Pittsburgh Jews reflect on long-running support to Ethiopians

Pittsburgh Jews reflect on long-running support to Ethiopians

Two flights carrying about 450 Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel last week, marking the end of Operation Dove’s Wings, a mass aliya initiative that began in November 2010 that has enabled 8,000 Ethiopians to immigrate to the Jewish state.  

Jewish Pittsburgh has played a role in funding the Ethiopian aliya, as well as the subsequent services helping the new immigrants acclimate to Israeli life, according to Brian Eglash, senior vice president and chief development officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“The Pittsburgh Jewish community has been a major, major player, going back a decade,” Eglash said. He noted that the late Karen Shapira was pivotal in establishing the Ethiopian National Project, which facilitates the integration of Ethiopian children into the Israeli educational system.

Education, according to Eglash, is a crucial component in insuring that the Ethiopians are successfully absorbed into society.

“Education is power,” he said.

Seventy percent of the Ethiopian population in Israel is under the age of 35, according to Eglash, with half being under the age of 18.

“The majority are young,” he said. “If we can invest in them now, it can only be good for the community and for the State of Israel.”

Pittsburgh’s Federation, in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, has helped finance the services that the Ethiopians received while living in Gondar, a town that was home to a community center that provided a wide range of educational and social programs preparing the Ethiopians for immigration.

Approximately 90,000 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. The community has since grown to about 130,000.

In 2006, local federations across North America embarked upon Operation Promise, a campaign designated to raise funds to rescue Ethiopian Jews remaining in Gondar. Jewish Pittsburgh raised $2.3 million for Operation Promise.

Meryl Ainsman, a supporter of Operation Promise, traveled to Ethiopia in 2006 to witness the conditions under which the Jews were living there, and to travel with a group of new immigrants to Israel.

“It was one of the peak experiences I ever had,” Ainsman said. “Seeing people — and in this case, Jewish people — living in a way different from anything I had ever seen in my life.”

They weren’t merely impoverished, she said; they were “subsistence living,” having access to no modern appliances or technologies.

In preparation for their new life in Israel, the Ethiopian Jews were being taught how to use such basic conveniences as toilets and refrigerators.

Ainsman recalled accompanying a group to the airport, when none had ever been on an airplane.

“To see these kids’ reaction to the escalator at the airport was amazing,” she said.

She sat with three young girls who had no idea how to secure their seat belts, she said.

When the plane took off, “it was amazing to watch their eyes,” she said.

Edgar Snyder, who, along with his wife Sandy Snyder, co-chaired Operation Promise in Pittsburgh, traveled with Ainsman on that trip in 2006.

“It blew my mind,” he said. “I don’t think I expected anything like that, seeing how the people lived.

In 2010, the Israeli government decided to bring 8,000 Falash Mura from Gondar to Israel. The Falash Mura are Ethiopians who are descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity under pressure from missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th century, but who were never fully accepted as Christians. They stayed together in their own villages for decades, preferring to return to Judaism.

This past year, the Jewish Federations of North America coordinated a fundraising effort to see the mass aliya through to its end, to which the Pittsburgh Federation allocated $100,000.  The initiative included two missions to Ethiopia and on to Israel.

Pittsburgher Chuck Snyder participated in one of those missions this past June.

“We flew to Gondar and met at the [social service] center,” Chuck Snyder said. “There were 61 Ethiopian Jews, and we brought them back to Israel.”

“There were families waiting at the airport for them,” he said. “There were tears of joy. These people are very family-oriented, and they really wanted to come to Israel. It is a better way of life for their families, and for religious reasons.”

Although they are now on their way to better lives, the Ethiopian Jews still face tough challenges in being absorbed into Israeli society, and will need the continued support of their North American brethren in meeting those challenges, according to Ainsman.

“My biggest concern is in what happens when they are in Israel,” she said. “It hasn’t been an easy time for them. The assistance now needs to go to help them become part of Israeli society.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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