Bringing 3,000 Ethiopian Jews home to Israel.
This is Kalkidon. Her name, in Amharic, means “promise or covenant to God.” She is one of the many Ethiopian Jews who recently made aliyah. I had the privilege of accompanying these olim from Ethiopia to Israel.
Our community helped make Kalkidon’s journey possible. The Detroit Jewish Federation’s Israel & Overseas Allocation Committee, under the leadership of Richard Broder and Leah Trosch, allocated $8,525,130 from the Detroit community for projects around the world. This allocation included $250,000 to the Jewish Agency for Israel to rescue 3,000 Jews from Ethiopia and bring them to Israel.
Shortly after those allocations were approved, I boarded a plane to Addis Ababa with Robert Hertzberg and George Roberts. We joined approximately 70 other Jewish lay leaders and professionals from around the world and spent three days learning and better understanding the Ethiopian Jewish community.
I finished Micha Feldman’s diary On the Wings of Eagles the day before we flew to Ethiopia. His book is a retelling of Operations Moses and Solomon, of which he played an integral part. Micha relayed personal accounts of people’s harrowing journey toward the promise of Israel. It gave me the foundation I needed for my trip, to see the land that he talked about in the book and to meet the next generations of those who told their stories. To be there with Micha was an incredible gift. His knowledge and familiarity with the landscape is unparalleled. He knows everyone. And everyone knows him.
After those operations took place in the ’80s and ’90s, it was believed that all the “Beta Israel” Jews had been rescued. And they had … sort of. With those operations, everyone who was halachically Jewish (had at least one parent or grandparent who was Jewish) was eligible to make aliyah. Those who were not eligible under the guidelines were left behind.
Today, we are trying to reunite families that were separated. This latest effort began in 2020/2021 with Operation Tzur Yisrael (Rock of Israel), which brought 2,150 Ethiopians to Israel. Now the Operation continues following a government decision to bring at least 3,000 additional new olim from Ethiopia home to Israel in 2022.
Under Operation Tzur Yisrael, they need to have (or have had) either at least one parent, sibling or child living in Israel. Spouses and children under the age of 18 can accompany someone who gets approved for aliyah. Children above age 18 can also accompany an approved parent, but only if they do not have children of their own.
On our first full day in Gondar, we participated in Shacharit services. More than 500 people packed the synagogue. There was a mechitzah. The women were shuckling and davening. It was awe-inspiring. The service ended with everyone singing the most beautiful rendition of “Hatikvah” I have ever heard. It was apparent they took this seriously and that it was very meaningful to them. They gathered in this space and held services every day.
After the service, we toured the building. It included a mikvah and a free food program for children ages 0-6. Someone asked about the children who were over the age of 6. The answer: “Well, many of them manage to survive.”
Next, we toured the village. We stepped into a compound of a dozen or so “homes.” We met an older woman who lived in a tiny room with her four grandchildren. She would be making aliyah in the next two days. Her “apartment” (a room smaller than most closets I have seen with no kitchen nor bathroom) cost $32 a month. To put this into perspective, a police officer in Gondar makes $62 a month.
Some of the people we met had left their villages 20 years ago. Some had left three years ago. Once they leave their villages, they give up their status. This means they cannot obtain a permit to work. They are now considered refugees, and they must wait. They cannot go back, even if they wanted to.
After a whirlwind visit to Gondar, it was time to accompany them to Israel.
Once the plane was in the air, someone stopped me as I was walking down the aisle and said, “She wants you.”
“She”was Kalkidon. She was about 5 years old. She launched herself at me and excitedly pointed at the seat for me to sit while holding onto her. She hugged me; she tried to kiss me. She put her forehead to mine and stared deep into my eyes. She wanted to feed me crackers. I politely refused, and it became a laughing game. I pretended to eat, and she pretended not to mind that I was pretending.
Kalkidon donned my name tag and proudly marched with it around the plane. She tried to take my phone, too, but I quickly hid it. She was no stranger to technology. These kids, like my own, have grown up with it. Their parents use phones to communicate with their loved ones in Israel. In many ways, phones are their lifelines as it’s also the means through which they receive money from their family in Israel. Since they can’t get jobs, they primarily live on the funds being sent from their family members in Israel. We landed in Israel to the most inspiring rendition of “Am Israeli Chai” I have ever heard.
Before our journey came to a close, we stopped at one of the Jewish Agency’s many Absorption Centers where these 180 new olim will spend the next couple of years learning Hebrew, receiving job training and settling into their new lives.
We met kids from Ethiopia who made aliyah just last year. Their Hebrew and English were both impressive. They were able to articulate so well how far they have come and, more importantly, how far they can dream to go.
I am so grateful to Federation and this community for giving Bob, George and me this incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
I fall asleep wandering what Kalkidon is doing. How is she settling in? What about the woman who was too scared and overwhelmed to open her eyes during the flight? Or the woman who couldn’t figure out how to use a fork? What about the people who are still sitting in the synagogue in Gondar singing “Hatikvah” with all their hearts? I know they are praying that they will be called for an interview next. That it will soon be their turn to be reunited with their families in Israel. Praying, most of all, that we will not forget them.
Jennifer Levine is the senior director of the Israel and Overseas Department at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.