The long and sorrowful story of the Falash Mura is a blight and a blessing on our community.
On the one hand, our apathy, politics and ignorance -- yes, mine and yours -- has allowed 18,000 souls to suffer needlessly, all but forgotten in a fetid corner of Africa.
On the other, a handful of people -- it is always a saving remnant, a righteous few -- pressed the case of these Jews in America and Israel, and is closer than ever to achieving their rescue.
On Feb. 16, Israel's previously ruling Cabinet agreed to expedite the immigration of Falash Mura to Israel from Ethiopia. The ruling affirms Israel's responsibility to these people, but it also raises significant questions. No one can say when the immigration will occur, or what aid and absorption services the Falash Mura will receive in Ethiopia or in Israel. Nor is it clear who will pay the cost of immigration and absorption, which some estimates put at $400 million over four years.
"There is no timetable and nobody is contemplating a massive airlift," Barbara Ribakove Gordon, founder and executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), told me. "But we hope it's an agreement that can be translated into action."
The Falash Mura are descendants of Jews who, under pressure, converted to Christianity several generations back.
"Although the Falash Mura have always viewed themselves, and been viewed by their Christian neighbors as belonging ethnically to the Beta Israel community, their parents or grandparents converted to Christianity," wrote Joseph Feit, an expert on the group and a NACOEJ past president.
The Falash Mura, who left their villages and made their way to Addis Ababa and Gondar, lead traditionally Jewish lives. More than 4,200 children attend Jewish day schools, and thousands of adults attend daily communal prayer services and classes in Jewish education. Men put on tefillin and women immerse in the mikvah.
"They are passionate Zionists," said Richard Geisberg, a longtime local activist on their behalf.
Controversy has dogged the community in the past. Some scholars and government officials have claimed the Falash Mura are Christians who merely seek economic opportunity in Israel. But as long ago as 1991, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Sephardic chief rabbi, said the Falash Mura should be allowed to come to Israel as authentic Jews. Since then, almost all leading rabbis in Israel and elsewhere have agreed.
While the debate and the stalling continued, the Falash Mura languished -- and still reside -- in conditions of squalor and insecurity.
In Addis Ababa, several thousand Falash Mura live near a fenced-in compound where NACOEJ provides daily rations and educational programs. Families of four or more live in mud huts the size of a middle-manager's office. Most of the people are unemployed, and many are forced to beg. Famine threatens and illness is rampant.
NACOEJ (www.nacoej.org) feeds 10,000 meals a day to 7,000 children and pregnant and nursing women, and educates 4,500 children, and the Jewish federation system's overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), runs health clinics. NACOEJ runs an AIDS awareness campaign, sponsored by an anonymous L.A. donor, that has helped keep the rate of HIV infection much lower than in the general population.
Gordon credits former Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with pushing the agreement through the cabinet. Now she and other advocates are hoping Israel and the North American Jewish community have the foresight to supply the Falash Mura with health care, vocational training and absorption skills such as language instruction while they are still in Ethiopia.
"The costs are incredibly lower there," she said.
The Feb. 16 resolution called on NACOEJ, JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) to increase humanitarian aid to the Falash Mura. Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President John Fishel said he expects a request for aid. But meeting the request will be a challenge, given the sluggish economy and urgent Jewish communal needs locally and abroad. The Federation, aside from contributing to JDC and JAFI, has been supporting a program to supplement the Falash Mura diet with cheese -- the only protein they receive, Gordon said. But now is the time to see what more we in Los Angeles can do.
Meanwhile, though the promise of Israel is closer than ever, the Falash Mura still wait.
"It's devastating," Gordon said. "People will die before they get approved to go to Israel. What kind of psychological shape will these new olim [immigrants] will arrive in? They are still smiling, they still have hope. They're remarkable people, but how long can you bear it? How long can you see your children hungry everyday?" Â