Rick Kornfeld is a Wexner Heritage Denver 08 alumnus. He is a lawyer in private practice, and specializes in white collar criminal defense, government compliance and internal investigations. Rick’s non-profit work is centered on Jewish education and strengthening the relationship between American Jews and Israelis. Rick can be reached at email@example.com.
One month before we sat down at the Seder table at our home in Denver, my 14-year-old daughter, Izzi, and I had the opportunity to witness and participate in a modern-day Exodus: the immigration of 128 Ethiopians from Addis Ababa to Israel. The story of mass immigration of Jewish Ethiopians in the late 1980s and early 1990s is well-known and celebrated in the Jewish world. During Operation Moses in the late 1980s, the Israeli Defense Forces and the Mossad secretly airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews from the desert in the Sudan to Israel, after these Jews walked from Ethiopia to the Sudanese desert on their way to Israel. While many people died along the way, the Israeli government, with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee (“the JDC”) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (“JAFI”), managed to bring thousands of Jews to Israel. A few years later, the Israeli government, again with the help of JAFI and the JDC, famously launched Operation Solomon, which culminated in the immigration of approximately 14,500 Ethiopian Jews directly from Addis Ababa in a 72-hour period.
Today, approximately 65,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel as Israeli citizens. In the mid-1990s, the Israeli government officially declared that all of the Ethiopian Jews had left Ethiopia. That said, there remain about 10,000 falas mura, Ethiopians who can trace a Jewish relative back seven generations and who today have family who immigrated to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. The falas mura are people who, over the generations, were forced to convert to Christianity. Like the conversos, many of the falas mura retained Jewish practices and identity.
Late last Fall, Ethiopia agreed to begin to open emigration to the Israel for the falas mura, and now a planeload of new immigrants are departing for Israel roughly every other week. These immigrants are not returning to Israel under the Law of Return, which allows any Jew (as defined by having a Jewish mother) to come to Israel and automatically become an Israeli citizen. Instead, they are immigrating under the Law of Family Reunification, which allows them to be reunited with their families. Interestingly, these new olim are not only returning to their families in Israel, but are also returning to Judaism. Indeed, recognizing the unique history of the falas mura, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has declared that they may return to Judaism through a program of study and acculturation, which begins in Ethiopia.
While immigration has recently re-opened for the falas mura, they have been waiting to return to Israel since Operation Solomon in the early 1990s. JAFI and the JDC have helped to provide social, religious, medical and cultural services for the falas mura for years. Izzi and I were lucky enough to visit clinics, synagogues, housing camps, schools and other centers for the falas mura, all of which are supported by private donors, including anybody who donates to Allied Jewish Federations throughout North America. We traveled to Gondar and the Semien Mountains in the north, the home of the Jewish Ethiopians. We met and talked with people as they prepared to leave their agrarian lives in Ethiopia to come to Israel. We also were privileged to meet with many amazing and dedicated professionals who have devoted their lives to helping the Ethiopian Jewish community. We were able to witness all of the stages of the aliyah process, a process with profound cultural, logistical, emotional and political ramifications.
The highlight of the trip was assisting with the final stages of aliyah for a group of olim coming to Israel. We met the olim in Addis Ababa on their last day in Ethiopia, helped get them organized and to the airport, and then flew with them on an overnight flight to Tel Aviv. Once in Israel, we were privileged to witness their reunion with not only the land of their forbearers, but also with their families. We also visited absorption centers and other facilities in Israel catering to these new immigrants from Ethiopia, and learned about both the profound challenges and the joys of their journey to Eretz Yisrael.
Apart from the emotional impact of the trip, the fact that Jews around the world work to help other Jews realize their dreams affected me greatly. That we Jews work so hard to enable each other to express and to live our Judaism is an amazing attribute of our people, and one that is easy to take for granted from the comfort of the United States.