Israel Before All Else

Israel before all else

The government has not yet decided what to do with them; even among Israelis of Ethiopian descent not everyone is thrilled by their arrival; and in their native country, this voyage came at great expense.  However, eight members of the Falash Mura who came here on a special leadership program do not for one moment regret their decision to see with their own eyes the land they have dreamt about since early childhood.  Just before embarking on their journey back to the “waiting camps” in Addis Ababa and Gondar, they recall the moments of joy and sadness and only ask one thing of Israelis:  Don’t let others tell you our story.

By Elyashiv Reichner | Makor Rishon | 8 February, 2019

“It’s like giving your son a piece of very tasty bread and then snatching it away after one bite.  It is only to be expected that he will cry.  That’s how we feel now.  It’s very hard to be leaving, but we have no choice.  Other people have decided for me.”  In these exact words Marlin Entahanan describes his feelings right before his return to Ethiopia after six months in Israel.  If nothing unexpected happens, Entahanan and seven other youngsters will have to board the plane which will take them back to the pre-immigration camps, or “waiting camps” as they are called, in Gondar and Addis Ababa.  And there, along with 8,000 other members of the Falash Mura community, they will continue to wait for the permit which will allow them to make aliya to Israel. 

Scan of page oneThe eight young men arrived in Israel last September with a return ticket for a limited time, in order to participate in a program which would empower them as community leaders back in Ethiopia. Although they knew all of this in advance and the return date was a given even before they departed from Ethiopia, they are still finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that they will not be staying on in Israel.  Just like Moses back in his day, they, too, can see the Promised Land before their eyes, but even after a decade of waiting, they are not allowed to not settle in it. 

The person behind the leadership project is Dr. Benny Fisher, who was previously the department director of the Administration for Rural Education and Youth Aliya in the Ministry of Education.  The idea for this initiative was born a year ago in wake of a visit to the “waiting camps”.  He has been familiar with the Ethiopian-Israeli community and the Falash Mura problem for a while, since the time he served as the director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, where many Ethiopian-Israeli students studied. 

“When we handed out pocket money to the children in the village, I found out that even the little they got they would send to their relatives who were left behind in Ethiopia.  During summer vacations and holidays, when kids their age just want to rest, they insisted on working in order make a few extra bucks that they could send to relatives in Ethiopia who were unable to make aliya.  When I asked about these relatives, I understood these were often parents, brothers and even grandparents.  The separation within the family unit was something very prevalent in their lives, both as children and as adolescents.  I later heard about the “divided family” at other points in their lives – at the end of their basic training in the IDF or other significant events in their lives.”

photo on promenadeIn 2015 Fisher was appointed as the director of the Administration for Rural Education and Youth Aliya and became responsible for all the youth villages in Israel.  He delved deeper into the issue of divided families and found out that almost 70% of the Ethiopian Israelis living in youth villages have relatives in the “waiting camps”.  When completing his term as director, he decided to travel to Ethiopia and volunteer for a short while in both camps. He established a beit midrash in the camps, taught Jewish studies and learned together with young boys.  “I discovered an amazing community that practices a religious way of life, prays three times a day, observes the Sabbath, the Jewish Holidays and abides by the laws of family purity. I am well aware of the dispute concerning their aliya, and I understand there is a process underway to ascertain their Jewishness.  But so long as one is not exposed to the family situation, one might say – okay, it makes sense to keep them there.  All of this changes the minute you see with your own eyes all those people who have been living for close to 20 years as a Jewish community waiting to be allowed to make aliya.  Those who are there now may be defined as zera Yisrael (people of Jewish origin) rather than Jews according to Jewish Law, but this does not detract from the fact that they consider themselves as Jews in every way.   In any case, when they arrive in Israel, they will undergo conversion, so it is quite clear that their intention is to come closer to Judaism.”

