I remember very clearly the first mass protest of the Ethiopian-Israeli community in September of 1985, less than a year after the heroic Operation Moses. It was the day before my first son was born, and my wife and I sat in our car and watched as hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis of all ages, each wearing white, gathered to daven Shacharit (the morning prayer service). It was so impressive, exciting, and unreal that we barely made it to the hospital in time.
Now we are experiencing a wave of demonstrations and protests by the Ethiopian-Israeli community. These demonstrations come as no surprise to those of us who are involved in the absorption and integration of the Ethiopian-Israeli community. They are another link in the historic chain and long struggle for a shared, cohesive, and just society in Israel. I suggest that we look at it as such and remember that we are still shaping our country.
The amazing saga of bringing this ancient, disconnected Jewish community to Israel and integrating them into the society was long, complicated, and challenging. The many achievements we have gained are often cast in shadow by the mistakes that have been made. One certainly can’t ignore the fact that there are pockets of discrimination and even racism against black people within our Israeli society. And sadly, these events may, at times, result in a lot of unnecessary finger-pointing by Israelis and diaspora Jews.
A few weeks ago, the editorial on these pages, “Ethiopian Jews, once hailed, now cast aside” (Aug. 1), claimed that Jewish federations have “remained largely inactive on the Ethiopian Jewry front.” But Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ has never neglected the challenge. Our first partnership region in Israel was the neighborhood of Ramat Eliyahu in Rishon LeZion, a place where many Ethiopian-Israeli families settle. With the challenge of helping absorb the community comes the blessing of getting to know them. Through our partnership with the local community center, various grass roots organizations, and the municipality, we are all working together as true equals, for the benefit of the residents.
We’ve conducted many social, educational, and economic development programs in Ramat Eliyahu over the years, but our best achievement is Project Atzmaut. This innovative literacy program and extensive outreach effort to Ethiopian parents with our local partners has shown great success in reversing the pattern of low academic achievements in the Ethiopian-Israeli community. This cutting-edge program is the brainchild of our Jewish federation. It has been duplicated in 12 other communities in Israel and clearly reflects our ongoing commitment, both financially and programmatically, to helping the Ethiopian community achieve.
Equally important are the living bridges we have built with this community. Our Diller Teen program is based there. Our supported Masa program, Yahel, is operating there. And our partner foundation “Jewish Helping Hands” is looking at Ramat Eliyahu as their home base.
One of our former rishonim (young Israeli emissaries who spend a year in Greater MetroWest), Yitzchak, a rising star within the Ethiopian community, said at a federation event: “Look at me. I am only 18 years old and my global Jewish people touched my destiny already four times — first when you brought me as a baby from Ethiopia to Israel; second when you helped my family integrate through Project Atzmaut; third when you chose me to participate in the Diller Teen Fellows leadership program; and fourth when you opened your homes and hearts for me during my year of service in New Jersey.” If this isn’t a testament to Jewish peoplehood, I don’t know what is.
So, with time, how do we make sure that more diaspora Jews and more Israelis of all backgrounds and ages are aware of the saga, support the efforts, and continue to be involved? Last year we came up with what I consider one of the most powerful vehicles to achieve these goals: We went to Ethiopia. Our aim was two-fold: to explore the unique, rich, and beautiful heritage of the Ethiopian-Jewish community and to visit and understand the situation of those who stayed behind and are still praying to reunite with their relatives in Israel. On both aspects it was an eye-opening and inspirational experience.
Participants came back to Greater MetroWest energized. They shared what they learned and it ultimately led us to make an allocation to support efforts on the ground in Ethiopia. And our federation’s board of trustees passed a resolution urging our national partners to expedite the immigration of the estimated 8,000 remaining relatives of the Ethiopian-Jewish community to Israel.
The Torah portions of the coming weeks tell us the story of the children of Israel just before they enter the land of Canaan. Moses reminds them of the hardships they experienced on this journey and instructs them not to forget the miracles that allowed them to cross the desert: “For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water…
of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates…”
These poetic biblical promises were the fuel that kept the flame burning within the hearts of the ancient Ethiopian-Jewish community for years. It gave them the energy and the inspiration to leave their villages, cross the desert, and come home to Israel. It is our collective historic Jewish responsibility to appreciate their dedication and commitment to this dream and to welcome them to the Jewish home with open arms and hearts.
Perhaps the recent protests will serve as a wake-up call for those in Israel and the diaspora alike who thought our mission was accomplished once we brought the Ethiopians to Israel and assisted in their initial absorption. But we are not done yet. In Greater MetroWest we continue to work together, strategize, and figure out the best way to make an impact.
Amir Shacham is Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s associate executive vice president, Global Connections. Global Connections is the department of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ focusing on bringing together Israel, Greater MetroWest, and the world and on promoting the values of Zionism, peoplehood, and innovation.