Falash Mura make a life in Israel

Ethiopian immigrant Lagas Albel, left, says goodbye to friends at an absorption center in Lod on March 1. (Brian Hendler)

Ethiopian immigrant Lagas Albel, left, says goodbye to friends at an absorption center in Lod on March 1. (Brian Hendler)

LOD, Israel, March 29 (JTA) — Handshakes, tears, and kisses of farewell flow over packed boxes, mattresses and bundles of frying pans. The Albel family, originally from Ethiopia, is moving again. This time they’re moving into a permanent home and out of the Israeli government center for new immigrants where they have lived since arriving in Israel more than two years ago. “Finally we’ll have our own home,” says Asram Albel. “It’s good here, but we can’t stay here forever.” Raised as Christians in a remote Ethiopian village, the Albels came to Israel as part of a wave of Falash Mura seeking to immigrate to the Jewish state. The Falash Mura are Ethiopians whose Jewish ancestors converted to Christianity, often under social pressure, but who have resumed practicing Judaism. In his hand, Asram Albel clutches the key to the apartment the family has bought in the working-class town of Kiryat Malachi, about an hour’s drive south from the absorption center where he, his wife and two daughters have been sharing a one-bedroom apartment. Though unemployed and still a relative newcomer to the country, Albel — who wears a cell phone tucked into the pocket of his blue jeans — already looks like an Israeli. It has been a long journey. Like Albel, most Falash Mura in Israel are unemployed, struggle with learning Hebrew and have relatives still in Ethiopia waiting to emigrate. It’s unlikely that Albel, who is 57, will find work at his age. But vocational training courses are available to him and others in the community in topics ranging from driving to childcare to metal work. Falash Mura children study in schools together with other Israelis and are quickly learning Hebrew, often acting as translators and links to society for parents who find it more difficult to learn a new language. The children are offered special tutorials and academic enrichment programs to help them keep up and even excel in the classroom. Some 20,000 Falash Mura have immigrated to Israel. In February 2003, the Israeli government decided in principle to expedite the immigration of the rest of the Falash Mura community — estimated at another 20,000 people — but the decision has yet to be fully implemented. In recent years, the flow of Falash Mura to Israel has been limited to about 300 per month. Numbers have declined precipitously in the first few months of this year, apparently because fewer can meet new requirements that they prove maternal Jewish lineage. After leaving their village in the Gondar region of Ethiopia — where they farmed wheat and raised cattle and sheep — the Albels spent two and a half years living near a relief compound awaiting permission to emigrate. The North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, or NACOEJ, helps run relief compounds for the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa and Gondar. The group provides food and Jewish education at the compounds, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides medical care and nutritional support for children. The groups do not provide housing for the Falash Mura, most of whom came to the cities from remote villages in hopes of emigrating. “We suffered there, but thankfully now we are here, in the Land of Israel, where — most importantly — we are allowed to practice our religion, to maintain our roots,” Albel says. “There is nothing like Israel in all the world,” he says, then pauses. “But it’s true: It’s hard here.” Most Ethiopian-born Jews in Israel are not Falash Mura – and they haven’t always made things easy for the newcomers. When it comes to the Falash Mura, attitudes are mixed among the Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and early 1990s. Despite bonds of language and nationality, old resentments run deep. Ethiopian Israelis speak of the bitter treatment they sometimes received at the hands of Christians, including some Falash Mura, when they lived in Ethiopia. The two communities lived in different villages in Ethiopia and did not mix, immigrants here say. In Israel, too, they live fairly separate lives, praying in different synagogues and socializing separately. There is much overlap in the realm of immigrant services, however. The absorption center in Lod, which is run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, is a typical example: Veteran Israeli Ethiopians help their Falash Mura counterparts by working as social workers, translators and teachers. “Today we have people who know the language and can help them acclimatize,” says the center’s director, Chana Dobkin, comparing the current wave of immigrants to the initial groups of Ethiopian Jews that came over in large numbers in Operations Moses and Solomon. “We want them to come to Israel and become part of us,” says Yosef Hadane, the Ethiopian community’s chief rabbi, who is helping to verify which of the Falash Mura waiting to immigrate actually have Jewish roots. Speaking privately, some veteran Ethiopian immigrants — and some Israeli government officials — question the Falash Mura’s motivation in returning to Judaism. Are they genuinely returning to their faith, or do they simply see Israel as a way to escape famine and poverty in Ethiopia? Journalist Danny Abebe is one of the few outspoken Ethiopian voices in Israel to publicly criticize the Falash Mura immigration. Abebe blames U.S. Jewish groups like NACOEJ for forcing the issue on Israel. “The Falash Mura is the project of American Jews,” he says. “It’s a very sad story for Ethiopian Jews, because we said for 