D’var Torah-First Day of Pesach 2021
March 28, 2021
The Unfinished Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry
Chag Sameach. My thanks to Rabbi Weininger for his kind invitation to deliver the D’var Torah on this, the first day of Pesach this year.
I am appreciative of and grateful for the support of both the clergy and the lay leadership here at Adath for their encouragement and involvement over the years for the Rescue of those Ethiopian Jews that remain in Ethiopia longing to be re-united with first degree blood relatives in Eretz Yisrael.
As we hold our Seders and celebrate Pesach, we re-learn each year about the hardships imposed on the Israelites while they were slaves and oppressed in ancient Egypt. We re-learn about their miraculous redemption and the Exodus from Egypt.
What better time than Pesach to bring to the attention of Jews here in our congregation as well as elsewhere an awareness of the Unfinished Exodus in East Africa where 8,000 Jewish lives remain at risk today and have been at risk in some cases for as many as 40 years.
That precious remnant of an ancient Jewish community has been waiting for the completion of its Exodus for far too long. There is a clarion call for World Jewry to help to hasten the completion of the Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry, yes in our time, and hopefully before next year they can be in Jerusalem as they and their ancestors have dreamt for over the many centuries since biblical times.
While the Israeli government and World Jewry both earned high praise, and deservedly so, for the airlift of about 15,000 Ethiopian Jews back in 1991 under Operation Solomon, many were left behind.
It’s important to understand the background of life in Ethiopia and some world history as it pertains to the present day situation of Ethiopian Jewry living there.
Let’s begin with geography. Ethiopia is a mountainous region in eastern Africa. It is generally accepted but cannot be definitively established that Ethiopian Jewry traces its origins to a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In ancient times, as was the case in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, there were marriages between relatives in royal families of different nations for political and economic alliances.
So too did Solomon have many wives in his day and at least the one with Makeda, the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, was for matters of national interests including trade. It is generally acknowledged and believed by Ethiopians both Jewish and non Jewish that the issue of that marriage was a Prince of Ethiopia known as Menelik. The Ethiopians are very proud of this historical linkage to King Solomon.
Surprisingly perhaps there was a time in Ethiopian History when the Ethiopian Jews had their own minor kingdom. While they prospered for many years, eventually they lost a war and were subjugated. They were oppressed by their Christian and Muslim neighbors. They were relegated to certain occupations such as farming and blacksmithing of metals. The latter was considered the work of the devil and was relegated to the Jews. The general population and, in some rural areas yet today, many Ethiopians are fearful of and discriminate against Ethiopian Jews as they believe that Jews turn into hyenas at night.
In the late 19th century the European Rabbi Fleitlovich traveled to Ethiopia to learn whether or not there were Jews living there. He had heard tales of the existence of Ethiopian Jews from travelers to Ethiopia which, at that time, was ruled by Italy as part of the European colonization of the continent of Africa.
Ethiopia is a mountainous country and the Jews lived in remote locations and stayed to themselves as a matter of cultural and economic survival. For those of you that have seen travelogues and feature stories about Christianity in Ethiopia, Aksum is the location of a major Christian church and holy site. It is claimed with pride by the custodians that guard the church that the Ark of the Covenant is there. Non Ethiopian Orthodox Christians are prohibited from entering that sanctuary. The historical connections between biblical Israel and Ethiopia are strong and remain to this day. When one tours Jerusalem one becomes aware that among the four Christian sectors of Jerusalem, one is controlled by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this very day.
This helps to frame the history of Ethiopian Jewry in Ethiopia as Emperor Hailie Selaise in the mid 20th Century referred to himself as the Lion of Judah. And it was a descendant of his that negotiated the ransom of the Ethiopian Jews in Operation Solomon in 1991.
Our own congregant Herman Markowitz, in his official capacity as a senior executive of the United Israel Appeal, worked behind the scenes with fellow Minnesotan Sen. Rudy Boschwitz to facilitate the transfer of the $35 million ransom payment to the Swiss bank account of President Mengistu thatresulted in the airlift of the
15,000 Ethiopian Jews under the direction of and with the blessing of then President George Herbert Walker Bush.
With this historical background we now have a better framework for understandingthe current situation in which 8,000 Jewish lives remain at risk in war-torn Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, back in the 1980s, the vast majority of Ethiopian Jews lived in the hill country and the mountainous regions of Ethiopia where they were subsistence farmers with crops and cattle. The nation was then like many third world nations, lacking communications such as postal service, telephones, and transportation.
To provide a limited comparison, consider American history back in the revolutionary war times. How difficult would it have been to communicate an important message to someone living in the remote hills of Appalachia? So too it was not easy to get information from the major cities such as Addis Ababa and Gondar where the Jewish Agency staff were working to develop ‘The List’.
