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Jewish Community Mourns Two Friends As Congressman’s Plane is Found Crashed

August 14, 1989
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When the news came Sunday morning that the plane carrying U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland and his party had fatally crashed into an Ethiopian mountain, it became clear that the Jewish community had suffered a doubly painful loss.

Both Leland and Jewish philanthropist Ivan Tillem had been aboard the plane, which was finally found Sunday after it had been missing nearly a week. None of the party of 16 had survived the crash, which occurred while they were on a trip from Addis Ababa to an Ethiopian refugee camp.

That the fates of Leland, a black congressman from Houston, and Tillem, an Orthodox Jewish investment banker from New York, should have been so intertwined speaks to both mens’ compassion and their desire to reach out beyond their own communities and work on behalf of those living a world away.

Leland, 44, a Democrat and chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, worked hard for famine relief in Africa, but was also a strong supporter of Israel and an advocate for Ethiopian Jewry.

"Many of us felt a great love toward Mickey." said Ellen Cohen, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Houston. "He was not only a link between the black and Jewish communities, but between all people."

Cohen sits on the board of the "Leland Kibbutz Internship," a project which Leland created 11 years ago. Each year, 10 high-school juniors are selected from a pool of applicants who live in Leland’s largely poor district to participate in the program.


The group, which includes black, Hispanic and Asian teen-agers, spends six weeks on a kibbutz and additional time traveling in Israel.

Cohen described Leland’s affection for Israel as an "evolving feeling." She said that when Leland first entered politics, in the Texas State legislature, his feelings about Israel were ambivalent.

"But because he was such an open individual, he listened, he went on a trip to Israel, and that had a profound effect on him. He began to see Israel as a democratic state, and he became an advocate," she said.

Cohen recalled a scene two years ago, when the teen-agers selected for the Leland Kibbutz Internship had gathered for an orientation meeting.

"Ten students sat on the floor and Mickey sat on the floor with them and began teaching them Hebrew expressions. Then he started singing Hava Nagila and teaching them the words," Cohen said.

Leland also worked on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry, often bringing the issue before Ethiopian officials.

Will Recant, executive director of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews, said Leland spoke numerous times with Ethiopian officials, including President Mengistu Haile Mariam, trying to help the Jews there join family members in Israel.

Recant met with Leland the week before he left on his trip to Ethiopia and said that the congressman had planned to bring up the issue of Ethiopian Jewry on this visit as well.

National Jewish leaders mourned Leland’s loss.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, called Leland "a warm and close friend, a beautiful and unique person who shall be remembered with affection and respect."

Leland had worked with the ADL on projects involving black-Jewish relations, and Foxman said that in public appearances, the congressman had dealt "candidly as well as factually with black and Jewish issues."

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted that Leland did not just pay lip service to good black-Jewish relations, but worked toward that goal with "concrete deeds and actions."


Hoenlein said that it was a "shared commitment to humanity" that had brought Leland and Ivan Tillem together on their mission to Ethiopia.

"The goal of both was to bring relief to victims of famine just as both shared the objective of bringing the black Jews of Ethiopia home to Israel," said Hoenlein.

Tillem, who had been invited on the trip to Ethiopia by Leland, was on the advisory board of The North American Conference for Ethiopian Jews.

He had spoken of assisting the Ethiopians to create kibbutz-style cooperative farms, in an effort to cope with that country’s food shortages.

Tillem, who would have turned 33 on Sunday, was an attorney and publisher who was a selfmade millionaire through investment banking.

Ray Kestenbaum, a radio talk show host, said he met Tillem when Tillem briefly hosted his own public affairs show. Kestenbaum said he was shocked and grieved when he heard of the plane crash. He said he remembered Tillem as a giving and tolerant person.

"I really didn’t know how rich he was," Kestenbaum said. "He was very unassuming, and always a little mysterious. He kept his financial success to himself."

His wealth was apparent only to those who knew of his large contributions to charitable causes. Tillem, who grew up under foster care, was particularly generous to causes for children from broken homes.


Tillem was most active on behalf of Yeshiva University, where he attended law school.

The youngest-ever member of the university’s board of trustees, Tillem also sat on the boards of the school’s Stern College for Women and the Cardozo School of Law. He was an assistant professor at Cardozo as well.

In the introduction to the 1987-88 Jewish Almanac, which he published and edited, Tillem summarized thoughts that seem to explain why he travelled to Africa.

"The idea of ‘chosenness’ does not mean that Jews are good and Gentiles are evil," Tillem wrote.

"Rather, chosenness signifies duty to ‘repair the world under the kingdom of God.’ Simply put, it is the responsibility of the Jews to fix what is broken, whenever crisis or need may confront him."

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