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Redeem Ethiopian captives

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Rabbi Jerome Epstein (USCJ)

Rabbi Jerome Epstein (USCJ)

NEW YORK (JTA) – The world is filled with irony; some of it tragic. A good example is the case of the Ethiopians languishing in Gondar waiting to make aliyah to Israel.

In 1989, when I visited Ethiopia for the first time, the North American Jewish community was contributing funds that provided food and health care, and educated the children of the Ethiopian Jews held hostage by their birth land. North American Jews gave generously and advocated passionately for their release.

Jews were being held against their will by villainous Ethiopia; Israel greeted its long-lost children with open arms.

I just returned from my second trip to Ethiopia. As I visited Gondar and Addis Ababa, it was obvious that the Jews still waiting there no longer were held hostage by Ethiopian authorities. Now their aliyah is impeded by governmental decisions in Israel. These Jews no longer were wanted by the country they dreamed of, the country they called their homeland.

Now that Ethiopia is willing to let them emigrate, Israel has placed stumbling blocks in their path.

The Interior Ministry worries that Ethiopian Jews will be a burden unfairly placed on Israel’s shoulders, and that because of cultural differences, their lack of occupational training and the low level of their Ethiopian education, their presence will negatively impact Israeli society.

Others attribute the ministry’s reluctance to welcome the Ethiopian community to concerns about the validity of their claim to Jewish identity. It is an empty excuse. Although Conservative, Reform and Orthodox Jews disagree about much, there is general consensus among us – and even among the Israeli Chief Rabbinate – that most Ethiopians who claim Judaism as their religion have a right to do so.

We have a responsibility to acknowledge them as Jews.

About 8,700 Jews are waiting in Gondar. They have left their small towns, and with them the only world they knew, to be able to take the next step and go on to Israel. Most now live in cramped, one-room rental apartments. They have no indoor plumbing. Larger families who must share limited space in cramped conditions sleep in shifts.

The people in Gondar are hungry because the food kitchens that had sustained them have been shut down. They have no more money. Schools are overcrowded and could be closed at any time, and the community’s 700 young children, who are eager to learn and happy to receive free lunches, may be not be able to get a Jewish education.

Why have these Jews put themselves in such a condition? For one reason: their long-held dream of living as full Jews in the State of Israel.

Based on a promise of the Israeli government in 2003 to review the cases of thousands of petitioners remaining in Ethiopia, the 8,700 Jews in Gondar left their village homes and relocated to the city.

Now they have been abandoned by an unfulfilled commitment. Both they and the promise have been forgotten.

 

In Gondar, we held a discussion after a morning religious service attended by more than 1,200 people. We asked anyone who had parents, children or siblings living in Israel to raise a hand – almost everyone did. Nearly all of these Jews tragically are cut off from their families and those they love.

 

Before Israel’s creation, Jews who were in trouble were ignored. They rarely received help from the outside world and had no place to go. The State of Israel was created to provide a place for Jews in trouble or who want to go home. We dare not forget these Jews whose only quest is aliyah.

As North American Jews, we face a challenge. Israel may not listen to the cries of 8,700 Ethiopian Jews, but it cannot ignore the cries of millions of Jews throughout the world. We must not be silent. We must lovingly and respectfully demand that Israel keep its promise and consider the eligibility of each of the Ethiopian Jews waiting to make aliyah, using the criteria it has established.

Some might be rejected. Most, however, will qualify, make Israel their home and enrich Israel with their presence.

As Jews, we rightly and proudly cherish the mitzvot of our Torah about “pidyon shvuyim” – redeeming captives. Throughout our history we have performed this mitzvah. Acting as God’s messengers, we have saved imperiled lives. We cannot choose which captives to save and ignore the rest. Our Ethiopian brothers and sisters are begging to be redeemed. We dare not plug our ears to their cries.

We must lobby effectively and continuously, but that is not enough. Jews are living in deplorable conditions. We must help the institutions that support Ethiopian Jews while they wait to make aliyah. They do not have enough money. We can help fund them. We can make a difference, and it is a mitzvah to make a difference.

Once the Ethiopian Jews reach Israel, they will need a great deal of support as they learn to integrate themselves into Israeli society. It is our job to help them in that effort.

Helping Ethiopian Jews become successful Israelis helps not only the Ethiopian-Israeli community, it helps the entire Jewish world. If we do not help, we are placing another heavy and unfair burden on Israel.

In bringing the rest of the Ethiopian Jewish community waiting in misery in Gondar to rejoin their immediate families and the rest of the Jewish world in Israel, we are doing God’s work. It is a tragic irony that we must be reminded to do that work.

(Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein is executive vice-president of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America.)

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