Ethiopian Jewish Aliyah Gets Atlanta Federation Support

Ethiopian Jewish Aliyah Gets Atlanta Federation Support

JFGA president Eric Robbins and Michael Kogan traveled to Ethiopia as part of a new airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

The first flight of Jews from Ethiopia arrived in Israel on June 1.
The first flight of Jews from Ethiopia arrived in Israel on June 1.

On June 1, a plane carrying 181 Jews from Ethiopia landed in Israel as part of a renewed effort to resettle as many as 3,000 members of what is known as the Beta Israel community. The Israeli government had dubbed the flight Operation Zur Israel, the Rock of Israel.

Accompanying them on their 2,000-mile journey from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv was Atlanta businessman Michael Kogon, who represented the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. Kogon, who is the outgoing chairman of the Federation committee that decides how the organization spends its $24 million budget, said he was caught up in the festive atmosphere of the Israel-bound flight.

“The elders of the community are there with their walking sticks and 30-year-olds are helping their parents or their grandparents and 20-year-olds are helping their younger siblings. There’s sticker books and candy for the youngsters and singing and talking back and forth, and it’s like a carnival. I mean, for all of us, coming to Israel was exciting,” he told the AJT.

An Ethiopian Jewish family arrives in Israel on June 1. // Credit: Marc Baker

For many of the Ethiopian Jews, who trace their ancestry back to the union between the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba some 3,000 years ago, it was the end of a long immigration process that is as old as the State of Israel itself.

This process survived the opposition of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who refused to allow Jews to immigrate to Israel soon after independence, continuing through the Ethiopian Civil War in the 1970s that created a Communist revolutionary government and years of political persecution and famine.

Starting in 1979, however, about 8,000 Jews who had survived the treacherous journey over the mountains to Sudan were brought to Israel in what was known as Operation Moses. Another 14,000 came in 1991 as part of Operation Solomon, organized by the Israeli Air Force and the airline El Al.

In late 2021, the Israeli government approved a plan to bring another 3,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In late May, Eric Robbins, the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, joined 70 federation representatives from the U.S., Canada, Western Europe and Brazil who arrived in Ethiopia to observe the preparations for aliyah to Israel.

“Until you experience something and until you see it and touch it, firsthand, it’s really hard to tell the story,” Robbins said, upon his return to the U.S. “I’m a big believer that it’s a very important role that Israel plays in the lives of the Jews of Ethiopia. It’s my job to make sure that that can happen and that there is the money necessary to do that and to make sure that those individuals have the greatest chance of success of assimilating into Israeli society.”

Jews from the Beta Israel community in Gondar, Ethiopia, worship in the local Jewish community center. // Credit: Michael Kogon

As difficult as the journey to Israel has been for them, adjustment to life in Israel has often been no less challenging. Some immigrants lack the education and skills required to compete in a high-tech economy like Israel’s, and it may take two or more years for them to gain a working knowledge of Hebrew.

Although Jews from Ethiopia are considered Jewish by Israel’s religious establishment, they must undergo a formal conversion process that can take ten months or more of study to complete.

According to a survey by the Bank of Israel, unemployment among Ethiopian immigrants in Israel is almost double the national average, with over half living in poverty.

Racial discrimination is another obstacle. In March 2022, the latest immigration plan was challenged by the right-wing Israel Immigration Policy Center in Israel’s High Court. The Court’s rejection of the appeal cleared the way for the latest flight.

Support for Israel on the streets of Ethiopia. // Credit: Michael Kogon

Still, nothing has dimmed the enthusiasm that many in the Beta Israel community maintain for the State of Israel or their Jewish heritage.

During the several days that he visited the Ethiopian community, Kogon participated in a large and joyous worship service in the Jewish community center in Gondar, which has the largest concentration of Jews in the country.

Listening to the davening during the Rosh Chodesh prayers in celebration of the new Jewish month of Sivan, Kogon could close his eyes and almost imagine himself transported back to his home in Atlanta.

“The words are the same words I learned when I went to the Epstein School. It’s the same praise of the same G-d that brought us out of Egypt. And these were happy prayers. These were happy Jews. These were people that were practicing their Judaism, teaching Jewish rituals to their children. It was hundreds of families at that service. Israel is part of their blood in a way that is rare.”

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