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The Jews left behind in Ethiopia

With the end of the government's operation to bring the Falash Mura to Israel, those remaining in Ethiopia need our help
The Torah scroll from Gondar synagogue being taken to the Israeli consulate.
The Torah scroll from Gondar synagogue being taken to the Israeli consulate.

Last Wednesday the final planeload of Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Israel under Operation Dove’s Wings. The operation has transported around 7,000 of the Zera Israel (also known as Falash Mura) to new lives in Israel since October 2011. This also means the end of the Jewish Agency’s presence in Ethiopia, where for the last couple of years it has been overseeing the Aliyah and running a synagogue and Jewish school.

However, many Zera Israel remain in Gondar. They were refused permission to take part in Dove’s Wings because their Jewish descent was not considered to be strong enough. The authorisation process has been very haphazard: of the 1,100 Zera Israel families remaining in Gondar town, 320 have parents or grandparents in Israel, and 120 have sons or daughters. Some of the Zera Israel were refused permission due to mistakes and anomalies in the checking process.

One of the earliest arrivals to Gondar town was Tigist (not her real name), who came with her baby granddaughter 14 years ago in the hope of moving to Israel. She had two brothers in Israel, but she herself was refused permission to move. Her brothers used to send her money, but they have passed away and so she no longer receives help. She has developed cataracts which make it hard for her to work, and now is worried about the future: “Life is so harsh – I don’t understand why I am left here when my brothers were able to go to Israel. How will I manage and look after my granddaughter when I can no longer see to spin wool?”

Another inconsistency is that only Zera Israel with a matrilineal Jewish descent were accepted for Dove’s Wings, despite the fact that in Ethiopia Jewish descent is from the father’s side (like all faiths in Ethiopia). Previous rounds of Aliyah from Ethiopia did allow patrilineal Jews to immigrate, so those who are left in Gondar are particularly dismayed at having been refused. Once in Israel all Zera Israel undergo a year’s study, at the end of which they formally convert to Judaism, so the halachic status of the patrilineals is not an issue once they are actually living in Israel.

The Israeli government has said it will remain open to applications from Zera Israel who wish to move to Israel on an individual basis, for ‘family reunification’. Doubtless many will apply, but it may be a long time before all these cases are considered. In the meantime, Zera Israel families live in extreme poverty in slums on the outskirts of Gondar. Most came from farms and villages, and sold up everything they had in order to move to Gondar and register for Aliyah. They cannot return where they came from as they have no land to farm, but neither do they have the qualifications or skills to earn a decent living in an urban economy.

Meketa, a British charity, is providing assistance to Zera Israel families, equipping them with tools and training to earn a living. For example, it has provided hand looms to men for weaving scarfs and blankets for the local market (weaving is traditionally a Jewish occupation in Ethiopia). It is also providing sponsorship for children to allow them to finish their education (as many drop out in order to provide for their family). Tigist’s is our latest sponsor family – the scheme allows her granddaughter to stay in school and also provides medical treatment for her cataracts.

The Torah scroll from Gondar synagogue being taken to the Israeli consulate.
The Torah scroll from Gondar synagogue being taken to the Israeli consulate.

As the Jewish Agency-run synagogue will be closing soon, Meketa and South Wing to Zion are providing a space for the community to meet and pray together. The Zera Israel have formed an association, and are organising services led by locally-trained Hazanim. The future for the Zera Israel is highly uncertain, but in the next few months it should become clear what sort of Jewish community will take shape in Gondar. The Zera Israel have always been marked out by their Christian neighbours and cannot just disappear into Christian society now that the Jewish Agency is gone; Meketa will be staying put to support that community.

About the Author
Rabbi Sybil Sheridan is the founder of Meketa, a British based organisation working on behalf of the Jews in Gondar. Together with Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild, she is Rabbi of Wimbledon and District Synagogue in south west London, and she is also Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK.