Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) is a non-profit organization, established in 2000. Its honorary president is Senator Joseph Lieberman who replaced the late Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Its counsel includes Irwin Cotler (former Attorney General and Justice Minister of Canada), Professor Alan Dershowitz and Joseph Feit an attorney who has received awards from Israel Knesset and the Jewish Agency for three decades of work on behalf of Ethiopian Jewry).
SSEJ provided assistance to the Jews remaining in Ethiopia from 2001 through 2011 when the Jewish Agency took over NACOEJ and SSEJ’s programs in Gondar and Addis (JAFI and JDC, which had been providing medical programs, discontinued providing assistance in 2013 at the request of the government of Israel).
In 2017 due to the dire situation of the Jewish communities in remaining in Addis and Gondar, their leadership and many leading members of Knesset asked JAFI, JDC and Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), to resume providing humanitarian and educational assistance. SSEJ stepped into the breach and currently provides the following programs through privately raised funds.
The Beta Israel (i.e. the Jews) of Ethiopia adhered faithfully to Judaism for many centuries despite great hardship. Over the past several generations the Beta Israel were subjected to extraordinarily severe economic and social pressures which caused a portion of the community to stray from the traditional religious norms; like the Marranos in Spain, many converted to Christianity, some only nominally.
Their descendants thousands of whom are currently living in Gondar and Addis Ababa are known today in Israel as Falash Mura. Ethnically, they regard themselves and are perceived by their Ethiopian neighbors as Beta Israel. Seventy percent of the community has first degree relatives in Israel (parents, children siblings); almost all of the rest have uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews, first cousins etc. Some of these family members whom serve in Israel’s armed forces. They are an inseparable part of the Ethiopian Jewish community and yearn to be reunited with their families in Israel.
Since at least the 6th century (and probably far longer) the vast majority of Jewish communities have always welcomed the return of apostates to the community and have tried, even at grave personal risk, to assist in their return to the ancestral faith. For example, that the Decree of Alhambra in 1492 cites only the efforts of Spanish Jews to assist conversos to return to Judaism as the reason for expelling its Jewish community.
Over the past 30 years they have returned fully to their Jewish roots. They have abandoned their farms, their homes and any vestige of a Christian past and immigrated to Addis Ababa and Gondar City, which is a northwestern provincial capital. Community members live as strictly observant Jews. They pray daily, celebrate the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, adhere to Jewish dietary laws, keep the laws of family purity and put on tephillin. Currently, more than 2,000 adults in Gondar and Addis devote approximately 10 hours weekly to Jewish studies in addition to prayer services, attendance at divrei Torah etc. There is a full time Ethiopian rabbi in Ethiopia leading the program of Jewish education.
Under prior government decisions since 1997, the vast majority of the Falash Mura who made aliyah to Israel (52,000 to date) were maternally linked to the Ethiopian Jewish community. This was a condition of the government decisions under the Law of Entry (even though Ethiopian Jewry traced religious lineage paternally).
However, 9,000 of the 14,000 currently in Addis and Gondar – virtually all of whom arrived in Gondar and Addis before 2010 – were not permitted to make aliyah. They wee linked patrilineally to the Beta Israel community but lacked requisite maternal lineage (even though they have been following halakhic practices, some for over two decades, and would undergo a full conversion by the Chief Rabbinate when they arrive in Israel). There is no doubt that they would already have undergone such conversion years ago if it were possible in Ethiopia.
There are over 5,000 additional members of the Beta Israel who do possess the requisite maternal linkage. But because they arrived in Addis and Gondar after the list was closed in 2010, they were not brought to Israel. They would not qualify for aliyah even if the 2015 government decision discussed below were implemented.
This is unjustifiable since they are already considered Jewish under Jewish law and would undergo a giyur le humrah like the 52,000 who have already made aliyah, if permitted to go to Israel to rejoin their families.u00a0 Many of them have Jewish lineage from both maternal and paternal sides. If the government of Israel does not decide to allow the maternally linked people to make aliyah, there can be little doubt that they will maintain a strong Jewish community in Ethiopia.
The children in Addis and Gondar attend secular schools provided by the Ethiopian government four hours a day. However, SSEJ runs an after school/Talmud Torah program for thousands of children grades 1 through 12. Additionally, hundreds of children, both in Gondar and Addis, attend programs under the auspices of Bnai Akiva branches conducted by the local community with help from volunteers from Israel. Additionally, extensive Jewish content is provided during the summer in day camps in Addis and Gondar which thousands of children attend.
As internally displaced people in a country which repeatedly suffers from the ravages of famine, the community struggles to survive under truly horrific living conditions. In one of the poorest countries in the world, many community members are the poorest of the poor.
Experts recommended by US and UN relief agencies have found the conditions appalling even by Third World standards. Ninety-four percent community members live below the World Bank poverty line. Eighty percent lack access to a latrine. Stunting and wasting are rampant amongst Falash Mura children. Small children, of course, are the first to suffer from the consequences of malnutrition, which includes compromised immune systems and opportunistic diseases which can have extremely severe consequences. There are two peer reviewed nutritional studies of the community that indicate over half are significantly malnourished.
