Federation grant brings Ethiopians to Israel

Ethiopian Israelis
In a demonstration in Jerusalem supporting expanding Ethiopian immigration, Ethiopian Israelis hold up photos of family members remaining in Ethiopia, Jan. 10, 2010.

Toby Tabachnick, The jewish Chronicle

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has responded to the call of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by allocating $100,000 to a national Federation effort helping relocate some 8,700 Jewish Ethiopians to Israel.

Netanyahu has asked the Federation movement to partner with the State of Israel and the Jewish Agency to help all remaining Ethiopians who can prove Jewish lineage make aliya if they so choose. Most of them will be reunited with family members who were relocated to Israel at an earlier date.

“The airlifts (of Ethiopian Jews) were started in the 1980s,” said Brian Eglash, senior vice president of financial resource development for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “Now, we want to finish the job.”

The effort is dubbed “Completing the Journey,” and the plan is to move 200 to 300 people per month to Israel over the next three years.

Ethiopian Jewish in Israel

The Ethiopian Jewish community living in Israel currently exceeds 120,000.

Of the $7.5 million needed to manage the Ethiopians’ current housing and educational systems as well as to prepare them for aliya, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has made a lead gift of $2 million. The Jewish Federations have been asked to raise the remaining $5.5 million.

The Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, following a “fair share” formula, was expected to contribute $50,000 to the effort. Instead, it is giving double that amount, Eglash said.

Most of the money allocated by the Federations through this effort will be used to provide health and human service needs for the Ethiopians at a compound in Gondor where they will prepare for the transition to life in Israel, Eglash said.

The compound has a synagogue and a mikva, as well as a dining room and a medical clinic run by Richard Hodes, one of the world’s foremost experts in third world countries. The Ethiopians are also taught Hebrew, and how to adapt to a modernized society, including lessons in operating electrical appliances.

“We are basically meeting all their health and human needs, so when they get to Israel, they are on a different level,” Eglash said. “We try to prepare them in Ethiopia so they have a softer landing in Israel.”

Seventy percent of the Ethiopian population is under the age of 35, with 50 percent being under the age of 18. The life expectancy for an Ethiopian is 43 years for a man and 47 for a woman, contrasted to Israel’s life expectancy of 80 years.

The Ethiopians who will be making aliya are Falas Muras, some of whom were forced or influenced to convert to Christianity in the recent past. They will be admitted into Israel under the Law of Entry, which is primarily applied for family reunification.

“Some of the Falas Muras left Judaism, but then returned,” said Eglash. “They will return to Israel as Jews.”

All those Ethiopians who will be headed to Israel can prove their Jewish lineage, a requirement of the Israeli government. Because many who left Judaism were not accepted by the Ethiopian Christians, they tended to marry within their own communities, which makes proving Jewish ancestry a bit less complicated, said Eglash.

Once the Ethiopians arrive in Israel, Federation resources from annual campaigns will provide ulpan classes and “all the tools that will help them integrate into Israeli society,” Eglash added.

“The Ethiopians are an important population, adding a lot to Israeli society,” he said. “They are bright, motivated and have been dreaming of coming to Zion for years. They will only excel.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, the Federations’ umbrella group, is confident its agencies will be able to raise the $5.5 million requested by the Israeli government, said Joe Berkofsky, managing director of communications and media relations for the JFNA.

“It’s important because this really closes the circle the Federations began in the ’80s and ’90s with Operations Moses and Solomon, when we brought more than 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel,” Berkofsky said. “In 2005, we continued that with Operation Promise. Then, in 2006, the Lebanon war broke out, and our effort was interrupted.”

“It is our obligation to compete the operation, and to complete it successfully,” said Eglash. “The goal is to bring our brethren over to Israel and to make their dream a reality, and to close this incredible chapter in our history.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)