Jerome M. Epstein

Fulfilling the Commitment to help the Diaspora—a plea for Ethiopian Jews

I strongly applaud the newly appointed Diaspora Affairs Minister MK Omer Yankelevich for her powerful pledge of “unconditional commitment” by the State of Israel to the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. It is especially encouraging that she made these remarks during a roundtable discussion between officials of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency which focused on aiding Jewish communities around the world that have been so badly affected by the Covid-19 plague.

Jewish life throughout the Diaspora has been seriously altered by Covid-19. Jews have not been able to engage face-to-face with their fellow Jews for prayer or celebration. Children have missed their long awaited Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Weddings have had to be postponed. Those who mourned the death of their loved ones were deprived of personal consolation at the cemetery and during shiva.

Covid-19 has caused death. It has separated family and friends. And it has forced nearly everyone to make serious financial choices. But, fortunately for many of us in the Diaspora Jewish community, there are several resources to help us if we are in real need. Federations, congregations and other organisations are providing support for many of Jews in need.

Unfortunately, there are over 8,000 Jews in Ethiopia who have no real support. they live in a Diaspora that is not of their choosing. Even during normal conditions, they suffer an impoverished life while waiting for years—some for decades—for permission to make Aliyah. But, Covid-19 has put their fragile lives directly in peril. They need resources until the point that they can leave the Diaspora and make new lives in Israel.

Israel is in a unique position to make an impact on desperate Jews who are pleading for help:

We are told to wash with soap and water regularly in order to protect ourselves from the virus. Even young children know that! But, what is an Ethiopian Jew to do without sufficient soap and access to clean running water? Families of six and eight live in small one-room huts. How can they protect themselves when one of them becomes infected? If Israel is committed to assisting Jewish communities impacted by Covid-19, the Jewish community of Ethiopia must be at the top of the list.

For years, together with our partners, the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) fed people regular meals in compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa. Many gathered daily to eat the small rations that we were able to prepare. Now, because of “social distancing”, we are forced to expend resources that we do not have to prepare meals for parents to take home to their families, simply so that they will not starve. If there really is “unconditional commitment” for the Jews in the Diaspora, the crisis in Ethiopia cannot be ignored.

Medical care in Ethiopia is challenging even under normal circumstances. This modern-day plague of Covid-19 only exacerbates the challenge. Without providing additional help, this sickness will result in an unimaginable death count. I cannot think of a Diaspora community that is more in need of Israel’s help than the stranded Jews of Ethiopia.

I believe Minister Yankelevich when she professes “unconditional support” for Diaspora Jews. But, words alone will not save this Diaspora community. The solution is not enigmatic. It is clear. Israel must bring the Ethiopian community home. But, while the Jews in Ethiopia wait and painfully pray to make Aliyah, Israel must help them survive.

About the Author
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1970 and holds Doctorate in Education from Temple University. He served as CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for 23 years before his retirement. He served as the President of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry NACOEJ. He is married with 3 children and 5 grandchildren.
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