The Falash Mura’s Fate Mission to Ethiopia Confounds and Commits Federation Leaders

(This is the second article in a 7-part special JTA report on Ethiopian immigration to Israel.)

Perhaps no single party outside the Israeli government is as vital to Ethiopian aliyah as the American Jews committed to help paying for it.

So when the United Jewish Communities decided to bring a 100-person group from America’s wealthiest Jewish communities to the straw-and-mud huts of one of the poorest countries on earth, it constituted both a singular logistical challenge for the federation umbrella group and a signal to the Israeli government that American Jewry is serious about facilitating Ethiopian aliyah.

Now the question is what the members of the mission — including 70 or so federation leaders, their staffers and family — are going to do with their newfound, hands-on familiarity with the issue of Ethiopian aliyah.

“Operating here in Ethiopia is extremely complex,” said John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “I think UJC’s role is to think about how we go out and assist the necessary means. Doing the aliyah is a whole other issue that I’ll leave to the experts.”

Many fund-raisers said the trip better enabled them to tell the kind of story that could touch donors’ hearts — and now they also have photos and videos to boot.

“Making the case to all but the most cynical, I think, will be easy,” said Rob Mann of Chicago, co-chair of UJC’s National Young Leadership Cabinet.

Nevertheless, the picture painted for the group was amply complex and Israel’s management of the process appeared sufficiently problematic that the national chairman of the campaign, Joel Tauber, felt compelled to address publicly the question of what would happen if Israel reneged on its decision to bring the Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia to Israel.

He spoke about the issue on the group’s last night in Ethiopia, at a festive dinner at Addis Ababa’s Sheraton Hotel.

“This one is a 70 percent possibility,” Tauber said. “There’s a 30 percent chance that they’re going to revoke this decision,” he said of the Israeli government decision to expedite the aliyah of up to 20,000 additional immigrants from Ethiopia. “We’ll know within six months.”

In case they do renege, added Tauber, “I’d go back and talk to donors.”

Tauber’s cautionary note, along with the knotty problems with the aliyah that many observed in Ethiopia, prompted some federation fund-raisers to say they would focus on UJC’s absorption programs in Israel when pitching Operation Promise to donors rather than the idea of bringing more Ethiopians to the Jewish state.

“I’ll go back and raise money only for the absorption programs in Israel, not aliyah,” said one federation donor and fund-raiser, who asked not to be identified. “We don’t want to pitch major donors on something that might not happen.”

Another federation fund-raiser from the East Coast said she would raise funds only for the absorption part of Operation Promise because of personal misgivings about Israel’s criteria for immigrants from Ethiopia and management of the aliyah verification process.

“We’re asking people to make really unfair choices: Basically, come to Israel and convert to Judaism and we’ll make things happen for you. Anybody in Africa would choose that,” said the federation official.

“I’m not sure I agree with, ‘Once a Jew, always a Jew,’” she said. “I just have questions about the Falash Mura and whether or not we’re overstepping our bounds a bit here.”

Others said it was UJC’s historic responsibility to ensure that the aliyah takes place — and that it is successful.

“These are people that want to be here, they want to be Jews,” said Meryl Ainsman, a federation official from Pittsburgh who came on the mission to Ethiopia. “I think it’s a moment in history where we can continue to make mistakes or do the things that can really make a difference.”

So far, UJC has raised more than $45 million in pledges for Operation Promise, a $160 million campaign that includes $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption and $60 million for care for the elderly in the former Soviet Union. Participants on the mission pledged an additional $873,000 on the mission’s last day, bringing their total Operation Promise commitment up to a collective $4.1 million.

Perhaps down to the last participant, federation mission-goers said they were taken aback by the circumstances in which they found the Ethiopians living.

“I’ve never in my life experienced seeing the kind of poverty we saw,” said Julie Lipsett-Singer, an official from the federation of Central New Jersey. “It was very startling and really altering to my psyche.”

Like many mission-goers, Lipsett-Singer said she was heartened when the UJC group returned to Israel and encountered so many successful Ethiopians and vital absorption programs.

“Many Ethiopians are giving back to the community,” she said. “I’m so much more hopeful and positive about the future.”

Even with all the problems riddling Falash Mura aliyah, many federation executives said the operation to bring the Ethiopians was justified simply on humanitarian grounds.

“The good thing is we can do something, we can make a difference in people’s lives,” said Sam Astrof, UJC’s chief financial officer.

“Let’s say that out of this 20,000, let’s say 10,000 will decide in the end not to be Jewish — so what?” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. “If part of them convert to Christianity, Israel is filled with guest workers. Israel is a heterogeneous society.”

The key to the operation’s success, Shrage suggested, is not only bringing the Ethiopians quickly from Africa, but making sure they are given the right kind of assistance once they arrive in the Jewish state so that they become productive Israeli citizens.

“It would be such a tragedy if this group of people lost faith in the Jewish identity and the Jewish state,” Shrage said. “We can produce out of this group many great Israelis, many great Jews. This does not have to end up a permanent underclass.”

Go to www.jta.org/falashmura.asp for the full series.

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