In 2004, John Fishel went to Ethiopia as part of a delegation of American Federation leaders. The experience changed his life.
The president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, along with five members of the UJA Federation of New York, visited shantytowns filled with Ethiopians waiting in squalor for the chance to make aliyah -- to immigrate to Israel.
Fishel and the delegation saw families living in one-room, windowless huts without electricity or running water, and, if lucky, eating one meal a day. Looking at the desperate faces of the Falash Mura -- Ethiopians who have ties to Jews either through relatives or their own ancestry -- Fishel vowed that he would do something.
Africa has long captivated Fishel, who has a degree from the University of Michigan in anthropology. He had visited about 20 African countries, including Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. However, nothing made as indelible impression on him as that first mission to Ethiopia, which tapped into Fishel's commitment to Jewish people worldwide.
After that trip, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization representing 156 federations and 400 independent Jewish organizations across North America, asked Fishel to co-chair a task force to suggest ways federations could help the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia. Among the group's recommendations: The UJC should lobby for the acceleration of aliyah and improve health care and other services for the Ethiopian Jews as they wait to immigrate to Israel.
It was partly at Fishel's instigation that the UJC recently launched Operation Promise, an ambitious campaign that hopes to raise $160 million over the next three years, with $100 million for Ethiopia and $60 million to help Jews in the former Soviet Union. The L.A. Federation has pledged to raise $8.5 million for the campaign over the next three years.
"John has given real leadership to the issue of Ethiopian Jewry," said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who earlier this year went to Ethiopia with Fishel and 100 American Jewish federation members. "He's always been the first one to speak up and stir the conscience of the federation movement."
On that trip, Fishel's second to Ethiopia, the federation contingent accompanied nearly 150 Jewish Ethiopian olim, or immigrants, as they made the emotional journey by plane from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.
"John is a very compassionate person and was very moved by what he saw," said Susan Stern, a fellow mission participant and chairman of the board of the UJA Federation of New York.
Fishel intends to stir other consciences as well. At every opportunity, he said, he has brought the issue of Ethiopian Jewry to the attention of Israeli leaders, from midlevel bureaucrats to prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
"I see Jewish issues as global in scope," Fishel said. "I think Jews are all responsible for one another, whether in Ethiopia or Russia or Argentina or in the Jewish state."--MB