Only we are scrutinized

Let’s put things in order for those who are not familiar with the details. After the Beta Israel community were brought to Israel in the 1980s and 90s, the Falash Mura community – descendants of Beta Israel who had converted to Christianity in the past, yet did not assimilate with non-Jews and lived apart as a distinct community – remained in Ethiopia.  In 2003, the government of Israel decided to bring to Israel all those who could be defined as “maternal descendants of Ethiopian Jews who wish to return to Judaism”.  This wave of immigration terminated in 2014, but thousands of the Falash Mura community who wished to make their way to Israel still remained in the “waiting camps”, many of them being paternal descendants of Jews and, therefore, defined as zera Yisrael.

page 4In November 2015, the government of Israel ordered the Minister of Interior to examine this population’s eligibility for aliya, but because of budget constraints this resolution was never fully implemented.  In 2016 the government revisited the matter and this time decided to bring to Israel 1,300 of those waiting in the camps.  Further progress was achieved when the government decided to bring another 1,000 of the community members last September.  This week 80 of them arrived in Israel and will soon reunite with their families.  But for those fighting for this cause these figures do not suffice.  MK Avraham Neguise of the Likud party, Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who heads the Shvut Am Institute, and other activists continue to exert efforts in order to bring to Israel all the community members still remaining in the camps. 

However, it must be pointed out that among Israelis of Ethiopian descent there are also conflicting opinions on the matter. Rabbi Reuven Wabashat, the chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Israel, published an opinion supporting the aliya of those waiting in the camps.  On the other hand, a significant number of Kahens and Rabbis of the Beta Israel community object to issuing sweeping aliya permits, and demand that a committee be set up in order to examine each and every one of the applicants individually. 

Fisher, who steers clear of the halachic and political dispute on the matter, decided to set forth on a different track in the meanwhile. 

page 5“I saw that the endless waiting in Ethiopia weakens the community.  On the other hand, despite the difficult conditions in the camp, I met some very strong people who wake up every morning with a twinkle in their eye and faith in their hearts.  I also realized that the community there has young people with leadership potential, and I thought of creating an empowering track for them which would include a leadership program in Israel.  Apparently, there were some similar initiatives in the past: back in the 1950s Jewish Ethiopians arrived in Israel and stayed in Kfar Batya for a period of time before returning to Ethiopia to lead their communities.”

After receiving the backing of Rabbi Waldman, who is considered the rabbi of the communities in Gondar and Addis Ababa, Fisher was able to convince the Israeli consul in Ethiopia to grant a study visa to eight young members of the community for the purpose of coming to Israel to study for six months.  The next challenge was finding somebody to fund the program and a place that would host the youths in Israel. 

It was Ohr Torah Stone’s Yeshivat Hesder Machanaim in Efrat that opened its wallet and its gates to the newcomers.  The eight youngsters integrated into the yeshiva lifestyle, attended Torah lectures by rabbis and learned Hebrew.  They also participated in a WZO leadership program, toured the country and met with the chairman of the Jewish Agency, Mr. Isaac Herzog, as well as other public figures. 

page 6“During the course of these months I saw their great desire to stay here in Israel permanently,” says Fisher.  “We spoke about it a lot and it wasn’t easy.  Their constant claim was: We can tell the community’s story in the most authentic way, so let us stay.  Now that the program has reached its end, they are reacting with great pain, but they also understand that they have no permit to stay on is Israel.”

The pain is also very apparent in the conversation I have with four of these young men who will soon be going back to Ethiopia:

Armayes Gavra (19), who was born and raised in the “waiting camp” in Gondar; Gatachou Ayahu (21), a student of engineering in the University of Gondar, was born in the Addis Ababa camp; Marlin Entahanan and Takela Samahney, both 20 years old, were born in the village of Gojjam and arrived in the camp in Gondar as children. 

Their Hebrew is pretty good, though occasionally they require an interpreter.  All four of them describe life in the “waiting camps” as being very difficult financially.  “People there lead a hard life,” says Gavra, “they work in hard labor, usually as construction workers.  They work day jobs; it’s difficult to find something more permanent because the members of our community refuse to work on the Sabbath.”

“We don’t own a house,” says Entahanan.  “We pay rent for a tiny apartment which is, in fact, one large room in which the entire family lives together.  Since they do not work on the Sabbath, people find it hard to find work.  We have some relatives in Israel who send us money, but it’s not enough to make ends meet.”

