Shalom Life | April 23, 2014

Mission Participants Witness Ethiopian Jews Completing the Journey

Their dreams come true as they start new lives in Israel

By: Jessica Pallay

Published: February 17th, 2012 in Culture » Society » News

Mission Participants Witness Ethiopian Jews Completing the Journey

A short plane ride between Ethiopia and Israel became the journey of a lifetime earlier this month, as more than 80 Ethiopian Jews made aliyah to Israel during The Jewish Federations of North America’s dramatic “Completing the Journey” mission.

The mission, which took place Jan. 29 to Feb. 2, enabled 60 participants from 15 communities to witness a part of the conclusion of more than three decades of Ethiopian-Jewish aliyah, which began in the 1980s and 1990s with Operations Moses and Solomon. The mission was part of an effort to complete the rescue of the remaining ancient Ethiopian Jewish community.

At the behest of the Government of Israel, Jewish Federations are spearheading the effort to raise $5.5 million on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Israel to take care of the remaining approximately 6,000 “Falas Mura” community members in Gondar and facilitate their aliyah to Israel.

“As Jews, we have a responsibility to repair the world – Tikkun Olam. Twenty years after Operation Solomon, the second of the mass airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, we are in the final stages of this modern-day exodus,” said Jeffrey Distenfeld of Washington, D.C., who chaired the mission with his wife Yvonne. “In a four-hour plane ride, we took them forward in time two thousand years.”

During their two days in Northern Ethiopia, mission participants visited schools, clinics and community centers run by Jewish Federation partner agencies, the Jewish Agency and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The group met with Ethiopian Jews in their Gondar homes, attended synagogue and learned about the life that so many had created to sustain their Jewish identity while in Ethiopia.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA Federation of New York, first traveled to Ethiopia to see the Falas Mura in 2003, and returned again during this “Completing the Journey” mission. “In a synagogue in Gondar, we joined hundreds adorned in tallitim and tefillin for morning prayers that concluded with ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ and ‘Od Avinu Chai’ sung with a poignancy and passion that none of us will soon forget,” he said.

On their final day in Ethiopia, the mission traveled with the Falas Mura as they prepared for aliyah, then accompanied them on a flight to Israel, and stood by as they took the final steps in their momentous journey. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, greeted the group at the Jewish Agency absorption center in Kiryat Gat.

“It was such a moving experience to watch the sun set over the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa and see the Olim families walk down the hill to the transit center, carrying all of their possessions to board the buses to the airport,” said Yvonne Distenfeld. “The symbolism of the sun setting, just as they were leaving their lives in Ethiopia behind to realize their lifelong dream of going to Jerusalem, was reminiscent of the exodus from Egypt. It was truly stunning.”

Avital Ingber, chief development officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, also journeyed alongside the Ethiopian Jews during the mission. “On the Completing the Journey Mission, the journey is really just beginning for these Ethiopians,” she said. “Life may be difficult when they arrive in Israel, but for today, it is a dream. A true miracle!”

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