An Interview with Laura Cutler on Ethiopian Aliyah

Recently, Laura Cutler, Federation Board Member and Managing Director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University, represented Jewish Greater Washington on an incomparable mission to Ethiopia and Israel alongside fellow leaders from across the North American Jewish community, guided by The Jewish Federations of North America and The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). After three days on a special mission, these leaders accompanied 180 new Ethiopian olim (immigrants) on their long-awaited flight to freedom in Israel.

Upon her return, Federation CEO, Gil Preuss, connected with Laura to learn more about her experience. Laura’s reflections capture the impact and importance of our work overseas, and how Jewish Greater Washington is making a significant difference for our Jewish family around the world.

Gil: Why is it important to you to support the Ethiopian Jewish community?

Laura: My recent mission to Ethiopia to bring 181 olim home to Israel was not just about this mission, but about the mission: to provide rescue and relief for Jews all over the world, and to make it possible for all Jews who wish to, to live in Israel. As our tradition teaches, Kol Yisrael Aravim Ze B’ze – all Jews are responsible for one another. This seemed especially poignant in the week leading up to Shavuot, celebrating the acceptance of the ethical and spiritual responsibilities that define our covenantal community.

Laura Cutler with Ethiopian olim

Laura Cutler with Ethiopian olim

No issue has captured my attention as much as the plight of the 14,000 Ethiopian Jews who remain in Ethiopia and who have first-degree relatives (parents, children and siblings) in Israel. We are so fortunate to live in an era of a strong, vibrant Israel that cares for its citizens AND serves as a homeland for Jews in distress everywhere. I feel we have a responsibility to not only take care of these Jews, but to bring them home to Israel. The Ethiopian Jewish community has Zion in its blood and memory and have been praying for centuries for a return to Jerusalem. It was a privilege visiting an absorption center in Be’er Sheva and seeing the incredible work of JAFI successfully absorbing recent Ethiopian and Ukrainian olim. JAFI’s lifesaving work rescuing tens of thousands of Ukrainians in just a few short months is another example of Israel’s place as a refuge for Jews everywhere.

Gil: Was this your first visit to Ethiopia? How else have you been involved in efforts to support the Ethiopian Jewish community?

Laura: My family and I have been involved in many efforts to support the Ethiopian community for close to a decade, but this was my first trip to Ethiopia, and it reinforced my commitment to this work. The Ethiopian Jewish community has Zion in its blood and memory and have been praying for centuries for a return to Jerusalem. I am also very proud to have co-chaired a special Federation campaign to support the current Aliyah (immigration), which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Gil: Could you share with us a story that particularly stood out to you during your mission?

Laura: A few stories stood out to me. One family we met included a husband, wife and four children who have been waiting 23 years to join the entire rest of his family in Israel (he was over 18 when his parents and his other siblings made aliyah in the last century).

We also went to an absorption center in Be’er Sheva, where we met three Ethiopian olim who arrived 18 months ago with the first Operation Zur Israel. They were all between 19-20 years old, and all thriving, contributing citizens to society. Most had impeccable Hebrew and English language skills. They were living proof that JAFI is doing a fabulous job absorbing immigrants who have gone on to the highest levels of achievement in Israel.

We were accompanied on our visit by Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s Minister of Absorption, and Micha Feldmann, Director of Selah’s Ethiopian Jewry Program and a beloved hero of Operation Moses and Operation Solomon. People ran up to Micha everywhere we went to kiss his hand and hug him. Feldmann has devoted his life to bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel and helping them adjust and incorporate into Israeli society.

At the same absorption center, we met five recent displaced Ukrainians. I asked three teenage girls about their knowledge of Judaism before arriving in Israel and they said “none.” They also knew no Hebrew. Yet, they were rescued from Ukraine by a panoply of Jewish organizations. I couldn’t help but contrast their response to my experience of attending a 1,000-person shacharit (morning prayer) service in Gondar, Ethiopia where I was greeted with “Shalom” and singing of “Am Yisroel Chai” (the nation of Israel lives).

Gil: What are the next steps to continue this work?

Olim flight

Laura:  I want to share my direct experience seeing the lifesaving work of our Israel and Overseas funding and allocations. I would also like to leverage my involvement to keep the Ethiopian Jewry at the forefront of the Jewish communal agenda, and to share the stories of those in need and their successful Aliyah to Israel as inspiration to our community. I hope to leverage my own support to raise funds to support the 10-14,000 beautiful Jews remaining in Ethiopia, some of whom are now caught in the crosshairs of a civil war and help them join their families in Israel.