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Mission to Ethiopia reaffirms holy nature of communal work
June 2nd, 2006
Do not walk on the magic stairs.
No, this is not a line from some fantasy novel or childrens story. This is a real instruction given to Ethiopian Falash Mura people before they go to an airport to board an airplane bound for Israel.
The officials in charge intend that this warning will keep them away from the airport escalators, which they have never before seen or ridden, and on which they could injure themselves.
Two Milwaukee Jewish Federation officials board member Daniel Kohl and executive vice president Richard H. Meyer saw this emigration process at first hand recently.
They were among the 54 participants from all over the United States in a United Jewish Communities mission to Israel and Ethiopia on May 21-25. UJC is the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations.
Among other things, the participants flew with 150 immigrants from Ethiopia to Israel, and not only heard the warning against the magic stairs, but also watched the immigrants kiss the ground once they got off the airplane.
The experience was profoundly moving on many levels, said Kohl. It was heartening to see Ethiopian Jewish people so committed to making new lives in Israel. And it was reaffirming seeing the effective work by the Jewish agencies to make that a reality.
For Meyer, the mission reaffirmed the holy nature of the work that we do and the support we provide on behalf of world Jewry.
The UJC brought the delegation to Israel and Ethiopia both to inform them about the situation there and to promote Operation Promise, a three-year effort to raise $160 million from communities throughout the country.
According to the UJC Web site, $100 million of this will go to efforts to sustain Falash Mura in Ethiopia, and to bring them to Israel and absorb and educate them there. The other $60 million will fund projects for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.
The Milwaukee Jewish Federation board of directors approved Milwaukees participation in Operation Promise and is developing fundraising plans, Meyer said. The federation will conduct a supplementary campaign in support of Operation Promise in conjunction with its 2008 annual campaign, he said.
The Falash Mura are Jews whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Christianity and are now returning to Judaism. Kohl and Meyer said that some 11,000 of these people are candidates for immigration to Israel, of which about 10,000 are likely to be selected.
In order to qualify for immigration, Falash Mura in Ethiopia must be sponsored by a relative currently living in Israel.
At present, two large groups of Falash Mura have moved from their native villages and live in Ethiopias capital city, Addis Ababa, and in the regional capital city of Gondar 4,000 and 9,000 respectively, according to a JTA story.
Mission participants visited both groups during two days in Ethiopia, and saw that they live in poverty that is grinding, dire, abject, unbelievable, said Kohl. They are gathered in refugee neighborhoods and dwell in huts made of mud or corrugated metal, with no electricity, running water or sewage disposal.
Nevertheless, the Falash Mura they met remain dignified, proud, upbeat and determined to become Jewish and Israelis, Kohl said.
Moreover, they are being effectively assisted with food, education and health care by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, both the primary overseas recipients of funds from Jewish federation annual campaigns.
They also receive help from the Israeli government; and from the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, which will soon turn over its operation in Gondar to JAFI and JDC, Kohl and Meyer said.
In fact, said Kohl, because of the work of these agencies, infant mortality among the Falash Mura has dropped to Western levels, while in the general Ethiopian population some 8 to 12 percent of infants die within the first year after birth.
Kohl said that the 54 participants in the mission made personal pledges of $2.3 million toward Operation Promise during the trip and likely will take a leadership role in campaigning for it in the future.