2,000 years that we are really Jewish,” he says, drawing a contrast with the Falash Mura’s conversions to Christianity. “I hope they understand that Ethiopian Jews and Falash Mura are not really the same.” Though it took several years, the Falash Mura now are accepted as Jews by Israel’s chief rabbinate, as well as by all three major Jewish religious denominations in North America. Avraham Neguise, director of South Wing to Zion, a pro-Falash Mura organization, dismisses Abebe as a rabble rouser who plays into the hands of Israeli government officials who, Neguise says, want to limit the number of Falash Mura allowed to immigrate. “The culture is not different: There is one Ethiopian Jewish culture,” Neguise says. “People always look for ways to divide and conquer — that is what the Ministries of Absorption and the Interior are trying to do in order to legitimize their discrimination policy, but it won’t work because it is one community.” Some Falash Mura advocates say they wonder why the Jewish state readily accepts non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who have Jewish relatives, but drags its feet when it comes to letting in the Falash Mura. Israeli government officials reject suggestions that race affects decisions on the Falash Mura. “Any allegations or insinuations regarding racism are unfounded,” Absorption Ministry spokesman Arik Puder says. Some say the problem with the Falash Mura is that the cost of absorbing them is unusually high — up to $100,000 per person, according to some estimates. For those already in Israel, money is only part of the problem. Albel says he finds learning Hebrew especially difficult. The family also is taking courses in Judaism, as Falash Mura must do before being officially converted to Judaism under the country’s rabbinate. For now, Albel is focused on the future: the new apartment, his two daughters — Miri, 12, and Tali, 14 — and adjusting to Israeli life. “It’s important that our daughters will do well in their new school,” he says. Albel’s wife Lagas, 40, is a slight woman. Standing in her empty apartment in the absorption center, she appears more nervous about leaving than her husband. “I’m used to it here. Here there is a staff that can speak Amharic,” she says, referring to her native Ethiopian tongue. “It will be hard to get along,” she adds, her eyes widening. She is surrounded by neighbors who have come to help pack and move the family’s last belongings out of the apartment. The Albels came to Israel with virtually nothing. Now, everything in their small absorption center apartment — all provided by the government — is moving with them: metal bed frames and mattresses, a narrow coffee table, a refrigerator. To make it easier for Ethiopians to own their own homes, the Israeli government has instituted generous mortgage packages for many Ethiopian families. For example, if an apartment costs about $80,000, 90 percent is paid for by the government, and the remaining 10 percent can be paid in installments over a 25-year period. The sun pours through the window of the Albel’s now-empty eighth-floor apartment, triggering talk of a different sort of emptiness — the void left by those still in Ethiopia, including Lagas Albel’s parents and four siblings. After living for a year in Gondar near the relief compound, they have returned to their home village, Albel reports. But “they still want to come here,” she says. In Kiryat Malachi, Albel will be living near a sister. She has two other sisters and a brother living elsewhere in Israel. Leaving the absorption center, the family makes its way past the lobby where children watch a Spanish soap opera with Hebrew subtitles. Older Ethiopians, cloaked in traditional white cloth shawls, stand around talking. They family heads outside, where friends help them load their belongings onto a moving van. Tamar Bassan, the center’s social worker, hands Asram Albel an envelope containing a letter with the details of the family’s history in Israel. It will be useful for any future social worker that might work with the family. Bassan fears that because of economic strain at the Kiryat Malachi municipality, the Albel family might fall between the cracks of the city’s social services network. “I feel in a way like my children are leaving,” she says. “I worked with them for over two years, very closely, and I want to know they will be received well on the other side.” The Albels finally say their last goodbyes and set out for their new home. They drive past green fields, the minarets of Arab towns, grazing sheep and Israeli flags flapping in the wind over car dealerships. In Kiryat Malachi, streets lined with palm trees are choked with rush-hour traffic. The van eventually pulls up in front of the block of low-income apartments. The Albel’s flat is a fourth-floor, two-bedroom walk-up. Inside, Asram Albel takes a quick tour of the apartment. He jiggles the handle of the toilet and it promptly falls into the toilet bowl. He eyes the shoddy application of a new coat of paint. But the kitchen cabinets and fixtures seem to be new, and there are windows in each of the two bedrooms. Miri surveys the bedroom she will share with her older sister, pulls out her favorite possessions and arranges them on shelves. The last thing she pulls out is a small music box, which she wipes off and carefully places on a wobbly shelf. She then moves to the window and throws it open, looking out at another apartment building and a thin patch of grass. A group of Orthodox children walk by and Miri wonders aloud if all her neighbors are Orthodox. She shouts to Tali on the sidewalk below and smiles. “It’s good. I’m excited. I’m scared,” she says, then returns to arranging her trinkets.

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