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New Year, New Life

Metro Detroiters help welcome Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

Brian Hermelin with an Ethiopian child. (Credit: Jennifer Gilbert)

They live in a primitive world of open air markets and mud huts; a place where people have no electricity or running water, where they tell time by the rising and setting of the sun. The last 4,000 Falash Mura — Ethiopians with Jewish roots whose families lived as Christians for generations to escape persecution — are slowly trickling into Israel one group at a time.

A few weeks ago, 26 Metro Detroiters traveled more than 8,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to the Horn of Africa to help 91 Ethiopian Jews complete their journey from the capital city of Addis Ababa to Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. Many of the participants in the Dec. 2-9 mission are members of the Sherman Campaign Leadership Program, a two-year effort sponsored by Jane and Larry Sherman of Franklin to develop and educate the next generation of leaders for Federation’s annual campaign.

Each member paid about $1,000 and made a commitment to take on a future leadership role in raising funds for Federation; the rest of their costs were covered by the program.

What the group saw and experienced during their visit to Africa’s second-most populous nation made an indelible impression.

“The conditions were so stark and an assault on one’s senses that we are all still processing it,” Terri Farber Roth of Farmington Hills said in a recent speech to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit board.

The Detroit contingent in front of a synagogue in Ethiopia. (Credit: Jennifer Gilbert)

“Daily life for these people is akin to going back in time to a long-ago era of what must have been biblical Jewish life. [We saw] children with no shoes or underwear walking or running on rocky, open terrain, mud straw hovels and stick-walled structures with dirt floors and no running water. There was dust and dirt and strong odors of incense, spices and excrement everywhere, inescapably so. [It was] a perspective-altering experience on many levels.”

Gone To Gondar
The group, with various experts leading them along the way, started out in Israel. They spent two days near Tel Aviv visiting programs funded by Detroit’s Federation aimed at helping at-risk youth. They also took part in an orientation before traveling to Gondar, Ethiopia, where the Falash Mura live.

“There were throngs of people in Gondar moving, mostly walking, in a non-hurried pace,” Farber Roth said. “The markets were teeming, bustling with people in rows sitting in huts or on open ground, flowing with products crafted by hand, vegetables, spices, coffee and grains.”

Federation CEO Scott Kaufman of Huntington Woods was part of the Metro Detroit contingent. He’s been on countless missions all over the world, but this was his first trip to Ethiopia.

“The first place we stopped [in Gondar] was the outdoor market,” Kaufman said. “There was livestock all over the place wandering the streets, donkeys, sheep and goats walking in the street, little kids barefoot, and women carrying wares on their heads.”

During their two days in Gondar, the group also had the unique opportunity to visit Jewish families at their homes, tour the Ethiopian version of schools and health clinics, and attend daily prayer services. Even without sharing a common language, Kaufman says they were able to bond with families they met and communicate through music, dancing, hugs and smiles.

“The people were so happy and thankful and appreciative,” he said. “Every kid would just run up to you and smile. They wanted to see our cameras. They thought that was very neat; they wanted to see pictures of themselves.”

Farber Roth also was struck by the personalities of the people and their upbeat demeanor, despite their poor living conditions.

“The quick smiles, their mildness, the soft-spoken tone of their voices” are impressions she says will stay with her, along with the “elegance of the women in beautifully woven cloths of white and bright colors,” which she describes as “mesmerizing.”

Israel Bound
This past year, Israel marked the 20th anniversary of Operation Solomon, a massive three-day airlift of nearly 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in 1991. Now, an estimated 130,000 have immigrated to Israel. But their arrival and integration into Israeli society have presented major challenges. As a result, Israel is delaying the admission of the nearly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews already approved for entry. Only 110 will make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) each month. The process is expected to take until March 2015 to complete, a year longer than anticipated.

Ethiopian Jews arrive at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. Many kissed the ground of the land they never dreamed they'd see.

“We went to Ethiopia to understand the roots of Ethiopian Israelis and the tremendous challenges Israel faces in their successful absorption and actualization,” said Vicki Agron, a Miami-based consultant who helped plan the trip, along with Julie Zuckerman Tepperman of Windsor, Federation’s director of leadership development.

“The potential is unlimited,” Agron added. “We met with those who have transformed their lives from a primitive culture into a complex and sophisticated society where American Jews, through the Federation system, have helped them succeed beyond their wildest dreams.”

The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) is coordinating the movement of Jewish families from Ethiopia to Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) helps tend to their medical needs and provides other humanitarian aid.

“For years, the Detroit Jewish community has played a critical role in the long-term integration of Ethiopian-Israelis,” said Gideon Herscher of the JDC. “This recent trip only further highlights the importance of their investment and its profound impact on Israel.”

The Metro Detroit group’s final stop in Ethiopia was Addis Ababa, where participants helped distribute new, modern clothing to each family before they boarded the flight to Israel. None of the Ethiopian Jews had ever been on an airplane before.

“We went to a gifting ceremony where everyone was given a new outfit,” Kaufman said. “We handed out clothes, gave kids coloring books. On the plane, we helped people put on seatbelts. It was very moving.”

Whole New World
Following a four-hour flight back to Israel, the plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport. The doors swung open, and the Ethiopian Jews arrived to a whole new world.

“We walked off the stairs onto the tarmac,” Kaufman said. “We were out on the runway when they started coming off the plane. Everybody was sort of kissing the ground. It was very emotional for them. Israel was this concept they’d been talking about for decades, and now they were here.

“Emotionally, it was as powerful a moment as I had in the whole experience. There weren’t many dry eyes on the runway.”

Once in Israel, the Falash Mura live in absorption centers for 18-24 months. They receive food, clothing and medical care, learn Hebrew and get job training. They also learn to adjust to the dramatic cultural differences of Israeli society. The remarkable journey gave the group a first-hand look at what it means to be part of the global Jewish community.

Jane Sherman, who has traveled to Ethopia before, called this the most exciting and moving trip she’s ever taken.

“I’ve been on planes with immigrants before, but I’ve never had such an emotional experience before,” she said. “Being with the Ethiopian Jews from the start of the journey, watching them begin to learn Hebrew, and watching how the future leaders reacted to all of this. It’s the last immigration from a country of distress. They needed to see what we do with our overseas dollars.”

Sherman says other highlights included spending time with Micha Feldman, who organized Operation Solomon, and Liat Demoza, an Ethiopian Israeli social worker with JAFI. The group went with her back to the spot where her parents started their trek through the mountains decades ago on her family’s difficult journey to make aliyah.

“We learned of the many different paths to aliyah, with truly miraculous and tragic stories,” said Farber Roth. “We met some of the real heroes, the Ethiopians whom literally, on faith alone, decided to walk out of their villages though the Sudan in the 1980s on the basis of the long-sought dream of returning to Jerusalem after centuries.”

The story of the Ethiopian Jews is still unfolding and is not yet a success story, as Lowell Salesin of Bloomfield Hills, another participant, was quick to point out.

“There are many who question the use of such significant resources to fund programs to assist Ethiopian Jews and continue to bring them to Israel,” Salesin said. “This mission taught our group how critical it is to make sure this story becomes a success story and that Ethiopian Jews do not become an underclass in Israel.

“Each Jew, from whatever part of the world, even the most remote (and believe me, Gondar is remote), deserves the same opportunity to move to Israel and to create a Jewish life for their family.”

Lasting Impressions
The Ethiopia to Israel journey made a lasting impression on all of the participants. Several others also shared their thoughts about what the trip meant to them.

Karen Sosnick Schoenberg of Birmingham works in commercial real estate development and investment.

“My biggest takeaway is my pride in being a part of a global Jewish community that takes care of Jews in need, wherever they may be,” she said. “On our last evening, I sat next to a man who had come to Israel in the 1980s. His first words to me at dinner were ’Thank you, thank you for everything you have done for us.’

”His was one story of many, and I feel grateful to have witnessed the result of the work of our global Jewish community. We have so many needs at home, but the fact that we do not forget those who could be so easily forgotten fills me with pride.”

Rob Colburn of Bloomfield Hills helps run his family’s insurance and risk services company.

“On one hand, there was this beautiful African countryside that seemed to go on forever,” Colburn said. “In sharp contrast were the very real, stark, primitive conditions in which most Ethiopians live. I really understood for the first time what a universal community the Jewish community is.”

Robb Lippitt of Bloomfield Hills, co-founder and CEO of Scrapbuck, an online marketplace for discounted scrapbooking supplies, was struck by the tenacity of the Ethiopian Jews.

“They clung to their religion and dreams of a life in Israel,” he said. “Ultimately, they were willing to give up everything they knew to follow that dream. They abandoned their whole world, friends, and even family members to journey to a new land.”

By Robin Schwartz  | JN Contributing Writer




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