Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Zalman, Rivi, Yael
Since I began sending my weekly Postcards from Jerusalem some years ago, first via emails and then on a real blog, they have mainly been about what daily life is like here in Jerusalem. And this trip, as always, we have spent time with our 7.5 month old gorgeous great granddaughter Yael and took the younger Friedman grandchildren  (Shalom Simcha nearly 5, Chana Tsipora 8, Talia 12 and Ashira 17) shoe shopping. Alexander at 16 and Zalman at 21 are out of the picture! They are both men now and tho Ashira is older she as a female gets special compensation!


bigger kids

Benjamin &Yael
We also spent time with our South African friends, Harold and Emelie Loewenheim who live in Tucson (the parents of Lee, our AFS daughter who lived with us in the early 80s) and they joined us at the Friedmans for Shabbat Noah. That is when every stuffed animal in the house is brought to the living/dining room and let me tell you, 6 kids can amass a lot of stuffed animals in their collective lifetimes! Jennifer and family, sans Benjamin who is in the army and had to stay on the base that Shabbat, joined us for Friday dinner and a good time was had by all. Marc organizes a photo op every year with whomever is there after Shabbat on Saturday night and this year was no exception! The following Shabbat Benjamin joined us and he and Yael bonded!

And the noise is still with us! The Waldorf Astoria is nearly completed and due to open next year, possibly around the time of our next trip in April. The building to the right of us (facing our house) is moving along but they are still drilling like crazy beginning at 7:30 am except on Shabbat. There are empty apartments and condos everywhere, many unsold and others sold to holiday visitors from other countries. I heard a story about an older woman who sold her beautiful unit because David's Village between the David Citadel Hotel and the Old City was so empty of residents she was afraid to come home at night alone. This is an ongoing problem here and it makes no sense to keep erecting these buildings that are too expensive for most Jerusalemites and sit empty most of the year while normal people are moving out of the city to find affordable housing. That's Israel!

This blog will be different! First of all, we arrived here two weeks ago yesterday and I have yet to write. As many of you know, I had the privilege of joining a small group from all over the US to observe first hand the in gathering of a group of Black Jews from Ethiopia. Some people think that many of these Falash Mura or Falasha as they are known, are not Jews at all and are just looking for a way out of abject poverty. Therefore, I will try to set the record straight in as few words as possible. However, please forgive me but it is impossible to do this fascinating story justice in just a few words!

COMPLETING THE JOURNEY is a Jewish Federation sponsored campaign to complete the rescue of the remaining ancient Ethiopian Jewish community. While the Federation is a fundraising arm, the Jewish Agency along with the JDC/Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government are responsible for work on the ground both in Ethiopia and in Israel.

The original Ethiopian Jews were known as Beta Israel. These people were always Jewish and practiced Judaism in their villages. Between 1970 and 1983, some 4500 of them came to Israel. In 1984-85 over 10,000 came on Operation Moses and in 1991 over 14,000 came in 36 hours in Operation Solomon (see below). Thousands in the '80s trekked from their villages thru Sudan with many dying on the way, mostly from dysentery caused by spoiled food from the Red Cross (a shocking and sad fact to put it mildly).

The current Ethiopians or Falash Mura is a subgroup who themselves or close relatives were forced or influenced to convert to Christianity in the last two decades as they fled persecution and sought refuge at the residential compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Before Operation Solomon, the Falashas were relatively unknown to the Jewish community outside of Ethiopia. They viewed themselves as Jews who needed help reconnecting with their faith and therefore were entitled to come to Israel.

Under the Law of Return, converts are not allowed to make aliyah or return to Israel. Under a newly created law, the Law of Entry was created for the Ethiopian Jews and is primarily used for family reunification. There are three rules that are applied to each applicant:

1. The ability to trace their Jewish lineage matrilineally within seven generations, through a first degree relative.
2. Having a Jewish relation already residing in Israel
3. Having their entry formally requested by a Jewish relation in Israel on the basis of family reunification.

Representatives from the Israeli Ministry of the Interior are in Gondar assessing the eligibility of those who have applied.  Those who meet the requirements begin classes that include languages and day to day living to help them adapt to a modern society and those who do not meet the eligibility are given a stipend to return to their villages.

Since 2011, of the over 8500 applicants, some 6500 have been approved. By 2014 the Israeli government hopes to conclude the operation. Meanwhile the remainder, those approved but waiting for flights, are living in Gondar at the Jewish Agency's facilities.

The Ambassador with Asher Seyum
Yes, there are many problems in Israel as with any wave of immigrants who come but meanwhile many Ethiopians have  become incredibly successful members of Israeli society. We had the privilege of hearing two of them: MK Shlomo (Negusa) Molla from the Kadima Party who is deputy Speaker of the Knesset and the new Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia and first ever Israeli Ethiopian Ambassador, Beylanesh Zevadia. She is the daughter of the chief religious leader of the Jewish Community in Ethiopia and made aliyah alone in 1985 at age 16.

