Am Yisrael Chai

It was nearing midnight and the 82 new olim from Gondar, Ethiopia still had not arrived through the greetings hall.  I could continue to wait; the family members who had arrived to greet them had waited in some cases 10 or more years for this moment.

And then as if carefully planned, the over 100 family members, teens from Israeli youth movements and activists who were waiting to greet the new immigrants charged forward past the imaginary “do not cross” line as the sliding doors opened and out walked the first of the new immigrants.  In typical Israeli fashion, an airport worker helplessly tried to stop the charge of people.  However, they had no intention of heeding this man’s words. The families had waited over a decade for this moment and nothing more would delay them from embracing their loved ones.

My eyes glanced from person to person, hoping to spot a familiar face or perhaps one of my students from the month I spent volunteering with the Jewish community in Gondar this past summer.  I walked by a group of young children who were dressed in traditional Ethiopian garb in honor of the festive occasion. They were playing with a large helium balloon somebody handed them, absolutely fascinated by this first-world “toy.”  I saw an emotional reunion between two brothers living in Israel and a third brother they had not seen in seven years.  I watched families shed tears of joy but also tears of sadness over loved ones who died in Ethiopia, never making it to the Promised Land.

I continued to look around for familiar faces.  Meanwhile a group of Israeli teens from the Bnei Akiva youth movement erupted in a singing of “Am Yisrael Chai.” I joined them and thought back to the synagogue in Gondar, where I chanted this song along with the entire congregation after daily morning and evening services. These immigrants must have chanted the song thousands of times but now they were hearing it for the first time in Israel.

The weekly Erev Shabbat Bnei Akiva sing-a-long also flashed through my mind.  The Bnei Akiva chapter in Gondar is led by 18 year old Ermias Gebrie who sends me messages on Whatsapp asking why his friends are making Aliyah but he is still left behind. Ermias had explained that the Bnei Akiva activities are so important for the 400 or so children who participate.  When they arrive in Israel, everything will be so new and different to them but when they go to Bnei Akiva in Israel, they will see the same shirts that their Ethiopian counselors in Gondar wear and they will feel right at home.  So when I saw the Israeli Bnei Akiva teens greet the children with candy and handshakes, I naturally smiled.

Ermias with children during a Bnei Akiva activity in Gondar

I continued to walk through the crowd and then I saw Yitzhak! Yitzhak is one of the ten-year-olds who was in my class in Gondar.  I reached my hand out to him and he returned it with a hug and a big smile.  Each Thursday, my lesson with the ten-year-olds would end with each of us standing in a circle, with arms linked, singing the Shabbat song that one of the Ethiopian teen counselors wrote and composed.  This coming Shabbat, Yitzhak can sing that song in Israel.

MK Dr. Avraham Neguise is one of the leading advocates for the Ethiopian Aliyah and has done phenomenal work within the Knesset to bring many Jews home. The Israeli government issued a ruling two years ago to bring the remaining Jews in Ethiopia to Israel but later rescinded this decision. The 8,000 remaining Jews and their families in Israel are uncertain as to what the future holds.  Some teens in Ethiopia related to me that they have classmates who refuse to study with them because they are Jewish.  How is it that there are those in Israel who claim that the Jews in Ethiopia do not actually have Jewish roots, yet in Ethiopia they are targets of anti-Semitism?

Yitzhak and the other children will begin school in the next few days.  The adults will begin ulpan. Meanwhile, for the friends they left behind in Ethiopia, Aliyah still feels like a far away dream.  It seems like “Am Yisrael Chai” will continue to be chanted in Gondar for a long time to come.

For more information on how to get involved in the struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah or to support the remaining Jews in Ethiopia, write to iamalisab@gmail.com

About the Author
Raised in New Jersey and living in Israel for the past 7 years, Alisa Bodner has been involved with various initiatives to forge connections between Jewish communities abroad and Israel. She is the Spokesperson to Foreign Media for the grassroots organization, "The Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah."
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