Operation Dove’s Wings – A People’s Journey from Ethiopia to Israel

The author during her mission to Ethiopia

By Julia Reitman // Chair, 2013 Montreal Mission to Ethiopia and Israel

We are gathered in the courtyard of the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa and the assembled group of 77 immigrants are thanking us for helping them to achieve their lifelong goal of reaching Jerusalem.  As mission chair, I am asked to say a few words.  With tears in my eyes I can only thank them.  I thank them for their courage, their patience and their resolve.  Mostly though, I thank them for providing us the opportunity to fulfill a time-honoured Jewish tradition, that of tikun olam. As tears roll down all of our cheeks we are overcome with a sense of caring and responsibility for our fellow Jews, who are starting a new chapter in their lives and with whom we now share a bond and a responsibility.

The four days and three nights that we have spent in Ethiopia have felt like a surreal adventure. The objective of our mission was to experience first-hand the living conditions of the Ethiopian Jews, to accompany a group of “olim” as they journey to Israel, and to help them with their absorption into Israeli society.

The objective

80,000+

Ethiopian Jews that Federation CJA, along with our international partners, have helped bring to Israel.

This year will see the end of more than three decades of aliyah, which have successfully brought around 80,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.   At the start of 2013, only 2,000 eligible Falash Mura (ones who can trace their lineage through seven generations) remained in Ethiopia awaiting aliyah.  As the final mission to Ethiopia from Montreal, we are about to witness this process.

The journey begins

A synagogue in Gondar

Our journey begins in Israel with a presentation by Gad Shimron, a former Mossad agent and our very own James Bond.  He explains his participation in the multiple covert rescue missions that operated in the 1980s in the Sudan, a country both then and now, hostile to Israel. The stories he tells are harrowing and through them all, his love and respect for the Ethiopian Jews and for the hardships that they endured is evident.

As Shabbat ends, we depart for Addis Ababa and then immediately for Gondar, in the northern part of the country.  This area has traditionally been home to the Jewish population and villages such as Wolleka, Ambover and Wozava are known as the “starting point” for those that made the trek to the Sudan.

Honouring the fallen

We gather on a hillside and look west to the Sudan.  We can see the magnificent hills and valleys through which the Ethiopian Jews traveled, mostly barefoot and under cover of night in order to escape police and military raids and robbers. We learn that of the 16,000 people who made the journey, approximately 4,000 perished along the way or died in the refugee camps in the Sudan.  Later in the day we visit a Jewish cemetery and we plant trees to honour the memory of those whose journey to Jerusalem was never completed.

Ready for a new way of life

A school in Gondar

The following day we visit the Jewish aid buildings that include a school, a synagogue where hundreds of Ethiopian Jews pray, a dining hall where they nourish pregnant women and babies, classrooms used for the teaching of Hebrew, and a medical facility which is basically an inoculation centre and an infirmary.  We tour temporary housing huts made of straw and mud that serve to house families in the last stages of the aliyah process. These multi-family dwellings are so rudimentary, they lack running water and electricity. Once again, we reflect on the transition that the new olim will be making from this reality to a new one Israel.

A 2,000 year leap in a 5 hour flight

Our final day in Ethiopia begins as we land in Addis Ababa.  Micha Feldman, former Israeli Consul and our guide on this trip, recounts his personal involvement in Operation Salomon in 1991 that ensured the safe passage in twenty-four hours of 15,000 Jews out of the besieged Addis Ababa.  It is now time to meet the olim that will be travelling with us to Israel. Dressed in new clothes and carrying heavy backpacks, they are assembled in the courtyard of the transit house.  The children are animated; the adults display no outward emotion. They form two lines and walk silently through the dirty alleys leading to the Israeli Embassy.  The sides of the road are filled with onlookers. I wonder what they think of this procession and I wonder also what the olim are feeling as they embark on this life-changing journey; one that will see them leap 2,000 years in a 5 hour flight. The group joins in a solemn rendition of “Am Yisrael Chai”, ‘the people of Israel live’. Many of us are reduced to tears as we contemplate the meaning of this important event in Jewish history – the closing of the final chapter of the exile to Africa.

Reunions and the challenges ahead

When we land in Israel, many olim kiss the tarmac. After the immigration process, we cry as we witness family reunions, some following years of separation. Later, we visit an absorption centre where the olim will spend their first two years. Here, they will learn the skills required to help them transition from the primitive, agrarian lifestyle they knew in Ethiopia to the fast-paced, technologically advanced life they will now experience. I feel so privileged to be witnessing the immigration of a people that have kept faith with their vow to return to Jerusalem and despite the challenges ahead, I feel that Israel’s rescue of the Ethiopian Jews is heroic.

A family reunion in Israel

As I recount this journey, we have just celebrated Passover, the holiday that speaks to the issue of freedom. The traditional Seder concludes with the pledge “Next year in Jerusalem.”  Following our mission and our exposure to the world of the Ethiopian Jews, this message resonates much more clearly. For all who participated on this journey, we know that reaching Jerusalem is indeed a gift.

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