Submitted by the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati
“We were just in Ethiopia for the last day and a half,” said Yaakov Hagoel, Acting Chairman for The Jewish Agency and Chairman of the World Zionist Organization. “And the absolute highlight has been in the last few hours [on the plane], being together with the olim (immigrants). It has been a stunning aliyah (immigration to Israel).”
With these words, spoken at a ceremony on the tarmac after the feet of one hundred and eighty Ethiopian immigrants first touched the soil of Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, Hagoel marked the beginning of a new life for these new Israeli citizens. They arrived June 1; another one hundred and sixty arrived the next day.
Most had waited over ten years to be reunited with family already in Israel. “The tears, the emotion. This is a true reuniting of families,” said Hagoel.
The flight was life-changing. Pnina Tamano-Shata, the Minister of Immigration and Absorption of Israel and the first Ethiopian-born woman to enter the Knesset, spoke reverently of the five-hour flight from Ethiopia, “on which these little kids, just now, became Israelis.”
Dozens of community leaders from Jewish Federations across North America accompanied the one hundred and eighty Ethiopian olim on a special charter flight to Israel, following a special three-day mission in Ethiopia. During the mission, Federation leaders met with community members awaiting aliyah in Gondar and Addis Ababa and visited sites of historical significance for Ethiopian Jewry.
Jeff Schoenfeld, Chair of the Israel and Overseas Committee of the Jewish Federations of North America, lauded the accomplishment: “On behalf of the Jewish Federations of the United States and Canada it is an honor to welcome all the new olim to their new home in Israel.” For over forty years, he said, Jewish Federations have worked to bring close to one hundred thousand Ethiopians to Israel. “Now over one hundred and fifty five thousand Ethiopian Israelis … are an integral part of Israeli society. Welcome home.”
In addition to over one hundred million dollars in core funding Jewish Federations raise every year for partner organizations such as the Jewish Agency, which allows them to both carry out their routine work and prepare for extraordinary moments such as these, Federations have launched a campaign of over seven million dollars for the continuation of aliyah from Ethiopia and for humanitarian assistance for the community still awaiting aliyah.
“Jewish Federations are proud of our decades-long work side by side with The Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli Government to help over ninety seven thousand Ethiopian Jews realize their dream of making aliyah and to support their absorption into Israeli society,” said Mark Wilf, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Jewish Federations of North America. “This sacred effort is the highest expression of the dedication of Jewish Federations to help Jews wherever they live.”
The two flights mark the resumption of Operation Zur Israel or Rock of Israel, an initiative approved by the Israeli government allowing three thousand members of the Jewish community in Ethiopia to make aliyah and reunite with their family members in Israel. Some of the olim have waited over a decade to reunite with their loved ones and fulfill their dreams of aliyah.
“From the past to the present, the North American Jewish community has played a central and instrumental role in the process of transforming the dream of Ethiopian Aliyah into a reality—for the immigrants themselves, for Israeli society, and for the Jewish people,” said member of the Board of Governors of The Jewish Agency and former President and Campaign Chair for the Minneapolis Jewish Federation Beth Kieffer Leonard and Chair of the Israel and Overseas Committee of the Jewish Federations of North America Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld, also co-chairs of the delegation participating in this flight, in a joint statement. “Israel has thrived thanks in no small part to the immense contributions of its immigrants. We look forward to completing Operation Zur Israel in the coming months.”
Jewish Federations are awaiting final approval from the government of Israel to enable those remaining in Ethiopia to go to Israel to reunite with their families, as thousands still remain behind.
In front of the one hundred and eighty olim and other leaders present, Eric D. Fingerhut, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, spoke directly to the new immigrants: “To the new olim who are here today, we want to say, ‘Y’hi shalom becheilech, shalvah be’arm’notaich—may there be peace in your new homes here in Israel, and prosperity in all of your gates.’”