UJC builds Jewish school in Ethiopia

Falash Mura kids take a Hebrew class in the Gondar compound. (Uriel Heilman)

Falash Mura kids take a Hebrew class in the Gondar compound. (Uriel Heilman)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Even as the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee wind down their operations in Ethiopia, one major Jewish group is ramping up its efforts there.

Israeli officials say the end of mass Ethiopian aliyah is only a few months away. But a coalition of seven local Jewish charitable federations in North America are raising $350,000 under the auspices of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group to build a new Jewish school in the Ethiopian city of Gondar.

The school project is being undertaken by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), which funds aid operations in Ethiopia for the Falash Mura – Ethiopians who claim links to descendents of Jews either by lineage or by marriage – and has campaigned to bring them to Israel.

“We’re happy to have raised this issue, convened the federations and facilitated their support of this project,” said Jim Lodge, UJC’s vice president for Israel and overseas affairs. “Much of that money has been offered by federations, and we’re in the process of getting that money to NACOEJ.”

Speaking of the school’s construction, he added, “It’s an unassailably good thing to do.”

Coming at a time when Israel has announced its Ethiopian aliyah operations are coming to a close, the construction of the Jewish school in Gondar is likely to fuel Israeli concerns that some federations may be seeking to perpetuate Ethiopian aliyah by fostering a Jewish identity among Ethiopians that Israel’s Interior Ministry says are not Jewish.

After years of bringing Ethiopian immigrants to Israel at a rate of 300 per month, the Israeli Interior Ministry says it has concluded its immigration eligibility program and the Jewish Agency for Israel will bring the remaining 1,500 to 2,000 Ethiopians approved for aliyah in the coming months. Israel will then shut down its aliyah operations in Ethiopia.

But NACOEJ officials, Falash Mura advocates in Israel and some federation leaders say the Israeli government is unfairly excluding up to 8,500 Ethiopians from being screened for their eligibility to make aliyah. That said, the school’s backers say its construction does not constitute a new long-term commitment to promoting Ethiopian aliyah, but is being built at the behest of the Ethiopian government.

UJC would not identify all of the seven federations funding the new school, but said the list includes those in Cleveland and Boston – two federations that in recent years have pressed Israel to speed up the immigration process for the Falash Mura.

“It’s really quite bizarre that they’re building this school now,” said an official at one Jewish aid organization who asked to remain anonymous.

One Jewish federation leader whose federation declined to support the school’s construction said, “We’re not funding the school there because pretty soon there won’t be any Jews left in Gondar.”

NACOEJ and its UJC sponsors, however, say they are building the new school to satisfy a demand by the Ethiopian government that mandated its construction as a condition of keeping the current Jewish school open, which services Falash Mura children approved for aliyah in addition to those from the disputed group of 8,500.

The existing school is located in ramshackle facilities adjacent to a Jewish aid compound in Gondar that provides schooling, food aid and some employment to the Falash Mura there. The Ethiopian government had threatened to condemn occupancy of the structure unless NACOEJ promised to build the new school, NACOEJ officials said.

Once all of Gondar’s Falash Mura are brought to Israel and the need for a Jewish school there ends, the building will be given as a gift to the Ethiopian government, NACOEJ and UJC officials said.

Ethiopian authorities could not be reached for comment.

“We are building a school there because it was a condition made with the Ethiopian government in June,” said NACOEJ’s director of operations, Orlee Guttman. The government wanted the “school that had existed to have higher standards of education and classrooms, according to their Ministry of Education standards, and they would only allow the Beta Israel to continue if a new school was built according to those standards.”

The Falash Mura, who call themselves Beta Israel, claim links to Ethiopian Jews who more than a century ago converted to Christianity to escape economic and social pressures. Distinct from Ethiopia’s original Beta Israel – Ethiopians who preserved Jewish practices over centuries and made aliyah in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991, respectively – the Falash Mura have been adopting Jewish practices in a bid to immigrate to the Jewish state.

Since the mid-1990s, tens of thousands of Falash Mura have immigrated to Israel.

Israel pledged in February 2003 to bring thousands of additional immigrants, but Israeli aliyah officials subsequently sought to cap the number to forestall an endless stream of Ethiopians from claiming Jewish links in an attempt to escape Africa’s desperate poverty for a life in Israel.

The Interior Ministry says it has screened for aliyah all those it promised to in 2003, and that the immigration process will end once those who were approved are flown to Israel – likely by late 2008 at the current rate of 300 per month.

Anticipating this end, the JDC gradually has been winding down its operations in Ethiopia. For two decades, the JDC has run medical clinics that provide health services and nutrition aid to Ethiopian Jews. Now that the number of Falash Mura eligible for aliyah has dwindled, the JDC is shuttering some of its clinics.

The JDC’s clinics in Addis Ababa, where only a few hundred Falash Mura remain, are being shut down entirely, while the clinics in Gondar, where the bulk of the Falash Mura live, are staying open until Israel formally ends its aliyah operations in the country.

With that slated to happen in 2008, JDC officials will be forced to decide what to do with those clinics, which currently are not servicing the disputed group of 8,500.

“We realize that sooner or later there will be no more people that are the reason for those clinics to operate,” the official said. “That is happening in 2008.”

“We don’t know of these” 8,500 people, the official added. “This is all brand new to us.”

For their part, UJC and NACOEJ officials appear not to have made up their minds about what they’ll do if Israel, as expected, declares its aliyah operations over in 2008 without including the additional 8,500 people advocacy groups say have Jewish links.

“We truly believe that Israel has its right as a sovereign nation to decide how it will handle immigration policy,” NACOEJ’s Guttman said. “On the other hand, we are not bound by the Israeli government, and as a Diaspora organization, we have a responsibility to people whom the Chief Rabbinate of Israel believe are of Jewish descent. We’ll have to weigh all the issues carefully.”

“I think we’re going to have to wait and see,” said Stephen Hoffman, president of Cleveland’s Jewish federation and one of the primary proponents of UJC’s Falash Mura activities. “I think we’re sympathetic to the thought that maybe these people may be eligible for interviewing, but I think it’s hard for us to say with definite knowledge that it’s a no-brainer.”

In the meantime, construction at the new school in Gondar is proceeding apace. Most of the equipment has been made or bought, an architect has drawn up plans and the government has granted a plot of land. Now the federations need to come up with the rest of the $350,000 they pledged, Guttman said.

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