A Jewish father and daughter at meal time in Ethiopia. (Photo/Courtesy SSEG)
A Jewish father and daughter at meal time in Ethiopia. (Photo/Courtesy SSEG)

Emanu-El raises $120,000 for Ethiopian Jews caught in civil war crossfire

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Updated 11/28 to include support of NACOEJ

When Congregation Emanu-El’s Israel Action Committee decided in January to focus on Ethiopian Jewry as one of its tzedakah projects for 2021, committee chair Jordan Hymowitz didn’t know much about the community’s current situation.

Since then, he’s learned a lot.

In addition to boning up on the political struggles in Israel related to bringing Jews from Ethiopia home to Israel, he learned of some 14,000 people living in two Jewish compounds in Ethiopia, one in Gondar and one in Addis Ababa. They lead Orthodox Jewish lives. They are desperately poor, and a brutal civil war is raging around them. They want to make aliyah. They have seen the rest of their community, including immediate family members, brought to the Jewish state with Israeli government support. They want to join them.

“I was kind of surprised with what I learned,” Hymowitz told J. “I knew there were still Jewish people there, but [so many] already approved by the Israeli government, just waiting? The magnitude of the issue is appalling.”

The member of the 172-year-old San Francisco congregation also learned that no major Jewish organization is helping these people today. Just one small, all-volunteer group called the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry, together with funding and support from its partner, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, has been providing humanitarian aid. With an annual budget of just under $2 million, the New York–based agency has been feeding, educating and providing medical care to as many of these people as it can.

“The Jews still in Ethiopia used to get support from lots of Jewish organizations, from lots of Federations. Now people seem to have lost interest,” Hymowitz said.

About 140,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin live in Israel today. Some 22,000 were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991. In 2015, the Israeli government passed a resolution to bring the remaining 15,000 Ethiopian Jews and descendants of Jews to Israel. So far, about 4,500 have been allowed in, but the rest are in limbo, with no timeline for their aliyah. Some 5,000 of those still in Ethiopia have been cleared for entry into Israel to be reunited with family members.

“There are no real advocates for these people,” said Rabbi Stephen Pearce, Emanu-El’s rabbi emeritus, who is lending his support to the Israel Action Committee’s efforts. “The Israeli government and the Chief Rabbinate are both obfuscating for a number of reasons.”

Last month, Hymowitz convened a Zoom event to raise awareness and funds. More than $120,000 has been raised since that event, he said, with another $25,000 to $50,000 pledged by two foundations. The money represents about 10 percent of SSEJ’s annual budget.

“All of that money will go to feeding these people,” Hymowitz said. “We want to feed them and keep them alive until they can be brought home to Israel.”

On the Zoom call was Joseph Feit, who retired as a tax attorney to launch SSEJ in 2001 as a U.S.-based nonprofit. He serves as chair and his son, Jeremy Feit, is president; like other staff, they don’t take salaries. Feit told the Emanu-El audience what SSEJ provides today: Two meals a day for 700 severely malnourished children under 5 and pregnant and nursing mothers in the Gondar compound; medical care for 1,200 children under 5 and between 700 and 800 elderly people; summer camp, Jewish education and general food distributions several times a year. Every dollar is used to its full advantage, he said.

“We don’t have any overhead,” he said during the Zoom meeting. “We don’t do fundraisers. We don’t do mass mailings. A very little money goes a very long way.

“You are an incredibly compassionate congregation,” he added, noting that just two Jewish Federations, neither of them in California, contribute to SSEJ.

Shlomo Molla
Shlomo Molla

Also on the Zoom call was Shlomo Molla, an Ethiopian-born politician who rose to become deputy speaker of the Knesset. Speaking from his car, which was stuck in traffic in Israel, he opined that the main obstacle to bringing the final group of Ethiopians to Israel is not religious, but financial.

“We know who these people are, 100 percent,” he said, adding although they have been observant for years, they agree to go through the Rabbinate-approved conversion process as soon as they get to Israel.

“Most members of Knesset are not looking at it as a religious question,” he said. “Natan Sharansky [chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency from 2009 to 2018] says we don’t have enough money to absorb them.”

A former Beta Israel village outside Gondar, Ethiopia, July 6, 2019. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
A former Beta Israel village outside Gondar, Ethiopia, July 6, 2019. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

That is no excuse, Molla said. Was not Israel created as a safe haven for Jews in danger? “We are not giving up until all the Jewish people in Ethiopia have come to Israel,” he stated.

The yearlong civil war in Ethiopia has brought the crisis to a head. With active fighting less than 40 miles from the capital city of Addis Ababa, Fiet said the Jewish compound is in real danger. Ten members of the community have been killed, some of them after being forcibly drafted into the Ethiopian army. Many others have also been conscripted, and at least three were kidnapped so their relatives in Israel would pay ransom.

On Nov. 4, two days after Ethiopia declared a state of emergency, Israeli President Isaac Herzog called upon his government to bring “without delay” the remaining Jewish community members from Ethiopia to Israel.

Speaking at a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, Herzog said, “Thousands are still waiting to make aliyah to Israel, and some of them are threatened and in a worrying situation. We must continue to act to bring them over to Israel quickly.”

On Nov. 11, the Jerusalem Post reported that a plan had been drawn up to bring the beleaguered community to Israel in a matter of weeks.

That has not been confirmed by any government agency.

“These people are starving, they are literally dying to come to Israel,” said Hymowitz.

Donations can be made directly to Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry at ssej.org.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].