May 25, 1991 (30 years ago on this day) was an emotional and historic day for me and for all Israel. I was attending an international rabbinic conference in Jerusalem when an announcement reached us that a flight from Ethiopia, carrying more than one thousand passengers, was about to land at BenGurion airport near Tel-Aviv.
Many of us were invited by airport authorities and El-Al Israel Airlines to be on the tarmac as a welcoming group when the flight landed.
It is a day fixed in my memory. My wife joined me as we hastened to reach the airport prior to the landing of the miraculous flight. Many of us were waving small Israeli flags. Several people were carrying cookies and candies to hand to the passengers upon their arrival.
We were instructed to avoid personal physical greetings in order not to overwhelm the tired, excited but frightened passengers.
The Ethiopian Jews, commonly referred to as falashas, are said to be descended from the union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
For two thousand years they have held strongly to what they believed were Jewish or Hebrew traditions as taught to them by their priests (kesim) and as written in their sacred scrolls in the ancient Geez language.
As they began descending from the El-Al flight, cameras were heard clicking and shouts of “shalom, welcome to Israel” were deafening.
Some in our group disobeyed instructions but because they were so well-meaning it was over-looked. Small flags and little bags of candies were handed to young children who had never seen nor tasted a candy bar.
We all joined in the singing of “haivainu shalom aleichem”, an Israeli song of welcome in peace.
There were smiles on the faces of the Ethiopian mothers who had survived the flight for the first time in their lives ever having even seen an airplane.
Very young children peeped out from underneath the mother’s skirt. It was a new world for all of them. And for all of us too. We had seen the dream of two thousand years come true.
It was the Herzlian dream of Zionism fulfilled.
I take pleasure, even today, of greeting Ethiopian Jews who I see walking past my apartment building. They are a beautiful people and proud and devoted Israeli citizens.
Many of them now are bus drivers and whenever I am leaving a bus which one of them drives I thank them in their Amharic language with the only Ethiopian words that I know.. “Ameseginalehu”. Many thanks.
I can never forget where I was on May 25, 1991. Where were you?