It was still dark and chilly at 5:45 AM in Gondar, Ethiopia when we drove onto the Jewish Agency grounds. We were there to meet over 50 Ethiopian Jews who had been chosen from almost 2,000 to finally realize their dreams and make Aliyah. Families were huddled together on camp-like benches, holding bags for their journey—but their palpable excitement radiated warmth. After words from both Asher Seyum, Israeli Counsel in Gondar and from me—representing the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, these weary but excited adults, teens and children stepped onto an old bus into which they crowded for their day and a half trip to Addis Ababa. Their small suitcases, tied to the roof of the bus, were fewer in number than population inside the bus. Hundreds of friends and acquaintances watched from a short distance– praying that they would soon be chosen to join them.
The day before, my wife and I were invited to share a meal in the home of a family of eight who were preparing to depart the next day. It was their last dinner in their modest home in Gondar. We spoke of their 8- year wait in a small room which served as their bedroom, kitchen, and living quarters—void of any plumbing facilities. Having moved from their home village and familiar surroundings years ago, with only a vision of a better future to sustain them, they spent their seemingly endless wait without jobs and often had to struggle to eat. They did not complain—but spoke optimistically of the promise of their future.
Two nights later when we spoke with members of this group in the departure lounge in Addis Ababa, they proudly showed us their documents for Aliyah. It was their most prized possession. They were tired and overwhelmed by the long-awaited preparation for this journey. These people—as bright as they are, had to spend time over the past few months learning that which you and I take for granted: how to use electricity, how to flush a toilet, how to ride an escalator. And, as we boarded the Ethiopian Airlines Jet, it was clear that they also had to learn the process of boarding a plane, finding their seats and buckling their seat belts. Procedures which we take for granted were entirely new for this group. Less than five hours later, they arrived in Israel as new citizens with the anticipation of all that Israel has to offer. They want to enjoy their Homeland—and they want to give back. They want, most of all, to enjoy the privilege of belonging and living their lives as independent human beings.
These Ethiopian Jews came to Israel, like the 130,000 who arrived before them—-bringing with them determination, passion… and, unfortunately, many challenges. Many have been deprived of basic educational opportunities. The adults are willing learners, but many are illiterate because they never had the opportunity to study and learn. Their culture in Ethiopia did not presume universal literacy. Visiting a number of elementary school classes in Gondar, we were struck that students learned material mostly by rote. They were not challenged to think. These children, therefore, enter Israeli schools without the experience of rigorous classroom learning and, at the same time, are challenged to learn a new language and assimilate a new culture. And, not all of the children in Ethiopia have had the advantage of being in a school at all. To compound the challenge, children arriving from Ethiopia generally do not have parents who are educationally equipped to actively support their learning at home. They are no less intelligent than the average Israeli citizen. They just need more support to help compensate for the education that they had been denied. Experience has demonstrated that with extra support in school these children can and will become full contributors to Israeli society.
Due to the lack of educational training and the normative experiences that would be a natural part of a native Israeli’s life, the jobless rate in the Ethiopian community is extremely high. Unemployment has become a natural consequence of their lacking skills and basic education. Ethiopian Jews want jobs—but many cannot even get interviews. They need training and mentoring. Just as important, they need critical financial assistance until they can become self sufficient. Reports indicate that between 65-72 percent of Ethiopian children live below the poverty line. Without help for their parents to find appropriate jobs, the children will continue to live in misery. In addition, adequate housing remains a major concern. Many Ethiopian Jews cannot afford appropriate housing to provide modestly adequate space for their families. Sadly, it has been demonstrated that when housing is inadequate and living conditions are poor, people are impeded in reaching their full potential. We are at a precipice of creating a permanent under class in Israel.
The new Israelis that we welcomed to Israel when their plane landed early that dark morning are ready to start a new life. Their immediate prayers have been answered. But, now they want to become valued citizens who both derive benefits from and offer service to their new Homeland. They will be deprived of doing neither without our help. Israel should not have to bear the responsibility for Ethiopian Jewry on its own. It must be our communal JEWISH responsibility. Those of us in Israel and North America who have valiantly fought for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews have a responsibility to share in their absorption. WE must be partners in common cause. We have rightly demanded that the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, our local Federations, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the Jewish Agency in Israel and the Israeli Government help increase the rate of Ethiopian Aliyah. We have succeeded with their help.
But we must now do more. How unfortunate it would be if, after all of the challenges that Ethiopian Jews have faced to reach their new Homeland, they were deprived of being fully absorbed. It is our task to make sure that this does not continue to happen. Through designated gifts and support to local federations and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), we can each be partners in this critical mitzvah. We must do no less. Hopefully, the two young children who sat quietly behind us on the flight from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv will be prepared to become part of the next generation of Members of Knesset, doctors, lawyers and businessmen—or whatever else they might freely choose to be.
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein is the President of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.