Just 35 years ago fewer than 200 Ethiopian Jews were residents of Israel. Then, in 1974, the American Association for Ethiopian Jews (AAEJ) began its grassroots efforts to rescue and bring to Israel those who were suffering in Africa. Could we ever imagine that by 2009 over 100,000 Ethiopian Jews would become Israeli citizens?
It is good to know that we helped fulfill Hillel’s proverb of “To save a soul, is to save a nation.” AAEJ and Israeli rescues from the Sudan refugee camps between 1979 and 1984 and 1985 began the saga; then Operations Solomon and Sheba brought close to 10,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
The year 1991 saw the culmination of these heroic rescue campaigns in the dramatic airlift of Operation Solomon when 14,235 Ethiopian Jews were brought to safety. Thus, Israel in partnership with the AAEJ and other activists, and the U.S.A., did actually save a nation.
As presidents of the AAEJ between 1978 and 1993, when we disbanded, we continue to take pride in the fruits of that mission today. Not only are the Ethiopian Jews living as free people in Israel, but their successes have continuously inspired and enriched the lives of tens of thousands of Israeli and American Jews who supported their rescue and adjustment in Israel.
Now we are thrilled to see the Ethiopian Jews bringing something else quite special to further enrich the multi-
cultural nature of Israeli society and the status of Israel among the nations of the world: The Beta Yisrael are becoming an essential link in giving hope for a new life to orphans in Rwanda.
JTA has already reported news of the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village presently being constructed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Rwamagana, Rwanda. The village is modeled after the Youth Aliyah Village of Yemin Orde, which was started to assist orphans from the Holocaust, and which played a major role in assisting the Ethiopian orphans, especially those who had lost their parents in the refugee camps of Sudan just before Operation Moses 25 years ago.
Why are we excited? Because nearly a dozen Ethiopian Israeli volunteers will be participating in the training of the Rwandans as resident teachers and staff of the orphans at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. All of these volunteers are Ethiopian Jews who escaped the poverty and wars of Ethiopia to become Israelis. Now they are returning to offer humanitarian assistance on behalf of Israel to save another nation in Africa.
The Israeli staff person serving as Deputy Director of Informal Education is the well-educated Ethiopian Jew, Shimon Solomon. Dror Neguissi, a former Ethiopian paratrooper and animal husbandry expert, who will serve as coordinator for the Ethiopian Israelis will be volunteering at the village over the course of the next year.
The idea for the project was conceived in November 2005. By January of this year, 18 housing units were built, each of them housing 16 Rwandan orphans.
In March, during a field visit by the JDC, a remarkable episode took place. Will Recant, former executive director of the AAEJ, and now an assistant executive vice president at JDC and its acting director on this project, observed a most beautiful and engaging exchange when Dror Neguissi went from house to house with his laptop to share with the Rwanda orphans a PowerPoint illustrating his personal journey from Ethiopia to Israel.
First there were photographs illustrating life as an Ethiopian Jew growing up in a typical village. Next, he showed photographs of the trek through the Sudan and the refugee camps where thousands of Ethiopian Jews lost their lives. He concluded with photos of the Beta Yisrael orphans at Yemin Orde, and in Israel.
The Rwandan students were surprised and moved by the presentation. They identified with Dror, who like them, had suffered and lost family in Africa, and like them, was African. The story gave them hope; maybe they too could go on to prosper.
What if Israel were to train many more of the Ethiopian Jews, to form an Israeli Peace Corps to educate orphans of Rwanda and of other African countries who are trying to survive the bloodshed, disease, and famines which plague them?
The journey of these Ethiopian volunteers is iconic; they’ve traveled out of Ethiopia, became educated in Israel and returned to Africa to help their brethren. Thirty-five years ago, American Jews were campaigning for their rescue from squalid refugee camps in Sudan; some of those rescued are now volunteers in Rwanda.
We pray for Israel to train and send more of its Ethiopian Jews to help the destitute orphans of Africa.
(Howard M. Lenhoff and Nathan Shapiro are former presidents of the American Association for Ethiopian Jews.)