Ethiopian Jewry rescue is topic at JCRC

Barbara Ribakove Gordon

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Local, national and international efforts to rescue the remaining 7,000 or more Ethiopian Jews and bring them to Israel was a featured topic at last week’s Jewish Community Relations Council meeting, which was attended by about 60 people at Shaare Zedek Synagogue in University City.

John Kalishman, vice president of the JCRC shared information about local efforts to assist Ethiopian Jews in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Barbara Ribakove Gordon, longtime national executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), spoke on current efforts of her organization in cooperation with the Jewish Agency and Israeli ministries to move the process forward. Ribakove also spoke at several congregations during her visit to St. Louis.

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The Ethiopian Jewish community, regarded as one of the most ancient in the world, traces its roots back to the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Their Judaism is pre-rabbinic and the community had been isolated from mainstream Jewry for centuries until European explorers discovered them about a century ago. In the 1980s, during a period of instability in Ethiopia, a major effort was launched to rescue the community from the crisis in Ethiopia. In Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from the Sudan to which they had hiked at great personal risk and flown to Israel, where about 130,000 now reside. An estimated 8,700 Falash Mura, Ethiopian Christians of Jewish descent who had undergone forced conversions, remain in the Gondar Province of Ethiopia and about 7,000 of these are considered eligible to be admitted to Israel.

In his remarks, Kalishman, who is also a member of the Jewish Federation Board of Directors, said, “One of the inspiring chapters in Jewish history and certainly of the last 50 years, was the resettlement in Israel of the Ethiopian Jews.” He noted that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) were at the center of the historic aliyah. Federation funding supported Operation Moses and Operation Solomon and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis has additionally supported a comprehensive program meeting the needs of Ethiopian Jews in Yokneam, St. Louis’ sister community in Israel.

In her remarks and in an interview with the Jewish Light after the meeting, Rivakove, who has worked on behalf of the Ethiopian Jews for over 30 years, said that “it is extremely important to complete the aliyah of the remaining Falash Mura to Israel. We cannot abandon them. Since 1983 NACOEJ has helped in the absorption process of the Ethiopian Jews. It is a challenge and education is the key to the success of this community.”

Ribakove said that most Ethiopian Jews “arrive in Israel with almost no skills and have to adjust to a modern, high-tech society. Of course it is hard, but it is amazing what they can accomplish. If kids get after school programs, they become capable of succeeding. Many Israeli parents can afford to pay themselves for such programs, but most Ethiopian Jews must depend on the government or the Jewish Agency to fund such programs.”

She pointed out that while challenges remain, there have been “some amazing success stories among the Ethiopian Jews. When Israeli made headlines for its historic medical rescue efforts after the earthquake in Haiti, a major role was played by an Ethiopian Jewish surgeon. Recently I met an Ethiopian Jewish post-doctoral student at Harvard. Once given a chance, the Ethiopian Jews are off and running.”

Ribakove said that for the Falash Mura to be eligible for aliyah to Israel, they must prove “unbroken matrilineal descent” in order to meet the criteria of rabbinic Judaism. She noted that the Ethiopian Jews are “pre-rabbinic” biblical Jews, but that rabbinic law prevails in Israel. Those who cannot establish such descent would be obliged to undergo a conversion process in Israel.

Ribakove said that the Jewish Agency estimates that from 200 to 300 Ethiopian Jews a month could be processed and brought to Israel.

“We are very pleased that the Jewish Agency for Israel is handling the process very rapidly in both Ethiopia and in Israel,” she said. “And the Ethiopian government is being very cooperative, which really helps in this effort.”

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