When describing the difficult financial situation, the four young men mention in the same breath the great efforts made to observe a Jewish way of life. “We do everything Jews are supposed to do”, says Ayahu.  “We pray, we observe the Jewish commandments, we learn Torah.  It is difficult to live there as Jews. We usually don’t wear tzitzit or a kipa in the street but only in the synagogue because if the non-Jews saw us wearing Jewish attire, we would be subject to verbal bullying.  But we don’t give in, despite all the difficulties.  My father taught me that even when things get tough, I must remain strong.  We have not stopped longing for Israel because we are Jews, and Jews can never give up hoping.  I have a grandmother and many uncles in Israel, both from my mother’s and my father’s side, but we are still waiting our turn.  If I am given the opportunity to live in Israel, I am sure I will be able to achieve many things.”

“We have been waiting for more than 20 years,” says Entahanan.  “Jews make aliya from the USA constantly, and only we are faced with obstacles.  If I am Jewish, what is the difference between me and them?  We have not chosen to live in Ethiopia; God chose to place us there and we thank Him for it.”

Ayahu:  “Only our community requires thorough scrutinization, because our community is weak.” 

page 7The eight participants of the program were chosen carefully by their respective communities; they were all well-known social and Zionist activists in the “waiting camps”. 

Gavra was the head counselor of an informal branch of Bnei Akiva in Gondar, which has 400 members and 12 counselors.  “When we were first told about the Bnei Akiva youth movement and its motto of Torah Va’avoda – educating youth with values of Torah and work – we thought it was a great idea,” he says. “So we took on the name of Bnei Akiva although we get no support from the movement.  The activities in which we engage is ours alone, and is put into action by our own youth.  Everybody teaches something they know or something they’ve read about.  I got the position of head counselor without even knowing what it means or entails, and learned the ropes with time.  The counselors, too, didn’t know what to do at first.  We built it all from scratch with our own two hands.”

Ayahu was a counselor in a similar “Bnei Akiva” branch in Addis Ababa that had 250 youths. “I loved counseling because the kids have a thirst for knowledge.  Once a week I taught them the weekly portion from the Torah based on material I found on the internet.”

“I saw him sitting with a sheet of Torah sources and teaching his friends,” says Fisher.  “I was excited to see that the community knows how to teach itself, and it made me realize that volunteers who come from abroad should have a little more humility.  I, too, made the same mistake at the beginning.  When I first arrived, I immediately commenced teaching and Gatachau, in his great humility, moved aside for me.  I later apologized to him.”

“We also have a beit midrash in the community,” Entahanan adds, “where we learn on our own, as well as with volunteers who come to teach us.  In the morning the children learn in a public school because the Jewish school we previously had was shut down.  But the minute the kids come back from school they go to the synagogue to study Jewish studies.”

Two years of studies struck off the record

As people who grew up their whole lives with the expectation of making aliya to Israel one day, their arrival in Israel last summer stirred up some very strong emotions.  The young men tell me how during the last minutes of the flight, right before landing, they looked out the window and started crying.  When they alighted from the plane, they kissed the ground.  Some of them arrived in their Bnei Akiva shirts, mainly to show the Israeli-Ethiopian community in Israel that they all share the same values. 

Did you realize that after your visit to Israel it will be much more difficult for you to continue living in Ethiopia?

Ayahu:  “We came here to perform a mitzvah and to be with our fellow brothers.  I am very happy I came, despite the difficulties I encountered in the past six months, because this visit gave me a lot of strength.  We traveled to different places, we tried meeting up with important people and exerting some influence over them, but we didn’t manage all that much.  We now understand that many people in Israel don’t really know our story.  However, we have gained a lot and are taking many things back with us to Ethiopia.  I learned what is Gemara and what is Mishna and it’s all because of the yeshiva here so I am truly grateful.  I am going back much stronger.”

Samahney:  “We really wanted to see our country.  Initially I thought it would be enough for me to set my foot here without feeling bad that I don’t live here. We had heard about the discrimination and racism that exists even here in Israel, but we still wanted to see the Land of Israel and touch it.  Most Israelis think our community members want to come here for no reason, or think that they are doing us a favor, but we want to come because of a deep longing for the Land of Israel and a strong desire to reconnect with our brethren.

