Nearly 300 Ethiopian Jews flew into Ben Gurion International Airport on Friday, making aliyah and reuniting with family members who previously had immigrated to Israel.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh was among the agencies that funded the effort, dubbed Operation Tzur Yisrael (Rock of Israel), through The Jewish Agency. The Pittsburgh Federation gives an unrestricted amount of money each year to The Jewish Agency — typically more than $1 million annually, according to Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of Pittsburgh’s Federation.
The recent group of olim (immigrants) — whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity about a century ago, but who can trace Jewish lineage — is part of some 2,000 Ethiopian Jews approved to resettle in Israel by the nation’s government, Finkelstein said. The resettlement also was aided, in part, by the Pittsburgh Federation’s COVID-19 relief funds, which have exceeded $7.6 million.
“The line from Jewish texts a lot of people cite is ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh’ — ‘all Israel is responsible, one for another,’” Finkelstein told the Chronicle. “Yes, we have a geography of Pittsburgh, but we have a responsibility to help people wherever they lie. It’s part of our DNA.”
Pittsburgh’s Federation has been at the forefront of Ethiopian resettlement in Israel for decades, Finkelstein said. Local advocate Karen Shapira pushed some 20 years ago to launch an initiative to that end, which later flourished as the Ethiopian National Project, he said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Pittsburgh’s Jewish Federation also was among the first to fund efforts to bring food, medicine and personal hygiene supplies to waiting Ethiopians in Gondar and Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital, said Brian Eglash, senior vice president and chief development officer of Pittsburgh’s Federation.
“This particular operation, we are extremely, extremely proud of,” Eglash said. “It’s important to get these people home [to Israel] and to reunite them with family, and to integrate them into Israeli society.”
Eglash said “although the situation has improved” for Ethiopians in Israeli society, “it is still not where it should be and there is still a lot more work to be done.”
For example, he pointed to poverty in the Jewish state. In 2005, roughly 60% of Ethiopian Israelis were living below the nation’s poverty line. That number is now down to 33%, but still much higher than the Israeli national average of 19.1%, Eglash said.
Friday’s landing at the Tel Aviv-Yafo airport, though, was a time not for statistics but for celebration.
“Many of these new olim have been waiting for years to return to Jerusalem and reunite with their families, and you could see how overwhelmed they were with emotion when they stepped onto Israeli soil, bent down on hands and knees, and kissed the ground,” said Kim Salzman, director of Israel and overseas operations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Salzman, who lives and works in Israel, greeted the immigrants at the airport with Itzhak Herzog, the chairperson of The Jewish Agency, and Pnina Tamano Shato, the minister of Aliyah and Absorption, together with representatives from Federation representatives from around North America.
“Among those on the flight was the mother of 6-year-old Binyamin, who is awaiting a lifesaving heart surgery at Wolfson hospital, and a man who has waited 24 years to immigrate to Israel and reunite with his brother,” Salzman said. “The new olim are now headed to a hotel in Haifa, where they will stay for a two-week quarantine. After that, they will be housed in Jewish Agency absorption centers around the country, where they will learn Hebrew and be given the tools and knowledge needed to successfully navigate and integrate into Israeli society.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.