Behind the Headlines: Ethiopian Jews Who Converted Face Misery with Little Hope
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Behind the Headlines: Ethiopian Jews Who Converted Face Misery with Little Hope

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About 3,000 Falas Mora — Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity — still live in Addis Ababa under deplorable conditions.

Nothing sustains their hope for the future but a stubborn determination to go to Israel, according to Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, who recently returned from Ethiopia.

These people — whose claim to Jewishness is questioned by both Israeli and Ethiopian authorities — share a historical affinity with the Marranos, the crypto-Jews of the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century.

They say either they or their forefathers were forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity. But they were left out of Operation Solomon, the 24-hour airlift that brought more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel last March.

Now, far from their original homes and without decent job prospects, they exist in limbo, awaiting word from Israel that they are welcome and word from the Ethiopian authorities that they can leave.

The Israelis have not decided whether to accept the Falas Mora as Jews. They must be carefully scrutinized by Israel’s religious establishment to determine whether they meet the strictly Orthodox criteria of who is a Jew.

To be admitted to Israel under the Law of Return, one must be unquestionably Jewish. But other immigrants may gain admission on the principle of family reunification.

‘LIKE VISTING SHTETLS IN POLAND’

The new Ethiopian government, though much more liberal with exit permits than its predecessor, the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, remains suspicious of organizations it thinks might proselytize its people.

The North American Conference and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, meanwhile, try their best help the destitute. They provide the Falas Mora with modest financial aid, food rations and basic health services.

In addition to the Falas Mora, there are still some 4,000 Jews living in Ethiopia, mostly in the Quara region, near the Sudanese border in the north. They are leftovers from the great exodus last year — those who could not make it at the time for various reasons and now want to join their brethren in Israel.

They are leaving in small numbers, and after all are gone, the Jewish population of Ethiopia will have passed from history.

Gordon witnessed that phenomenon when she visited former Jewish villages in the Gondar region earlier this month.

“It was somewhat like visiting shtetls in Poland which used to be Jewish centers,” said Gordon. “Of course, the circumstances are different, but there still is a feeling of a Jewish world that is no more.”

Village that two years ago were humming with Jewish activity are now empty.

The small synagogue in the village of Wolleka has been converted into a residence. The streets once bustling with Jews selling pottery are deserted. Three Ethiopians sell coffee, but few tourists are there to buy. Ethiopia still bears the stigma of a country locked in civil war.

The North American Conference has been actively assisting Ethiopian Jews in that country since 1982. Gordon has visited Ethiopia 10 times.

Her last visit, she said, was the most relaxed. Nothing was left of the feeling of a police state that had characterized the previous regime. She could move freely across the country without having to obtain special permits. She left feeling that the atmosphere in Ethiopia has improved.

Gordon was told that Israeli backpackers have been seen in the Ethiopian countryside, a sure sign of normalization.

Meanwhile, the North American Conference has switched its focus from Ethiopia to Israel, trying to aid the new immigrants in spheres where the government and the Jewish Agency are not doing enough.

The organization has opened two dental clinics to preserve the strong teeth of Ethiopian Jews, who used to clean them meticulously with twigs. Now, Western diets are causing them the same dental problems as are seen in the rest of the population.

The conference’s Project Vision has brought volunteer American ophthalmologists to Israel who have already restored sight to three Ethiopians who were believed totally blind.

The organization provides stipends to about 150 university students who cannot live on the grants they receive from the Jewish Agency.

Finally, the conference has given high priority to the preservation of Ethiopian culture surrounded by modern Israeli society.

An Ethiopian synagogue was built in Beersheba two years ago, and the organization plans to build two more.

The conference depends on grass-roots funding in the United States. Last year, it spent some $500,000 in Israel. This year it wants to spend more.

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