After returning from a trip to Ethiopia, Barry Effron couldn’t forget the faces of 20 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa who had just been accepted for aliyah to Israel.
"They had smiles on their faces," he said. "It was like they were just born. The twinkle in their eyes: it was just so beautiful to see."
Effron, chairman of UJA-Federation’s Westchester campaign, joined David Arnow, a member of UJA-Federation’s board of directors, and Gary Rubin, managing director of its Commission on the Jewish People, on a four-day fact-finding mission to Ethiopia last month.
"There has been significant progress in creating the machinery to process the applications of Falash Mura who apply for aliyah," he said, referring to Ethiopians of Jewish descent. "There are now two full-time Israeli consuls from the Ministry of Interior doing interviews for aliyah, and the embassy was hiring five local people to take applications for aliyah directly from those in Ethiopia. Until now, they had to have relatives in Israel apply on their behalf."
Rubin said that in May, 165 Falash Mura left Ethiopia for Israel, up from 100 in April, before Israel stepped up the processing at the direction of then-Interior Minister Natan Sharansky.
"We American Jews are concerned about the situation there and we have to continue monitoring the process, including visiting Ethiopia," said Rubin. He noted that Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Ariel Kerem, said the faster processing should be fully operational by Sept. 1.
"The hope is that the 8,000 to 9,000 [Falash Mura] in Gondar will be processed in about one year," said Rubin. "There are another 8,000 cases in Addis, and they should be processed in a year or perhaps a little longer. What will decide how long it takes to process them will be the complexity of the cases."
He pointed out that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a UJA-Federation beneficiary, operates medical clinics in both the province of Gondar as well as in the capital city of Addis Ababa, both under the direction of Dr. Rick Hodes. "The clinics treat everything that can be treated with an injection or pill," said Rubin. "And they have a nutrition clinic for any child who is 70 percent or below the average weight. In addition, they have a family planning clinic and a medical lab."
Both clinics are staffed by two Ethiopian doctors and Ethiopian nurses hired by the JDC. There are also community outreach health workers who go to local areas to monitor health conditions and teach proper hygiene, Rubin pointed out.Effron said that even after seeing living conditions there, "I still don’t believe it. You have to spend time with the community to understand where they come from and why they want to go to Israel. They feel they are Jewish and they have family in Israel and want to make it their homeland."