A volunteer shares his recent experience with the Ethiopian National Project

Posted on March 4, 2011

This post was written by Rabbi Ted Stainman who is volunteering as an English tutor in Netanya with the Ethiopian National Project (ENP).  The ENP works closely with Ethiopian youth between the ages of 13 -18 in 20 communities throughout Israel. Rabbi Stainmen is sharing his experiences with Skilled Volunteers for Israel.

I just had one of the most fascinating and informative discussions of my life.  I have come to Israel to help with the Ethiopian National Project.  This is an organization set up to help the immigrants from Ethiopia successfully integrate themselves into Israeli life.  It operates youth centers, after school programs and social services for the immigrant community and is sponsored by the Israeli government and donations from various Jewish sources around the world.  Many North American Federations are sponsors of the work of the ENP.

Since every student in Israel has to pass an examination in among other subjects, English, there is a need for additional help with this area of study.  By the way English is an incredibly difficult language if you are not a native speaker.  Its rules and exceptions and sounds are very challenging.  Nevertheless, English is the international language and the key to the world culture we take for granted.  Possessing an understanding of and fluency in English is a door through which every student and educated person in Israel must pass.

My job here is to help high school students review their English language assignments and do their homework.  Additionally I have been sitting with the core of professional social workers and community organizers who also want to improve their command of English by just sitting and practicing English with a native speaker.

This is how I heard the story I am going to tell you about.  It concerns the history of the Jewish community of Ethiopia and how they came to make a mass immigration to Israel in the 1980’s and continue to come to this day.

First a little history.  Ethiopia is in Eastern Africa across the Red Sea from Arabia and located south of Sudan and north of Somali.  It is a dangerous and unstable part of the world.  The fact that there were Jews living there was almost entirely unknown to Western Jewry until late in the 19th century.  These Jews had survived in Ethiopia for hundreds if not thousands of years and had developed a unique religious tradition which did not include the rabbinic period nor the Talmudic literature.  They had the Torah but not the post Biblical literature that we have come to associate with Judaism.  Nonetheless, they thought of themselves as a separate people from the other religions and people of Ethiopia and knew that they were connected to the Jewish people whose roots were the land of Israel.

So how did this community come to make a mass immigration to Israel beginning in the 1980’s? I want to pick up the narrative as it was explained to me by one of the social workers in an Ethiopian community center.  It is a wonderful story of courage and hardship that equals in many ways the story of the Exodus in the Bible and will, I think enter the historical narrative of the people of Israel.

Around 1980 one of the leaders of the Ethiopian community in Ethiopia had heard that Israel had come into existence and he wanted to go there.  So he walked to the Sudan and made contact with a representative of the Red Cross.  There he handed this official a letter in which he stated that he is Jewish and wished to go to Israel.  The official forwarded the letter to the Israeli government.  Sudan was and is a Moslem country and does not have official relations with Israel.  In fact, it is hostile to Israel.  When the letter reached the Israeli government they sent agents to secretly investigate the issue of the Ethiopian Jews and after doing so decided to assist in their immigration to Israel.  This would have to be done  secretly and with great care since movement of Jewish people in this area and any Zionist activity could not be publicly acknowledged.

Some understanding with the government of Sudan was made that if Jews could reach the Sudan they could be air lifted to Israel.  But the Jewish community of Ethiopia had to get to The Sudan first. And now the great narrative begins.

By the thousands these people who had lived in Ethiopia for centuries left their lands and possessions and walked hundreds of miles across dangerous and hostile countryside to arrive at camps where they would be gathered to take them to Israel.  People died on the way.  There was little protection for them and when they arrived in the camps there was little in the way of provisions, food, shelter and medicine for them.  The narrator of this story told me his mother died in the camp because of a lack of sanitation and medicine.  He was four when his family made the journey and he only remembers riding on his father’s shoulders and sometimes on a donkey but mostly walking.

It turns out that the Israeli government was able to get the people out of the Sudan by the payment of a very large sum of money to the Sudanese government and that this would have to be completely secret.  But it was done and the Jewish Ethiopians were airlifted to Israel.

This was too large a movement of people and when word got out that it was going on, the Government of Sudan shut down the operation.  Not everyone was able to get out.  Some had to return and these people have been coming to Israel in smaller numbers ever since.  Approximately 4-5 thousand Jews remain in Ethiopia and they are continuing to come a few hundred a year.

There are now approximately 116,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin in Israel.  They were rural people and mostly farmed the land.  It has been a hard adjustment to life in Israel.  Traditions in place for hundreds of years do not work.  Authority in families has been upset and all the ills and vices that attend an immigrant community are present.

Despite the problems, there are success stories as well.  Children are going to school and receiving an education and moving on to the professions.  Students are entering colleges and learning skills for the modern world.  In the army, an important aspect of Israeli life, they are taking their place and rising in the ranks to become leaders and mentors.  But, most important they are now here and are living regular lives taking wives and husbands and having children and entering the main stream of life.

It is a wonderful community finding its place in the world in a new home and deserves out support.

Rabbi Ted Stainman, March 2011.