“Many Israeli volunteers come to Gondar and Addis Ababa in order to help, and make many promises.  When we arrived here, we saw there is a big discrepancy between what we were told and what goes on in practice.  That said, there are still many people who do what they have to with great integrity in order to help bring us to Israel.  Unfortunately, many people are not aware of our community’s story.  We hope and pray that the right people will come and assist us as soon as possible.”

Ayahu:  “In our culture people do not talk much, but show respect to others.  This does not mean we are weak.  In fact, we are strong.  We have come here to do things, to make an impact and to connect with other Jews.  People doubt our Jewishness because they don’t really understand what it means to be a Jew.  A Jews is somebody who observes the commandments and believes in God.  We are no different in these things than other Jews.  Last week we met with a head of a yeshiva that hadn’t heard about us previously.  I believe that if we are given more time to stay in Israel, we can make a difference because only we can tell our story best, not intermediaries.  We would also like people to come to Ethiopia and see with their own eyes how we live there.”

But even in the Israeli-Ethiopian community not everybody supports your coming to Israel.

“We did not get to meet them, but even they don’t really know our story.  They were told we had converted to Christianity and that is why they are unwilling to listen to us.  I know that people think bad things of us, but we shouldn’t take it to heart.”

Ethiopian Group at the Kotel

One of the highlights of their stay in Israel was their visit to the Western Wall, as can only be expected.  “When volunteers came to visit us in Ethiopia, I would always send notes back with them to put into the Kotel,” says Entahanan.  “I had faith that I, too, would stand at the Kotel one day.  And, indeed, it was my turn this time to take a letter from one of my students and place it in the cracks of the wall.”

“When we arrived at the Wall, I started crying and was afraid to go too near because of the sanctity of the place,” says Ayahu.  I stood a little further off for about half an hour and just looked at the Wall, and only then did I come closer.  Also when we visited the Cave of the Patriarchs I didn’t know whether it was all real or whether I was dreaming.”

The visit to the Yad Vashem museum also evoked very strong emotions among the group of youngsters.  “The place taught me that the Jewish Nation went through some terrible things but still managed to overcome them and build a state, and this gave me a lot of strength,” Entahanan says.  “The anti-Semitism we saw depicted at Yad Vashem reminded me of what we go through: we face many difficulties in Ethiopia; the locals want us to be like them but we are still able to keep ourselves separate.  One day we will also succeed in coming to Israel because that was the promise of God to our forefathers.”

Ayahu: “Jews do not learn from the past.  After the Holocaust, it was understood that a state was necessary so that no more Jews would die.  But we die every day in Ethiopia.  More than 5,000 people have already died in Gondar and Addis Ababa while waiting to come to Israel.  If the State of Israel doesn’t want more Jews to die it must bring us home as well.”

“In Ethiopia we want to observe the Sabbath and the Jewish Holidays with no fear, but we are unable to,” says Samahney.  “Here we could suddenly do so freely.”

Gavra:  “Yom Kippur was an especially meaningful experience.  All the yeshiva’s graduates came to the beit midrash and everybody wore white.  There were no cars on the streets and we all prayed and cried.”

Benny Fisher, who lives in Kibbutz Merav in northern Israel, spent Yom Kippur at OTS’ Yeshivat Hesder Machanaim in Efrat in order to pray with the members of the group.  “At the end of the Ne’ila prayer, when everybody started singing Leshana Ha’ba’a bi’Rushalayim ha’Benuya – Next year in Jerusalem – we all just broke down,” he says. “Many tears were shed, but there was also a lot of energy that could only come from a deep pain.”

page 7 imageRabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network, met several times with the eight young men during the course of their stay.  Although their Jewishness and their eligibility to make aliya is under dispute, he is convinced that the project is very important.  “As far as their Jewish status is concerned, we abided by halacha and did not call them up to the Torah nor include them in a minyan – which was extremely difficult for me – but other than that, they are treated like everybody else.  Their presence had an impact on the entire yeshiva.  When one enters the beit midrash and sees these young men with their desire to learn despite all obstacles – it fills us all with strength.  Some of the institutions where they study in Ethiopia have already informed them that because of this visit they will have to start their studies from scratch.  One of them told me that two years of engineering studies have just been struck off his record.  I asked him why he had decided to come nonetheless and his reply was simple: to see Israel.  I wish that everyone who is considered Jewish according to halacha would be as willing to do so much just to see the Land of Israel for six months.”

