(Jewish News – Mala Blomquist) A group of 180 immigrants from Ethiopia landed in Israel on June 1, fulfilling a lifelong dream of making aliyah. The group arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on a flight chartered by The Jewish Agency for Israel. This trip marked the continuation of Operation Zur Israel, an initiative that will reunite 3,000 Ethiopians with their families in Israel in the coming months.
Also on that flight were two local residents, Danielle Gross and Rachel Hoffer. Hoffer, a member of Congregation Beth Tefillah and Or Tzion, is involved with the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Her role on this trip was as board chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel-North American Council.
The mission included lay leaders and professionals from several Jewish organizations. Gross, a member of Temple Solel, is also a member of the National Young Leadership Cabinet of JFNA.
“The past year and a half with my work with Federation, I’ve been learning about the Ethiopians’ journey, some of the challenges they face,” shared Gross. “This was the peak of it, being able to travel to Ethiopia and see firsthand. I learned so much.”
The women landed in Ethiopia on May 30 and traveled to the Ethiopian city of Gondar. With a population of nearly 300,000, the city has 6,000 Jews, many of whom have been waiting close to 25 years to make aliyah.
“I don’t think that I had an expectation of what I was going to see and so I went in with open eyes,” said Hoffer. “I’ve heard about Ethiopian Jewry for 30 years, and every time I visit Israel, I’ve gone to an Ethiopian absorption center. So I’d seen what comes next, but I didn’t have that one piece of the puzzle — what was before. So to be there and better understand this has been a dream from generation to generation.”
Hoffer noticed that the Passover saying, “l’shanah ha ba’ah b’yerushalayim,” “next year in Jerusalem,” was written on the wall of the Jewish community center in Gondar. She realized it had such a different meaning to the Ethiopian Jews living there. It’s not something they say once a year; it’s something they say every day.
Gross shared an experience she had after attending a service at the community center.
“There were some things that were so normal like if I closed my eyes, I could be at my shul at home as we sang the mourner’s kaddish,” she said. “As I was leaving, one woman kissed her hand, then held out her hand and put it to her heart. I did that back to her and the woman next to her did it. I went across the whole row and did that. We can’t speak the same language but it was this, ‘I am here for you’ [gesture]. You don’t need to have words to be able to feel that connection, that love and that admiration.”
Gross said that their agenda was fast-paced, and every minute was accounted for and utilized. Besides going to the community center, they visited a synagogue and cemetery. They also met with Micha Feldmann, who has devoted his life to bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel and helping them adjust and incorporate into Israeli society.
Gross and Hoffer also visited the Israel embassy in Ethiopia and spoke with Pnina Tameno Shete, minister of aliyah and integration. Shete was born in the Gondar region and made aliyah when she was 3 years old as part of Operation Moses. Shete was also on the flight from Ethiopia to Israel.
While waiting to board the plane to Israel, Hoffer noticed that even though they were traveling with very little — most just had one or two suitcases coming from living in a 150-square-foot room with multiple family members — they were all dressed up.
“Some of the men were wearing suits and the women were wearing floor-length dresses,” Hoffer said. “There was one that stood out to me. A beautiful white dress and on the hem were Jewish stars going all around it and also on the sleeves. It was incredible.”
Gross shared an experience she had on the plane. Being the mom of twin boys, she knows what it is like to take a long trip with children, but she couldn’t imagine the uncertainty facing these families.
“On the plane, we had a little girl sitting in the middle seat, about 7 years old, and her parents were in the row behind us with their two other children,” said Gross. “We helped the family take care of the children, and I felt this bonding experience with this family. They were going because the grandfather lives in Israel. The plane that we were on was a family reunification plane. Everyone on the plane had a family member living in Israel.”
She learned that the little girl’s name was Elsa, and when it came time for lunch, she hated the Israeli food being served on the plane. Gross thought that is one more thing this child will have to adjust to in their new country.
From the airport, the Ethiopian Jews went to the absorption center. Gross had noticed before boarding the plane many looked fearful but now they all seemed happy and hopeful. The absorption center is like an apartment building where the immigrants will live, learn Hebrew and job skills and eventually receive a down payment for their own place.
“At the absorption center, we spoke with Ethiopian Jews who made aliyah about 18 months prior and it was amazing. One young man spoke perfect English and another one, people were complimenting his Hebrew,” said Gross. “They’re able to leave Ethiopia and have this bright future ahead of them in Israel, the startup nation where so much is possible.”
Hoffer, who had been dreaming of this trip for some time, always had the image in her mind of the Ethiopian Jews landing in Israel and getting off the plane, dropping to their knees and kissing the ground.
“I think that’s what became clear to me is that it doesn’t end with getting off the plane. It starts when they land in Israel, integrating into society and becoming citizens of the country,” she said. “Bringing both the richness they have and their own culture, along with Israeli culture — and the two being one. Not only is it what’s being offered to the Ethiopians to come to Israel but also they’re going to enrich the society greatly as well.”
Gross shared that when she got home, as she celebrated her twin boys’ 6th birthday, a thought struck her that made her cry.
“There’s a Jewish agency in Ethiopia that provides nutritional supplements for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children from 0-5. They get two meals a day, and due to limited finances, those are the only people able to receive that program,” said Gross. “I kept thinking about my boys and if I lived in Ethiopia, they would no longer be able to get this guaranteed food. It breaks my heart to think of the challenges they have and how much more work could be done there.”
This article was originally posted on Jewish News.
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