SSEJ is the only organization providing substantial assistance to the Jews in Ethiopia. Jewish Federations of North America is SSEJ’s biggest contributor. Other important contributors include NACOEJ, major foundations, individual federations and private individuals.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) closed its Ethiopian medical clinics in 2013 and currently only provides funding to humanitarian projects aimed at non-Jews.
Overcoming intense opposition from some elements of the Israeli government, approximately 60,000 members of the so-called Falash Mura community have arrived in Israel since 1992. The great majority of Israeli Falash Mura send their children to religious schools and lead follow traditional rabbinical halakhic practices. The Falash Mura are the most traditionally observant segment of Ethiopian Jewry in Israel. The vast majority of this community goes through either a return to Judaism process (H’atafat daam) or actual conversion upon arriving to Israel to eliminate all potential questions regarding their lineage.
The Ethiopian-Israeli community religious leaders, including the former Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian community in Israel, Rabbi Yosef Hadane, and Chief Kess (traditional spiritual leader) Raphael Hadane, are strongly supportive of the aliyah. The current Chief Rabbi of the community, Rabbi Reuven Upshitz has also expressed written support. u00a0Virtually all Ethiopian rabbis and most kessim are similarly supportive.
Of course, after the Beta Israel undergo conversion in Israel under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, there will be no doubt of their status as Jews under the most rigorous application of halakhic principles. Historically, the paternally descended Marranos of Spain and Portugal, even after eight generations as practicing Catholics, were allowed to return to the Jewish people after undergoing an halakhic conversion. Many of them became outstanding Jewish religious figures.
For the past 25 years, the Interior Ministry has taken the position that the Gondar and Addis communities are not eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return even though they have been practicing normative halakhic Judaism and at least in the case of those who are maternally linked – have been recognized as absolutely Jewish without doubt by Israel Chief Rabbinate (as well as the religious authorities of the American Jewish community, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.) Thus, aliyah of the vast majority of the Beta Israel since 1991 has taken place only pursuant to sporadic government decisions under Israel’s discretionary Law of Entry. Even when such decisions are passed by the cabinet, individual Israeli government ministers have been able to block their implementation for extended time periods.
Consequently, many members of the community have been living as internally displaced refugees for 10 years or more, some over 20 years – but have yet to be called for an interview to determine their eligibility for aliyah. The interminable delays in Ethiopia are in stark contrast to the inspection process for aliyah worldwide.
In November 2015, the government committed to bringing the Beta Israel in Addis and Gondar to Israel by November 2020. This decision and further decisions were only partially implemented. There is no indication when, if ever, the remainder will be brought.
In the past, the religious sectors have generally been extremely supportive. In Israel, MK’s from the religious parties Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and National Union have historically been amongst the community’s strongest advocates and Knesset members from these parties have visited the community in the past. As noted above, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the late spiritual leader of Shas, was a strong supporter. The religious parties are somewhat less involved now because many members of the current community, like many hundreds of thousands of Russians, have only patrilineal lineage (i.e. are not halakhically Jewish without a giyur) and the existence of the 5,000 maternally linked people who arrived after 2010 is not widely known.
Dr. Avraham Neguise, has been a strong supporter for over 25 years. Until recently, he was a member of Knesset and chairman of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee.
A distinguished public committee, whose honorary president was the former Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, Meir Shamgar, advocates on behalf of the remaining Jews in Ethiopia. It contains extremely prominent members from all segments of Israel’s political and religious sector, from the secular left to the ultra-Orthodox right, Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians. Members include or have included former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Professor Alan Dershowitz, Professor Asa Kasher, Chief Rabbi of the Ethiopian community Yosef Hadane, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Rabbi Shaar Yashuv Cohen, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, was also extremely supportive.
There is an active committee of prominent rabbis in Israel which strongly supports the aliyah.
Over the years, there have been many demonstrations by thousands of members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel in favor of continued aliyah. The umbrella group representing all major Ethiopian Jewish organizations has been strongly supportive of the aliyah in the past but has not been active in recent years. Many kessim (Ethiopian religious leaders) are supportive. There still remain pockets of opposition within the community but though vociferous and a minority and far less numerous and active than in the past. Based on contacts at the highest level of the Ethiopian government it is clear that the Ethiopian government would have no objection.
The conditions under which the community lives are insufferable, even shocking and must be improved. Programs are urgently needed to provide food, Jewish education, medical care and other humanitarian assistance.
Ideally such programming should be provided by the institutions of the Jewish community. However, since they have provided sporadic and uneven support even for chronically malnourished children, it has fallen on SSEJ to help these desperate people. SSEJ is the only organization on the ground providing substantial humanitarian relief. Please donate today. As a volunteer organization we have low overhead so your donation will make a big difference.