To be eligible to be airlifted to Israel during Operation Solomon, it was necessary to be interviewed by staff and then formally added to the list. Alas, many Ethiopian Jews living in remote areas either were unaware of this need or were too ill or frail or financially unable to travel to get registered.
Today, there are Ethiopian Jews with first degree blood relatives in Israel that have yet to be authorized to be flown to Israel. And their situation is dire to say the least.
We read about the ten plagues in Egypt. Most of us have never seen first hand a sky filled with locusts that descend upon crop fields and eat all of the crops. Yet in the last twelve months there was such a biblical scale plague of locusts in Ethiopia. To its credit, Israeli agricultural experts and pest control technicians were sent by the Israeli government and their efforts brought some limited relief.
Nonetheless the crops suffered in the aggregate and prices of staples such as the grain known as ‘tef’ (with which Ethiopians make ‘injeera’ a pancake stylebread) increased sharply. The demand for the limited supply of grains was further exacerbated by the need of the government to feed its soldiers that were fighting insurgents near the border with Eritrea. Jews in that region were at additional risk because of the bloodshed and war crimes that were committed by Eritrean soldiers that crossed the border to help the Ethiopian government in its struggle against the rebels in that region.
During the last twelve months, Israel has earned high praise for the airlift of about 2,000 Ethiopian Jews under the Law of Family Reunification. Because of some doubts about the Halachic status of the Jews that remain in Ethiopia, it is not easy for Ethiopian Jews to be admitted to Israel under the Law of Return. If they are allowed entry under this law, they must submit to a formal Orthodox conversion process.
While the airlift of the 2,000 is praiseworthy, there remain today in Ethiopia this at least another 8,000 Ethiopian Jews that are living mostly in squalor and subsist on as few as 500 calories per day. Nursing mothers, pregnant women, and children under the age of 5 are deprived of proper nutrition. It is heart breaking to realize that the health and brain development of these children may penalize them for the rest of their lives once they finally get to Israel.
The Ethiopian Jews sold their farms and moved years ago to the major cities of Gondar and Addis Ababa to be ready to travel to Israel on short notice. They remain in misery and deplorable conditions yet to this day. And in a very practical sense they suffer like the ancient Israelites suffered in Egypt.
However, there’s where the contrast and challenge exist. There is no heartless Pharoah to deny them their Exodus. The Ethiopian Government or any corrupt politician no longer requires a ransom payment. Rather, they are at the mercy of political bickering and politics as well as the bureaucrats and their budgets in Israel.
They are hapless and without resources in a land literally plagued by locusts, poor crops, warring factions, and the ever present hostility from their non-Jewish neighbors.
They live Jewish lives observing kashrut and Shabbat and the Festivals according to strict practices. Their children, whenever possible, attend classes on Hebrew and other subjects to prepare them to be successful in their new lives in Israel when their time to go there to live is at hand.
These resources are NOT provided by the Israeli government in any meaningful amount. Were it not for the efforts of several NGOs based in the U.S. including NACOEJ, more would have died from malnutrition and illness. Only during Pesach does the Jewish Agency provide Passover rations. The other 51 weeks of the year they do not provide relief. The Ethiopian Jews rely on the kindness of North American Jewry.
They are exceedingly patient people. Back in 2006 and then again in 2015 the Israeli government promised to complete the effort, they were patient and hopeful. Between 2015 and until about twelve months ago, little was done. We hear governmental leaders in our own communities and state complain about Unfunded Mandates imposed by the federal government on these state and local governmental units. The same unfunded mandates were issued the Israel’s Knesset several times.
In 2006, the Lebanon War broke out and that disrupted then halted the airlift and absorption efforts. In 2015 the Knesset approved the complete transportation and absorption of the Ethiopian Jews yet it failed to provide any funding to the Ministry of Absorption to do so.
As we celebrate Pesach and read the words that all who are hungry are welcome to join us at our Seders and we are encouraged to show concern, compassion, and care for others can there be a better time for us to consider and then act upon the need to complete the Exodus of Ethiopian Jewry?
North American Jewry must be the primary advocate for the speedy completion of this modern day Exodus.
As the most affluent Jewish community in the history of the world, can we do anything less than raise our voices and urge our Jewish communal leadership, both lay and professional, to act with dispatch to relieve the suffering and complete this historical modern day Exodus?
The closing words of the Seder – Next Year in Jerusalem – could become a reality for 8,000 Ethiopian Jews if we act now with urgency and resolve.
Let us hope for and work towards making it possible that these 8,000 Ethiopian Jews will be with their families at a Seder in Israel next Pesach.
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