Aron Karabel (l), and his group In Ethiopia to escort new immigrants to Israel
Ethiopian Jews matter. They are integral to the larger flourishing Jewish community and global Jewry conversation. They are a beautiful people with a rich history and culture that deserves our admiration and attention. Their stories and contributions only strengthen the Jewish people, making us more diverse and inclusive.
Ethiopian Jews have suffered tremendous hardship living in unfathomable conditions, losing loved ones to harrowing and dangerous journeys guided by their unequivocal conviction to Zionism, and being torn from their families years, and in some cases decades ago.
Earlier this month, we joined 180 Olim (immigrants) in making the journey to Israel to be reunited with their families. Before that, we traveled to Gondar, Ethiopia to visit the community. What we witnessed was both powerful and heartbreaking. A literal rollercoaster.
We went to a morning service, filled with more than 400 people with women in white shawls and men wearing tattered tailitot. They chanted familiar prayers and davened with determination. I was drawn to three boys standing together near the communal leaders. The middle one had his arms wrapped around the others watching us. They looked hopeful and eager to go where we were going. It gave me chills and reminded me of a similar image of me and my two brothers watching the TV and dreaming of places we wanted to go, and of course, the Eagles winning the Super Bowl.
We then visited some of the families that were making the trip the next day. All their earthly possessions, at least those they could pack and send on a flight, were stacked together. I couldn’t tell how they felt. They seemed bewildered, happy, and stoic all at the same time. I didn’t want to disturb their preparations and shared only a smile and well wish as they would soon travel to Addis Ababa.
We then went to the home of a family of six that would travel to Israel the following week. My home office is bigger than their home. There was one bed and two small couches in this small shanty. The father had been waiting nearly two decades to be reunited with his mother, brothers, and sisters. Since being approved to go, he shared that the children seemed just as eager as he to be with family, asking every day when they would be with their cousins.
After being in Gondar, we joined the Ethiopian Olim for their flight to Israel. The energy on the plane was intoxicating. What may have been trepidation the day before was now excitement. What was a tortured and complicated journey to this point, was now easy: a quick flight to Israel, with only slight turbulence. The children peered down the aisles, eating candy, and loving on our group. I’m not sure how one of our participants ended up holding a newborn for half the flight but what the heck, we’re all family. As we landed, I showed three teenage boys the live stream of the ceremony happening right outside. They all watched the video, periodically looking outside to see the crowd. One pointed to his chest gesturing “for us,” and when I replied “yes,” I could see his smile touch the ends of each cheek.
In Israel, we traveled to an absorption center in Be’er Sheva. We met with Olim who had been there for a little over a year. The teenagers were incredible. Many were fluent in Hebrew sharing all the things they were doing and planning for their futures. They no doubt will make a positive impact. Avraham, my new bud, greeted me with a pound that my brother Abraham would be proud of. He, like me, a bit chubby around the cheeks, wanted to know about Nashville and country music. I was blown away by what he knew and wanted to learn. As we parted ways, he said lehitraot (goodbye) and then ran to be with his friends.
Over the next four weeks, nearly 3,000 more will make the journey to Israel. As we celebrate the reunification of families, more is needed for those who remain in Ethiopia and are not eligible at this time to make Aliyah. We have much to do to meet their basic needs (health and nutrition) and to help them live better lives with dignity. We can accomplish that if we all follow one simple rule - Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Ba-Zeh , all Jews are responsible for one another.
Thank you Jewish Federations of North America and The Jewish Agency for Israel for the opportunity to take part in this historic mission and witness something that changed my life forever. So glad to share this experience with my co-chair, Lindsey Glantz and Chevre Rachel Pear Hoffer, Shayna Bloom, Andre Tarraf, Danielle Gross, Marc Wolf, and Haley Trager. I can’t wait to share more of this experience with my community, The Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
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