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American Groups Continue Work for Ethiopian Jews, but in Israel

The final ingathering of Ethiopian Jewry has led the Canadian Association for Ethiopian Jews to disband recently, saying its mandate had come to an end.

But its two American counterparts have no such plans.

“American Jews have been involved right from the start, and it’s my hope and belief that we maintain a sense of concern and responsibility,” said Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which, like its Canadian cousin, was founded in 1982.

Both the conference and the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, founded in 1969, plan to continue their work, focusing now on the immigrants in Israel.

One year ago, Operation Solomon airlifted 14,089 Jews out of Ethiopia, and the remaining 4,000 are expected to make their way to Israel by end of this summer.

With budgets of under $1.5 million apiece, however, the two groups take a definite second place to the Jewish Agency, which has spent an estimated $140 million on transporting and resettling the immigrants.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which spent several million dollars helping to sustain Jews in Ethiopia, has this year budgeted $1.5 million on job training and social services for the Ethiopians in Israel.

The American groups who work exclusively on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry hope, however, that their continued involvement will ensure that the Ethiopians do not get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. This is true particularly as Israel also struggles to absorb a continuing influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union that already outnumbers the Ethiopians 20 to 1.

“We’re trying to effectuate macro-level changes, to make sure Ethiopian Jews in Israel become productive citizens,” said the American Association’s executive director, William Recant.

AN EFFORT TO PRESERVE CULTURE

The groups’ projects include helping Ethiopians with housing — the association has so far loaned 150 families the money for down-payments on their apartments — and health issues — the conference is underwriting dental and ophthalmological clinics.

But their central efforts are being directed toward education, employment, and preserving Ethiopian Jewish culture.

“It’s so important to preserve this unique, 2,500-year-old culture, but it always takes second place to other, more urgent needs,” said Gordon.

Both the conference and the association are looking into several programs to help maintain this culture.

“One is to assist the Ethiopian religious leaders, the kessim, to take their place as religious leaders in Israel, which involves their learning some of the Israeli, or normative Jewish, traditions. Once they have that, they can not only hold jobs (as ritual slaughterers and scribes), but also assume religious leadership again in their communities,” said Gordon.

“We’re also looking at the possibility of a program for the Ethiopians who are now studying in the hesder yeshivot (which combine Torah study with Israeli army service). We want to give them intensive training in their own religious tradition, as taught by the kessim, so they will know both traditions,” she added.

One aspect of Ethiopian culture can also put the Ethiopians to work. Both organizations are setting up workshops where Ethiopians can practice their traditional needlework skills, fashioning ritual objects like kipot and challah covers to be marketed mainly to American Jews.

TRYING TO AVOID MISTAKES OF 1950S

The American groups are also helping to fund after-school classes to make up for Israel’s short school day, programs that train young Ethiopians to be geriatric and early childhood aides and scholarships for Ethiopians attending university.

Yet with both the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government strained by the magnitude of their absorption efforts, it may be impossible for the advocacy groups to mend fully the inevitable cracks in the absorption system.

“One of the things the Israeli authorities said almost as a litany, years ago, when the Ethiopians first came in,” said Gordon, “is we don’t want to make the same mistakes as in the ’50s,” when the awkward absorption of immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere set off cycles of poverty and resentment that continue to this day.

“In some cases, it’s very, very difficult to avoid it. In some cases, the cycle, if it becomes one, didn’t start in Israel. For a year, Jews were waiting in Addis Ababa, where there was no work. Essentially they were living on a monthly dole at the gates of the Israeli Embassy,” said Gordon.

“They came to absorption centers, and there are no jobs near them. People have ulpan, Hebrew lessons, and then they sit.”

Yet despite the problems, the advocacy groups fully appreciate the miracle of the Ethiopian exodus. Long gone is the fierce anger at the apparent abandonment of Ethiopian Jews by the Jewish establishment, anger which in 1984 sparked protests at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Now, the activities of the single-issue, Ethiopian Jewry advocacy groups reflect an old Ethiopian proverb: “Cas becas, inkulal bagru yehidal” (Step by step, the chicken learns to walk on its own legs).

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