Will you continue to be in touch?

“They hope, and so do I, that in the future they will make aliya, in which case their conversion will take place through us.  Although they say that we gave them a lot, at the end of the day they gave us so much more.”

Eating from the Tree of Knowledge

This coming Sunday, as already mentioned, the eight young men will find themselves back in the “waiting camps”, thousands of kilometers away from the Land of Israel.  When I ask them if they are going back more optimistic than when they came, Ayahu replies:  “We are going back with a stronger desire to make aliya.  Every Jew lives with faith, and if we did not have faith that we would live in Israel one day, we would have long disappeared.  We are very optimistic and we truly believe we will make aliya.  Anything can happen because many things are pure miracles from God and have nothing to do with the actions of man.  One has to believe in miracles, and then they happen.”

When I ask them about the protests of the Israeli-Ethiopian community last week, they refuse to see the recent events as representative of Israel.  “When I get back to Ethiopia, I will only relate good things about Israel, because it is forbidden to speak negatively about the Land of Israel,” says Ayahu.  “If there is anything bad here, it’s only temporary.”

Gavra:  “This land is always holy, even if the people living here don’t think as you do.  There are good things here and some others that are not that good, but you can learn from everything.  During the past six months I also learned a lot about myself, and many other things as well.  All that I have taken with me will give me the strength to teach the youth in Ethiopia and will give me the energy to act no matter where I find myself.”

Fisher, on his part, is planning to bring to Israel more groups from Ethiopia in order to empower more young people from the waiting communities.  When he asks the participants of the project what they would change in the program, Ayahu replies that future groups should be allowed to stay in Israel.  He and his friends find it hard to hide their frustration – they expected Fisher and the other people running the program to fight harder so that they could stay on. 

“I wish we could have,” says Fisher.  “Throughout the program we made it very clear that we had given our word that they would go back, and I told them the decision wasn’t mine.  But it’s hard for them to accept it.”

When I ask the youngsters whether they would encourage their friends to join the program, there are conflicting opinions.  Some say they would highly recommend it, others – less so.  “We experienced some pretty difficult things here as well, and I’m not sure everybody can handle it, especially if they are not given permission to stay here,” says Ayahu. 

Entahanan:  “I’m glad I came, but I don’t want others to go through what I have gone through.  We have great love for this land and a huge desire to live here.  We missed out on our studies in order to come here, and they might not even take us back when we return.  We tasted a little of all the good this place has to offer, and it’s very hard to go back now.”

Fisher plans on flying back to Ethiopia together with the young men and to stay with them for two weeks or so to see them settling back into their active routine.  “As somebody who has dealt in education for the past 30 years, I can tell you that many young people in Israel don’t know how to express themselves as these young men do.  I have no doubt they will turn into leaders in their communities.  The time they spent here was very challenging.  In a sense, they tasted of the Tree of Knowledge, felt connected to their families, even during the difficult moments, and discovered that not everybody wants them to come to Israel.  Today they know that some members of the Beta Israel community have a real problem with the remaining Ethiopian Jewry who wish to make aliya.”

A moment before our meeting ends, Gavra has a request:  “This interview is important to us because we don’t want people to just feel sorry for us.  We want people to act and do something.  We all have to understand that our redemption lies in our hands.  Every Jew has a role to play in Tikkun Olam, but those who seek the Redemption must help unite their brethren.  Our nation is scattered all over the globe, but now we have to return home, and our home is here.  We don’t know how the Beit Hamikdash will be built and how the Messiah will make his appearance, but this is the way to bring the final Redemption.”

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