Incoming Weinberg Foundation board chair  Paula Pretlow (fourth from left) and Federation CEO Joy Sisisky (right of Pretlow) with an Ethiopian family making aliyah to Israel.
Incoming Weinberg Foundation board chair Paula Pretlow (fourth from left) and Federation CEO Joy Sisisky (right of Pretlow) with an Ethiopian family making aliyah to Israel.

Bay Area leaders join one of the last flights of Ethiopians to Israel

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As she exited a chartered flight that had taken her from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Tel Aviv, Joy Sisisky found herself holding a stranger’s luggage.

The Ethiopian man who handed her his belongings walked off the plane, fell to his knees and began kissing the ground, she recounted.

“These are people who have been waiting to come to Israel, in some cases for over 20 years,” said Sisisky, CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

On May 9, Sisisky joined a flight sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel to bring 111 Ethiopian olim (immigrants) to Israel. It was one of the final flights before Israel’s government pauses immigration from the East African nation.

In mid-June, flights carrying Ethiopian olim will end as Israel’s government reaches its current self-imposed quota of 3,000 set in 2021, according to the nonprofit Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry. The Knesset passed Israel’s 2023-2024 budget on May 24 without authorized funding for future immigration from Ethiopia, according to SSEJ.

“The big question is what happens to the remaining people who would like to make aliyah?” Sisisky said of the approximately 10,000 Ethiopians she said are “hanging in the balance.”

The big question is what happens to the remaining people who would like to make aliyah?

Only Israel’s government can answer that question, she said. “It’s tough. I don’t feel hopeful that this Israeli government is going to make a decision about that in the near term.”

Many with relatives in Israel are hoping to be admitted under the family reunification policy; others are applying under the Law of Return. Only a small percentage among the thousands of Ethiopians waiting to make aliyah are considered halachically Jewish.

Meanwhile, conditions in Ethiopia remain dire. Thousands of Ethiopians hoping to immigrate to Israel have relocated to areas on the outskirts of Addis Ababa or northern Gondar, Sisisky said.

A couple of days before the flight from Addis Ababa to Israel, the mission group spent time around the city — both the modern center and the surrounding area, where they saw people living without running water and cooking their meals over open flames. When it rained one day, raw sewage streamed through the area, Sisisky said. “There’s a lot of sickness,” she said.

Sisisky lived in Addis Ababa for six months in 2008 when she was in her early 30s. She was a Ralph Goldman Fellow working for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a global Jewish humanitarian aid organization that began assisting Jews in Ethiopia in the 1980s. She returned in 2015 as a member of the JDC board on a fact-finding mission.

This month’s trip to Ethiopia was organized by Mark and Jane Wilf. (Mark Wilf is chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel and former chair of the Jewish Federations of North America.) The couple invited about 25 people to join the mission, half of them federation leaders and half of them Jewish journalists or digital content producers, according to Sisisky.

A mother with her children eating breakfast at a synagogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A mother with her children eating breakfast at a synagogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Other Bay Area Jews joined the mission, including Lily Kanter, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Paula Pretlow, board vice president at S.F.’s Congregation Emanu-El and incoming board chair of the Weinberg Foundation, and Jerry Yanowitz, a board member of both J. and the S.F. Federation.

This was Yanowitz’s first trip to Ethiopia, and one with personal meaning. His mother and father, Donna and Bennett Yanowitz, traveled to Ethiopia in 1982 as part of a small group of national Jewish leaders on a fact-finding mission to inform then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin about Ethiopia’s Jewish community.

The trip marked the first time the U.S. Jewish community formally traveled to Ethiopia for the purpose of informing the Israeli government, Yanowitz said.

“It was like closing a circle,” he said of returning to the work that his parents pioneered.

Following that early mission came Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, which were secretive, large-scale Israeli military efforts that airlifted about 22,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. Those are the most famous, but not the only, such efforts. According to Israel’s latest census figures from 2021, about 164,000 Israelis are of Ethiopian descent, including about 74,000 who were born in Israel.

Since 1991, regulations about who qualifies to make aliyah from Ethiopia have changed multiple times. In 2003, Israel began limiting the age of children who were allowed to automatically immigrate with their parents, excluding anyone over 18.

In 2021, the Israeli government approved bringing another 3,000 Ethiopians to Israel, in addition to the 2,000 approved in 2020. These efforts have primarily focused on adult children who were separated from their parents back in 2003 and want to join their families in Israel, according to the Jewish Agency.

Ethiopians who are still waiting for permission to immigrate will remain under the care of SSEJ, said the nonprofit’s chairman, Joseph Feit. The New York-based group is the main source of humanitarian assistance to the country’s potential olim. The organization has one compound in Addis Ababa and three in Gondar, Feit said. It provides 5,000 daily meals to children, runs a Jewish school and recently opened a medical clinic, he said.

All 154 Jewish Federations of North America have pledged a combined $9 million to support the continued humanitarian relief in Ethiopia and resettlement of the olim in Israel. The S.F.-based Federation has already raised $100,000 toward its own goal of $250,000. ​

Simcha Schwartz, formerly development director of the East Bay’s Wilderness Torah, is now executive director of SSEJ. Schwartz is the only Bay Area-based employee of SSEJ. Feit is in New York, and the rest of the team of 140 employees, is in Ethiopia.

Schwartz said he hopes his location will help “to bring awareness to this issue and, God willing, some funding to feed more people.”

Sigal Kanotopsky, an Ethiopian Jew who made aliyah with her family in 1990, is living in the U.S. as director of the Northeast region for the Jewish Agency for Israel. She accompanied Sisisky and the rest of the group on the May 9 flight.

Despite the back and forth, Kanotopsky expects that Israel will eventually allow more immigrants to enter. And when that happens, she wants the Jewish Agency to be prepared. Taking federation partners along for the missions is part of the strategy to prepare, she said.

“Those partners help us to advocate, raising money and the resources needed,” Kanotopsky said. So when the Israeli government green-lights future immigration, the Jewish Agency for Israel “can run this operation as soon as possible.”

To donate to the S.F. Federation’s fundraising campaign, write “2023 Ethiopia Aliyah Campaign Fund” in the donation comments. For those who contribute through a donor-advised fund, specify “2023 Ethiopia Aliyah Campaign Fund.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.