Our group was incredibly lucky to be accompanied by Micha Feldmann, a 69 year old dynamo who has been the staunchest supporter and hardest worker of all the Ethiopian immigration. He recently authored "On Wings of Eagles: The Secret Operation of the Ethiopian Exodus" and he regaled us with the story of the 36 hour exodus called Operation Solomon in 1991. No words can convey my admiration for this one man band. Tho he thanks all who had a part in the various operations, I doubt there is another like him.

Although I was moved by just about everywhere we went and everyone we met, I have to say there are several things that stand out even after being home nearly a week. I will get to those below. But first we visited the JDC clinic where parents and kids get free care. Perhaps you have heard of the American doctor Rick Hodes who has been in Ethiopia for some 30 years. Over this time he has been in charge of the health of Ethiopians immigrating to Israel. Google him as he is a fascinating man. Unfortunately he was in the states for the JDC but we met his assistant and others on his staff.

At the Jewish Agency Interview Station and Inoculation Center we saw the Falash Muras waiting to be put on flights in the near future. And visited homes in the area where they live while waiting. But tho the conditions are pretty poor, people seem to take it all in stride. Kids play, parents sit quietly and no one seems too miserable. Asher Seyum who works for the Jewish Agency is in charge of the center and later you will read why he became one of my heroes.

The visit to Ambovar, a small village with a school and a shul where the people waited before Operation Solomon in '91 is where I met my second standout person and story. Edna is a young Ethiopian woman who works for the Jewish Agency and happened to be in my vehicle. She was fighting back tears as we rode in jeeps along very bumpy roads passing where she was born and raised. On the way back,  I asked if she would like to stop and all our vehicles stopped as we let her out. She just stood there gazing up. At another time she told us her story. When she was 14 she was married to a 22 year old who promised her parents he would care for her in Israel. When they arrived the officials separated them and it took quite some time and a lot of work by Micah for them to finally be together. They are in their early 40s and have 3 children.

My third favorite moment  occurred when we attended Shacharit services at the Jewish Agency JCC/Jewish Community Center early on our second morning.  We walked into a sea of women, nearly all in white with babies on their backs and young children hovering around. They were praying the service. There is a mechitza or partition/cloth dividing the women from the men as in most orthodox shuls around the world. It seemed as if there were more women than men in attendance which is quite possible. Many more single mothers make aliyah. This is a sight and sound I will never forget.

Back to Asher, another Ethiopian who has made good. We drove to Kossive, the area near many of the Jewish villages where the people began their walk thru Sudan and, against all odds, many of them making it to the Israelis awaiting them at the other end. As you can see by the picture of Asher telling his story,  this is a beautiful tho hostile environment The idea that these Black Jews wanted to get to Israel so badly they would walk through this mountainous region, some barefoot, many infirm, some carrying babies on their backs and many dying along the way, is incomprehensible. If the rumor is true, at least one woman gave birth in Sudan.

On the third day we flew from Gondar to Addis Ababa and visited the JDC Transit Home. This is where those on their way to the airport receive new Western style clothing. Each of us was invited to hand a new shirt to a male while the man in charge checked off the names.  Outside people could choose from piles of clothing. I loved seeing some wearing parkas or a fur like coat or a heavy jacket or suit in 80 plus heat. Also fun to watch the children on swings and playing various games, laughing and smiling.

After a short visit to a local market to buy gifts (such as they are) we went to the Israeli Embassy to await the two buses filled with the Black Jews on their way to the airport and their new lives. We greeted them with various Hebrew songs and danced the hora.

On our way to the airport we dined with Asher and his dear friend the Ambassador with whom he walked thru Sudan, and she told us about herself and the conditions in both countries and the work that needs to be done.  (see photo above) Micah presented me with an Ethiopian shawl for being the oldest member of the mission and Rick Felson, also from the East Bay, for being the oldest male, some 17 years my junior!

At the airport in Addis we entertained some of the kids with stickers and a polaroid camera. We arrived at Ben Gurion, bussed with the new olim to the old Lod terminal where there were tables set up with buns filled with vegetarian food. Not exactly the kind of bread they were used to but... Several people spoke and we bid farewell and left for the hotel where we slept for a few hours.
Our group's finished arts & crafts product!

On to one of many Absorption Centers in Israel, this one in Kiryat Gat where prior olim are living until they are ready to get apartments and begin their independent lives as Israelis. We joined in a cooking class where we helped bake bread and an arts and crafts project. The highlight was visiting a family who, as everywhere else, served us coffee and popcorn, both of which began their existence in Ethiopia (bet you didn't know that!)

After our closing dinner where we were treated to talks by a female Ethiopian Israeli army lieutenant and a young Ethiopian man who works in high tech, the trip was over. Ending with two more success stories. Talk about having to decompress!

The only other time I had an experience that came anywhere near to this was landing in Kigali, Rwanda, 10 years after the genocide and feeling as if I were in a surreal environment. I hope that this blog and photos will inspire anyone who lives in the Bay Area to want to come to our home on Tuesday, December 4, for an Ethiopian dinner and slide show.

Till next time...

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