John Fishel took his seat on the jetliner and glanced across the aisle. Seated near the president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles was an Ethiopian woman. Resplendent in traditional garb, she cradled an infant in her arms and looked lovingly at her toddler son seated beside her.
Fishel smiled. Everywhere he looked, he saw the excited, nervous, expectant faces of nearly 150 Jewish Ethiopian olim, or immigrants, on their way to Israel to begin their new lives.
When the plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel after the 4 1/2-hour flight from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, the olim and the 100 American Jewish federation members accompanying them erupted into applause. Some of the immigrants cried; others kissed the tarmac as they exited the plane.
"It was very emotional," said Fishel, whose work on behalf of Ethiopia's Jews has helped put their plight high on the agenda of United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization that represents 156 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. "Jews must help each other whether they live around the corner in Fairfax or around the world in Addis Ababa or [the Ethiopian city of] Gondar."
This month, the delegation that included Fishel took a whirlwind trip from Israel to Ethiopia and back to witness the dire situation of the Falash Mura -- Ethiopians who have ties to Jews either through relatives or their own ancestry. Others on the trip included Ada Horwich, co-chair of the L.A. Federation's annual campaign; Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and other professional and lay federation leaders from around North America.
During the UJC-sponsored five-day mission, federation members visited health clinics in Ethiopia run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). They saw JDC distribute meals of carrots, potatoes and beans to hungry Falash Mura, who were eating, perhaps, for the only time that day. The delegation also saw families living in one-room, windowless huts without electricity or running water, adjacent to raw sewage-flooded streets.
The visiting Americans then took the emotional trip with 148 olim to Israel. In Israel, mission members watched the newcomers welcomed with sandwiches, shekels and smiles in absorption centers.
For Fishel, the recent journey brought back memories of his first visit to Ethiopia nearly two years ago. Traveling with four members of the UJA-Federation of New York, the delegation saw the myriad difficulties faced by the thousands of Ethiopians waiting to make aliyah -- immigration to Israel. Then, as now, Fishel wanted to help.
After the trip, UJC leaders asked the L.A. Federation leader to co-chair a group to recommend how North American federations can help the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia.
It was partly at Fishel's instigation that the UJC launched Operation Promise. The ambitious campaign hopes to raise $160 million over the next three years, with $100 million for Ethiopia and $60 million to help Jews of the former Soviet Union.
The Ethiopian funds would go toward Jews waiting to emigrate, for the construction of temporary housing and other needs. It also would pay for new absorption centers in Israel, as well as for improving educational opportunities for young Ethiopians living in the Jewish state.
"John helped keep [the plight of Ethiopian Jews] on our map and put it strong and center with his strong advocacy," said Howard Rieger, president and chief executive of the United Jewish Communities.
Fishel has long been interested in the work of supporting struggling Jewish communities abroad. In the past five years, Fishel has visited Argentina, Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Fishel, who holds two degrees in anthropology from the University of Michigan, said Africa's cultural diversity and migration patterns have made the continent particularly fascinating to him.
Going forward, Fishel said he plans to spotlight the problems faced by Ethiopia's Jews to raise $8.5 million for Operation Promise over the next three years. Much is at stake.
"Through pictures, through words, we will now begin to publicize a lot more aggressively the needs of Jews in that part of the world," he said.
Without aid from American Jews, Fishel added, the plight of the Falash Mura "could become even more desperate." These Ethiopians "want to come to Israel, and they have the potential to become an extremely important human resource for the country."