishler will never forget the date of Operation Solomon — May 24, 1991 — since it began on her birthday. In just 36 hours, 34 successive flights of Israeli aircraft transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
“Bernie and I have been following this incredible story ever since — awed that, for the first time in world history, black people have been taken out of Africa not in chains but as free men and women,” said Dishler.
The couple wanted to travel to Ethiopia and Israel to witness this journey firsthand, and had the opportunity in March 2011. They were the only Philadelphians to participate in a 60-person fact-finding mission sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America. In five short days, they saw the crowded, primitive living conditions of the Falash Mura and toured Jewish Agency programs that provide medical care, food and Hebrew-language training for those waiting for the opportunity to make aliyah. Then the couple traveled with them to Israel on the airplane that would complete their long and arduous journey.
The Philadelphia Federation has committed to raising $170,000 to finance what Dishler refers to as the “real work” of bringing these new olim into Israeli society and enabling them to become self-sufficient citizens of the Jewish state. Nationally, JFNA is aiming to raise a total of $6 million.
Those interested in learning more about the new Federation initiative to help the Ethiopian immigration effort are invited to a special cocktail and dessert reception on Tuesday, August 27, at 7 p.m. Shlomo Molla will be the guest speaker. For more information or to RSVP, call Jeri Zimmerman at 215-832-0553 or email jzimmerman@ jfgp.org.