Wednesday, August 28th marked the close of one of the most historical events in Jewish history. At 4:00 p.m. Israel time, two planes carrying 450 Ethiopian olim (immigrants) touched down in their new Homeland, Israel. Upon landing, many were reunited with family they hadn’t seen in years. Throughout the last three decades, our Federation and others across the country joined the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry helped resettle and integrate 90,000 Ethiopians in Israel—making it possible for them to claim their birthright and live vibrant lives in Israel. Wednesday’s flights marked the final aliyah (emigration) group to make the journey. A truly historic day for our people.
Reflections from the arrival terminal at Ben Gurion Airport
By Karen Katzman, Director, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Israel Office
As the Director of The Jewish Federation’s Israel Office, I had the privilege today to take a respite from the ominous news reports of events in Syria and celebrate something historic and inspirational! I “kvelled” with Israelis from all over the country at Ben Gurion Airport this afternoon as we welcomed home to Israel 450 Ethiopian olim (immigrants). Each of us felt as if we were awaiting the arrival of a family member, just as many of those present really were reuniting with family members.
Operation Dove’s Wings (Kanfei Yonah) marked the final aliyah (immigration) to Israel of the remaining Jews in Ethiopia. North American Jewry led the way to opening the gates of aliyah for Jews from Ethiopia. The massive immigration that began in 1984 with Operation Moses, and continued with Operation Solomon in 1991, would not have happened without the financial support and leadership of the American Jewish community. You believed that it was our responsibility to help bring them to Israel and to continue to provide assistance in the years that followed their arrival.
Today, I was especially proud to represent the Greater Washington Jewish community because of your early and steadfast supporter of this modern aliyah miracle. Nearly everyday, I see the impact that our Federation is having on the lives of Ethiopian-Israelis and others. We provide much needed funds to our Israeli partner organizations that have worked tirelessly for decades to bring the olim to Israel. They will continue their work until each Ethiopian-Israeli family has been integrated into Israeli society.
Our communal responsibility doesn’t end when the planes touch down in Israel. Ground breaking programs initiated and funded by the Washington Jewish community help ease the hardships of the relatively long and difficult absorption process. Our leadership training and empowerment programs in our partnership region, Mateh Yehuda - Beit Shemesh, have been life changing experiences for many teens and adults and are frequently replicated by other Federations.
I was personally struck by the many babies and young children arriving today, including a 16 day old baby. The young mother carried the baby on her back.
The 450 olim stood proudly as their families and the invited guests sang “Hatikvah”. The words of Israeli’s national anthem rang especially true today – to be a free people in our Land.
We exchanged smiles as I approached to admire her newborn baby.
One older man sat quietly listening to the speeches, most of which were translated to Amharic. He held in his hands a bouquet of red roses given to him by a beaming young woman who sat next to him in the folding chairs set up for the ceremony in the terminal. The young woman spoke Hebrew fluently and told me that the man was her uncle whom she hadn’t seen since she left Ethiopia twelve years ago.
Strewn among the small pieces of luggage in the arrivals terminal – the entire belongings of whole families – were colorfully wrapped packages with dome tops. These are special ovens that the women brought with them from Ethiopia to bake the traditional unleavened bread, “Injera”, a staple for most Ethiopians.
Several young girls watched me as I took photos with my smartphone. Within a few short minutes - without any common language between us - they mastered the use of my camera and were laughing as they took photos of the three of us. As young people, I expect their absorption into Israeli society will be easier than it will be for their parents. I know that there is a long road ahead as they adjust to their new homeland. Our job is not over.