Jewish Journal

Federation Expects to Aid Ethiopian Jews

by Steve Lipman

Posted on Apr. 1, 2004 at 7:00 pm

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles expects to join half a dozen Jewish federations across the United States this week in an emergency allocation of nearly $250,000 for endangered members of the Falash Mura community in Ethiopia.

The L.A. Federation has allocated $40,000, pending expected approval from board members, organization President John Fishel said. Other federations contributing include New York and Washington, D.C., he said.

The money will go to support feeding programs and related activities of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, and in Gondar, the major city in the northern region of the country, where many Falash Mura live.

"This group of people is in need," Fishel said. "They're very vulnerable and poor and want to make aliyah. We want to help Jews in need everywhere."

For Fishel, helping his African Jewish brethren is personal. In November, he visited Ethiopia for four days and got a close-up view of the privation experienced by the estimated 25,000 Jews in the country who are hoping to emigrate. The poverty, he said, is "unfathomable."

The federations' money will be sent to NACOEJ through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), overseas arm of the American Jewish community, which runs several programs for the Falash Mura in Ethiopia and serves as the usual conduit for the American Jewish federations' network support for Jewry abroad.

This marks the first time that the federation system has provided significant funding via NACOEJ, which has charged that the establishment organizations have not acted aggressively enough on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry. NACOEJ and the JDC both operate humanitarian service programs in Ethiopia but often are at odds.

Falash Mura, Ethiopians with Jewish roots, are descendants of people who converted a century ago to Christianity, the country's dominant religion. They have attempted in recent years to return to Judaism and settle in Israel.

Estimates of the number of Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia, left behind when Israel airlifted the rest of Ethiopian Jewry in 1984 and 1991 rescue missions, range between 15,000 and 25,000.

NACOEJ, a New York-based grass-roots organization that has run advocacy programs in Israel and social welfare programs in Ethiopia for two decades, recently reported that its feeding programs, which provide basic sustenance for most of the Falash Mura in Addis Ababa and Gondar, would have to close its operations because of a lack of funding after the death of a major donor.

"We needed to make certain that the feeding programs were sustained," said John Ruskay, UJA-Federation of New York executive vice president. "We could not allow these programs to be closed."

The federations' allocation from an emergency appropriations fund will be sent "as quickly as they [NACOEJ] need it," guaranteeing that no meals are missed at the feeding centers, Ruskay said.

While some politicians and religious authorities in Israel have questioned the Jewishness of the Falash Mura, several prominent rabbis, including the current and previous chief rabbis, have ruled that the Falash Mura are authentic Jews and are entitled to be brought to Israel.

About 200 to 250 Ethiopians a month have made aliyah over the last dozen years, but the Israeli government, following a lobbying campaign on behalf of the Falash Mura, pledged last year to increase the pace. The flow has not increased, Falash Mura advocates say. The government says it lacks the funds or facilities to bring more to Israel.

Last week the government, in response to a High Court of Justice petition, defended its decision not to bring the Falash Mura under the Law of Return, declaring that the law does not apply to those who convert out of Judaism. The government said it follows a secular rather than a halachic definition of who is a Jew.

"It's crazy that the [government] is disregarding the ruling of the chief rabbi," said Hagai Ashlagi, a lawyer on the board of the Tebeka Center for Legal Aid and Advocacy for Ethiopian Jews in Israel. "They say we know better than you. If the chief rabbi of Israel says they are Jews, why aren't they here?"

"All those in Ethiopia are eager to be in Israel," according to a recent NACOEJ newsletter. They are "still waiting to make aliyah, still hungry, still living in appalling circumstances."

NACOEJ did not return a call for comment on the emergency allocations.

The funding, according to a UJA-Federation of New York statement, "will provide daily meals to thousands of ... mothers and children [from birth to age 6] in danger of suffering malnutrition, disease and death."

Other federations that took part in the NACOEJ funding are Boston, Cleveland,  MetroWest of New Jersey and Philadelphia.

"If the federation system did not step up during this crucial period," Ruskay said, "children and mothers would lose their daily food."

Senior Writer Marc Ballon contributed to this report.  

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