Helping Ethiopian Jews Integrate, Participate, and Prosper

For the past two decades, our Federation has been a driving force in helping Ethiopian Jews immigrate, integrate into Israeli society, and break the cycle of poverty.  Read one woman’s personal account of a mission she participated in (part of three-decade campaign) that helped resettle 90,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Completing the Journey Mission: Ethiopia Has Strong Coffee, Leaves Strong Memories

Original version posted on the Federation Connection blog
Editor's note: Stephanie Block is a writer living in San Francisco and 5th year member of our National Young Leadership Cabinet, a group of young leaders and philanthropists from Federations around the country dedicated to the work of the Federation, both in our community, Israel and throughout the world. Recently she was a participant in "Completing the Journey," a mission capping a historic three-decade campaign by Jewish Federations, the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to resettle 90,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel. She and other mission participants visited institutions that played a central role in the Ethiopian aliyah and attended the handover to the government of a Jewish school, which closed the final chapter of the major Jewish presence in Ethiopia. They then sat alongside a group of Ethiopian Jews as they made their journey to Israel.


The Jewish Federations of North America’s National Young Leadership Cabinet is trying to kill me… with travel exhaustion. I was on a train from Moscow to St. Petersburg on our annual Cabinet mission to various far-flung Jewish communities when Yehuda, our familiar and formidable head of security, turned to me and basically ordered me, in his thick Israeli accent, to go on a soon-upcoming Federation mission to Ethiopia. He said it would be the most amazing experience of my life. It was the last mission of its kind to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and though Yehuda had been on dozens of these missions, this one promised to be the best yet.

Like an idiot genius, I agreed (You don’t tell Yehuda lo). Idiot for the insane turnaround time (typhoid shot, shmyfoid shot), and genius for saying yes when extraordinary life opportunities come your way.

Cut to Gondar, an hour’s flight from Addis Ababa. I was following Yehuda through the dusty courtyard of a JCC. Now when I say JCC, don’t picture our gorgeous edifice on California Street. Picture instead wavy corrugated metal paneling painted Israeli blue and white. And picture friendly barefoot children running towards you in tattered clothes. And then imagine these lovely Ethiopian children shouting “Shalom!” as they lean in for hugs.

Shalom, they said, 1400 miles south of Tel Aviv. Shalom, they said, high in the lush hills of Ethiopia.

Yehuda, in his mind, subtlety whispered to our group that we should join the prayer service in back. In reality his whispers are like your yells. So we did, with our expanding escort of children who discovered we had coloring books and markers to share. A gauzy cloth separated the sexes, and everyone was tucked tightly together on long benches. The women wore immaculate white shawls and the men both tallit and kepa. They began singing “Am Israel Chai”. Tears poured down my cheeks! Everything foreign collided with everything deeply familiar in my brain.


That afternoon we were joined by Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia Belaynesh Zevadia, Israel’s first ambassador of Ethiopian descent. She generously invited us with her to revisit her childhood home that she hadn’t seen since she left years ago. We climbed a remote, rocky path searching for it, Zevadia in a smart pants outfit with forty Americans and an Australian in her wake. Locals in their fields stopped what they were doing to stare curiously at us. The Ambassador’s home we found was humble, rural. Zevadia cried openly with us; we took turns comforting her. She said, “I left as a teenager and came back an Ambassador.” Later, she would host us for dinner at her sumptuous embassy residence in Addis. Thinking of both homes, I know you would agree that Fate is a cray-cray thing. Especially when Federation steps in.

Another amazing person who traveled with us was Micha Feldmann, the Moses of Ethiopian Jews who helped orchestrate 1991’s Operation Solomon that brought over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. It was a bookend moment: Now he was fielding questions from an eager San Franciscan member of the final Mission to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Questions like: Who is Jewish? Who in this world gets the tender and generous embrace of the Jewish Federations? Which people get flown by Abba Micha to the land of milk and honey to possibly become ambassadors?

If you think you know, you should probably sit on a Russian Federation train with Yehuda and get marching orders for Ethiopia. These powerful memories stay with me and haunt me back in San Francisco. I try to put it all together in my mind, and I try to sleep in our time zone. What I’m left with is a total head expansion of what it means to be Jewish. Yehuda: Toda raba.

Further Reading: On the Wings of Eagles by Micha Feldmann. Learn more about our work in Israel to advance social justice and equal opportunity for all of Israel's citizens.


July 11, 2013


Stephanie Block