Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Reflections on Ethiopian Jewry

Suzanne Jacobson, Senior VP of Development at the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, joined us today to share the more recent history of the Ethiopian Jewish community. The Ethiopian Jewish culture dates back 2500-3000 years, but Suzanne focused on the community's struggles that began in the 1970s, when Ethiopia ended diplomatic ties with Israel. Under the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, those Ethiopian Jews who were wanting to leave Ethiopia and make their home in Israel were caught and tortured by the government. It was around this time that it was decided that "The Law of Return" applied to Ethiopian Jews and the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, was charged with negotiating with leaders in the region and secretly bringing those from the Ethiopian Jewish community into Israel.

Over several different operations in the next 20 years, Ethiopian Jews were guided into Sudan, where they were then flown to Israel. In 1984, Operation Moses brought close to 6,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. This began one of the most difficult transitions of a group that has ever come to Israel. They went from living in mud huts to an incredibly high-tech and innovative nation, where they were introduced for the first time to things like refrigerators and indoor plumbing. In Ethiopia the men were rural farmers, and upon their move to Israel found it difficult to find their place and support their family in a very different society. While the Ethiopian Jews have faced huge challenges, programs in place to support them and their own efforts have helped them along the way. Suzanne shared the story of a friend of hers, Pnina Tamano-Shata, who became the first female Ethiopian Jew to go to law school, and who was recently elected to the Israeli Parliament.

Thank you to Suzanne for giving us insight into a group of people who have faced tremendous challenges and are working to preserve and honor their culture and heritage.

The Ethiopian National Project
The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston

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