When the specially chartered Ethiopian Airlines plane carrying 180 new immigrants approached the coastline of Israel on Wednesday, Sara Gottlieb of Toronto turned to her seatmate, pointed excitedly, and said, in Hebrew, “Yisrael! Yisrael!”
Then the Canadian Jewish community volunteer and the young Ethiopian woman beside her started crying as they hugged each other.
“You could see Israel outside the window,” Gottlieb said, describing the moment on board the rescue flight that marked the resumption of airlifts to bring several thousand new Ethiopian immigrants to the Holy Land.
“I will never, ever forget this,” Gottlieb told The CJN in an interview in her Tel Aviv hotel room just a few hours after landing.
Gottlieb was among the half-dozen Canadian leaders from Jewish federations who journeyed to Ethiopia last weekend to meet the travellers in Gondar, where many have been waiting years to get to Israel. Gottleib and the others then accompanied the newcomers for the five hour flight to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport.
Since the 1980s, the Israeli government and The Jewish Agency for Israel have brought tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews out of the Horn of African country. At first, the mass rescues were carried out clandestinely, through Sudan, with the help of Israeli operatives. The earliest was the so-called Operation Moses in 1984. The next large-scale evacuation was with Operation Solomon in 1991.
But the airlifts were halted in March 2021, partly because of COVID and also because of a court challenge from a right-wing Israeli group. The group argued against accepting the remaining 4,000 to 8,000 Ethiopians due to uncertainty about their Jewish qualifications.
Unlike those who came in the 1980s and ’90s who were considered “The Lost Tribe” of Beta Israel, the current community are considered Falash Mura, descendants of Ethiopians who converted to Christianity.
Israel’s high court ruled in March that the flights for “Operation Zur Israel” (Rock of Israel) must resume, although these new immigrants will be required to take a Jewish conversion course as part of their absorption process in Israel.
‘They’re just like us’: Canadian Jewish leader visits Gondar
But there’s no doubt in Candace Kwinter’s mind that the Ethiopians she met have been living and practising as Jews.
Kwinter, who chairs the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, visited the “Jews-in-waiting” in Gondar before the airlift. She was taken on a tour of their rudimentary Jewish community centre, a Jewish social services agency with a breakfast program for small children, and a dirt-floor synagogue with a tin-roof.
“They don’t look like us, but they’re exactly like us inside and out,” Kwinter said. “And their belief and their faith and their desire to come home to Jerusalem is phenomenal.”
The Canadians participated in an Orthodox prayer service where the worshippers chanted by memory, as there are no prayer books. (The words to the prayers—and also to Israel’s national anthem—are hung on large signs at the front of the building.)
Ariella Rohringer was moved by the hardships endured by the Ethiopians and by their living conditions. She described it as “living in biblical times, in some respects.”
Rohringer, a Toronto philanthropist who chairs the Jewish Federations of Canada/UIA, visited a family where four people shared one room, but there was only one bed and one chair. The matriarch slept on the bed; everyone else slept on the floor in sleeping bags. There is no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Their son in Israel sends them the $32 a month to pay for the rent, as jobs are scarce.
“It really was a phenomenal experience to see how these people are living and to see the volume of people at the synagogue services all praying and living for that dream of coming to Israel,” she said. “It really was overwhelming.
‘Kissed the ground”: Bruce Leboff
The journey to Israel began in Gondar, with Jewish Agency employees escorting the travellers onto buses to catch a flight to the capital, Addis Ababa. From there, it was on to Israel on board the Ethiopian Airlines jet. Israel’s Minister of Aliyah and Immigration, Pnina Tamano-Shata was also on board. She is the first Ethiopian-born immigrant member of the Knesset: she came when she was three years old as part of the original mission in 1984.
The Canadians, including Sara Gottlieb, chose to sit with the Ethiopians for the duration of the flight. Gottlieb was glad she had had the foresight to bring along bags of stickers and some lollipops, because the plane’s video system was not turned on.
“And I, for one, had my entire face covered by the children with stickers. So it kept them happy, since the TV screens weren’t working,” she said, joking that she hopes the candy didn’t cause too many cavities for the children.
Some of the funding for both the Ethiopian airlifts and sustaining Jewish life in Gondar comes from the annual fundraising campaigns carried out by Jewish federations around the world, including Canada. The Jewish Agency for Israel has asked for $9.6 million USD to help the new “olim”, according to Steve Shulman, the president of Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA.
“A portion of those funds have been raised and fundraising continues,” Shulman said.
Bruce Leboff of Toronto did not participate in the first portion of this airlift, but he was on the ground Wednesday at the airport in Israel when the airplane touched down. Leboff is chair of an immigration committee for the Jewish Agency for Israel. Leboff describes what it looked like from his vantage point:
“The Ethiopian Airlines jet landed and was brought over in the area of Terminal One, which is the old terminal, and with great drama, they opened the doors and it was really moving.”
He watched one woman lower herself to the ground to kiss the ground, as she arrived. Others were met by their relatives who have already been living in Israel
That “was quite something. And everyone was just smiling. I think they were a little, I could say, almost bewildered,” Leboff said.
He handed out small Israeli flags as the loudspeakers blared Israel’s national anthem, and also “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”.
“I think it’s incumbent on world Jewry that we look after one another, so whether it’s someone from Gondar or Addis or parts of Ukraine, we stand up for each other,” Leboff said, referring to his recent trip to the Polish-Ukraine border where the Jewish Agency is greeting refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Jewish Agency expects to bring about 3,000 Ethiopians to Israel over the next few months. There are still another 1,000 trapped in the area where the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels are fighting a civil war.
Sara Gottlieb knows what her message is going to be when she returns to Toronto to begin fundraising. It came to her while the plane was landing, and everyone broke out into the hymn “Henei MaTov”, which refers to how good it is when brothers sit together in harmony.
“Putting it basically, we are all together from one tribe,” she said. “These young faces that we saw on the plane are the future of Israel, and by supporting them, we’re helping Jews all over the world.”