Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

Yemeni Jews Strike Chord In Alabama

An August 15 Associated Press story touched an emotional chord and inspired a deep sense of pride in me both as a Jew and Executive Director of The Birmingham Jewish Federation. It dealt with the recent immigration to Israel of 17 Jews from Yemen.

The headline read, “Israeli organization secretly brings 17 Yemeni Jews to Israel amid Arab nation’s unrest.” The story referred to an initiative facilitated in part by the Israel-based Jewish Agency which receives funding from our Birmingham Jewish Federation Annual Campaign. “The airlift was conducted clandestinely because Yemen and Israel share no diplomatic ties, and to protect the lives of those Jews who still remain in Yemen under threat of attack,” AP reported, quoting a Jewish Agency official.

“Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said the ‘rare operation’ had saved lives and that his organization was working to bring to Israel any Yemeni Jew who wishes to leave the country,” added AP.

“According to the Jewish Agency, about 150 Yemini Jews have moved to Israel since 2009 amid threats from al-Qaida-linked militants in Yemen. In late 2008, a Jewish teacher was killed, and in mid-2012, a Jewish community leader was killed, the Jewish Agency said. The US considers the local al-Qaida branch, also known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to be the world’s most active. The Jewish Agency said fewer than 90 Jews live in Yemen.”

This story was powerful for me for three reasons.

The first is our Federation’s longstanding ties to Yemeni Jewry through our relationship with Rosh Ha’ayin, our partnership city in Israel. For more than 30 years, we have been connected to Rosh Ha’ayin which at one time was made up almost entirely of Jewish families who immigrated to Israel from Yemen, a country in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. These families came on a legendary rescue operation known as Operation Magic Carpet shortly after Israel’s rebirth as a modern country in 1948.

I was taken back to a trip that volunteer leaders from our Federation and I went on in 1981 to begin The BJF’s partnership with Rosh Ha’ayin. Part of the trip included a powerful introduction to the religious and cultural heritage of these Jewish families who had come from Yemen and it made a lasting impression on all of us. We learned that Yemen had one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world and that it thrived for many centuries.

We spent almost a week in Rosh Ha’ayin. We came to understand the way that centuries of Jewish life in Yemen were still shaping this Israeli city and its customs and traditions, even though these Yemini Jews had been living in Israel for 30 years. We also began to witness some of the emerging differences between the newer generation, that was coming of age in Israel, and their parents and grandparents who had come from Yemen.

The second reason the story moved me stemmed from again seeing Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky quoted and at the forefront of an important rescue endeavor. Those of us active in Jewish life in the 1970s and 1980s can never forget that Sharansky was among the most courageous and best known of Jews in the former Soviet Union who risked everything to emigrate to Israel. He, in fact, was imprisoned for nine years and his release and arrival in Israel in 1986 remains one of the most dramatic moments in modern Jewish history. For years, I kept the Jerusalem Post’s story of Sharansky’s release under the glass on my desk.

The third reason I was so moved over the recent arrival in Israel of these 17 Jews from Yemen is that it again dramatized the impact and importance of the Jewish Federation movement. Funds we raise and assistance we provide Israel and Jews worldwide continue to play an important role in helping Jews anywhere at anytime, especially when it comes to immigrating to Israel.

For decades, funds raised by The BJF have been helping Jews immigrate to Israel and build successful lives in the Jewish state. Everyday in so many ways, our Federation work affirms the sacred Jewish teaching that “All Jews Are Responsible For One Another.”

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.