Barbara Ribakove, a white woman with glasses, smiles at the camera among many, many Ethiopian Jews
Barbara Ribakove among Ethiopian Jews

Ethiopian Jews’ advocate Barbara Ribakove to speak in Windsor.

Ron Stang Special to the Jewish News

Editor’s Note: Due to illness, Barbara Ribakove will be postponing her visit to the spring. 

Barbara Ribakove is one of the world’s foremost advocates for the resettlement of Ethiopian Jews, a process that has been going on for decades, but which is not quite complete.

Ribakove will be in Windsor on Dec. 7 to talk about the plight of Ethiopian Jews, their current status in Israel and the role of her New York-based organization, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry.

The world has watched as large populations of Ethiopians resettled in Israel, most in dramatic airlifts, such as Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon, which Ribakove was involved with, in 1991. In the latter, some 14,000 Ethiopians were moved from Ethiopia’s war-torn civil war capital Addis Ababa in 36 hours.

Ribakove’s connection to Ethiopia began in the early 1980s.

She had long been an advocate for Jewish resettlement, first with Romanians during Communism. In 1981, she was asked to go to Ethiopia “to see what had happened to the Jewish community during all those years of war and isolation,” she said in an interview with the JN. She eventually led 18 missions to the country.

The Ethiopian Jews were the “the poorest people in one of the worst countries in the world,” she said.

Yet these Jews had deep religious and cultural practices and, despite hardships, held strongly to the idea of Zion. “Ethiopian Jews were raised at their mothers’ knees with word that ‘We are Jews; God wants us to be in Jerusalem,” she said.

Her organization, along with The Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and American support, organized aid, logistics and helped raise millions of dollars for the airlift and resettlement.

But there have been some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews left behind, and it has been a struggle to get them resettled. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced 1,000 admissions for 2019. “They had announced they would take in 1,000 in 2018 and never did,” Ribakove said.

While Israel has done “wonderful” things in the past to resettle Ethiopians in recent years, its commitment has waned.

“Very often we are told it’s financial; it’s expensive to move Ethiopian Jews” due to lack of education, she said. Some even question if they are Jews due to superficial conversions to Christianity to survive.

Despite isolated cases of racism in Israel, the Israeli population has embraced Ethiopians, with marches of solidarity and a legal system that has rules against discrimination and hate speech.

“When the cases are taken to court, the Ethiopians win,” Ribakove said. “This is not Jim Crow.”

Barbara Ribakove, director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, will speak at Congregation Beth El, 2525 Mark Ave., Windsor, Dec. 7 during 7 p.m. Shabbat services. Her talk is open to the community at no charge. For more information, call Rabbi Lynn Goldstein at (519) 969-2422.

Editor’s Note: Due to illness, Barbara Ribakove will be postponing her visit to the spring.