GONDAR, Ethiopia – It’s called Tzur Israel – the Rock of Israel – an exciting and ongoing effort to help thousands of Ethiopians join their Jewish families in Israel. While this fulfills prophecy, unfortunately, others are being left behind indefinitely.
When Workie Girmay and her siblings said goodbye to their mother, Rabebo Shivesh, when she left Ethiopia, they had no idea it would take them 19 years to join her in Israel.
“During the wait, we encountered all kinds of challenges. There were many grandchildren and great-grandchildren born and she doesn’t know them. Also, some died. For example my nephew was killed in the army last year,” Workie told CBN News through a translator outside her home in Gondar.
“It was difficult to tell his grandmother that her grandson was killed when she was there all alone. Even when we had difficult times and starvation here, we told her we were happy so my mom wouldn’t be sad,” Workie said.
Another one of Rabebo Shivesh’s grandsons, Markachew Yilak, speaks Hebrew and studied in a Jewish seminary in Israel on a student visa, and then returned to Ethiopia. He accompanied his family on the flight to become a citizen of Israel.
“I have a few plans. I want to get a university degree, but we’ll see if I manage. It won’t be easy because of the language,” Markachew said.
Despite the waiting, they looked forward to a Holy Land reunion.
“First of all, we feel blessed that we can move to the Land of Israel. It’s a land that even Moses wasn’t allowed to tread on. We’re very excited that this is the Land, God promised to our forefathers, and we are arriving there,” Workie said.
“It’s difficult to leave our neighbors and the home we know, but we’re returning to our homeland,” she added.
Sadly, this family’s story is not unique.
CBN News visited the only synagogue in Gondar, Ethiopia. There, hundreds of Ethiopians, who consider themselves Jewish, attend regular prayer services. They all want to go to Israel, and some have been in the process for 20 years or even more.
At the synagogue there are community activities.
An organization called the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) funds and runs a feeding program for children under five and nursing mothers, as well as a summer camp. They also have a health care program for children.
“The Jews in Ethiopia are internally displaced refugees. They left their villages on an average of 17 years ago in the hopes to get to Israel and they’ve been stranded since,” Jeremy Feit, President of SSEJ told CBN News.
Adane Tadele is head of the Jewish Agency Delegation to Ethiopia. He has personal experience in immigrating, known as making Aliyah, from Ethiopia.
As a 16-year-old, in the ‘80s, Tadele walked nearly 300 miles at night across the rugged mountains to Sudan and hid during the day for fear of being arrested. (He had walked almost that much across Ethiopia, just to get to the border.) Once he arrived in Sudan, it took just over a year of waiting there before he was airlifted to Israel as part of what became known as Operation Moses.
The Jewish Agency opened a center in Gondar in 1992 to process those immigrating to Israel.
“Close to 85,000 Ethiopians immigrated from this place and were taken care of in this place. Now we are in the process of facilitating Aliyah for 3,000 immigrants,” Tadele said in reference to the current operation to bring 3,000 Ethiopians to Israel this year.
About 70 percent of those immigrating to Israel come through Gondar and the rest through Addis Ababa. But none of those making Aliyah are actually from the cities.
“Those who are staying here live in two main neighborhoods,” Tadele told journalists in Gondar. “Everyone here is from a village and they moved here to the city to put in their request to make Aliyah.”
The villages are miles from Gondar and life there is very different for the people. Once they leave to go to the city they can’t return because their land has already been taken by someone else, Tadele explained.
That has made it extremely difficult for those who have had to wait years and even decades to come to Israel. Without a place to live or a profession, they are forced to work as day laborers without a steady income and rent mostly tiny apartments or small houses.
The Jewish Agency partners with Christian organizations like CBN to help resettle the immigrants once they arrive, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) that chartered the Aliyah flight to Israel.
IFCJ, CEO, Yael Eckstein visited Gondar to accompany the flight back to Israel.
“I feel the words of the prophets coming to life that 2000 years ago, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, they saw this. There was a united Israel with all of the tribes in Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed and the tribes were dispersed, and these prophets said, don't lose faith. They'll be reunited,” Eckstein told CBN News.
Eckstein says her organization helps to bring around 5000 Jews home to Israel each year.
“And I think of my grandfather, who's a Holocaust survivor from Germany, escaping the Nazis, his family in a concentration camp in Auschwitz killed, and he opens up the Bible and says, ‘One day the Jews will go home to Israel. One day, the lost tribes will be found. One day Jews all over the world will be reunited on the shoulders of the Gentiles, that it will be Christians who will make this happen,” Eckstein said. (Isaiah 49:22; Isaiah 60:8-12)
According to the Israeli Law of Return, anyone with one Jewish grandparent, who has not converted to another religion is allowed to become a citizen or make Aliyah. Many Ethiopians, however, have had trouble proving their lineage in order to qualify.
“Part of them here don’t qualify under the Law of Return,” Tadele said. “The majority are entering according to the Law of Entry according to the decision of the government.”
The Law of Entry refers to being allowed to immigrate to Israel based on family reunification with family members who did qualify to immigrate to Israel. But that has been based on separate government decisions, allowing limited numbers to come for a limited time, and each time establishing new criteria that excludes some.
“Therefore, each time only a small amount can go because the criteria are very restrictive, that doesn’t answer all those who are waiting here,” said Tadele.
That has left people like Liya Kebeda waiting for more than two decades for seemingly no reason.
“When I was five years old, my family brought me here to make Aliyah to Israel. My mother waited about 23 years to go to Israel and she has seven brothers and sisters, and they all live in Israel now,” Liya said.
Liya had to wait an extra year and half because she’s married. But finally, she and her husband, Biniyam Zewudie, were approved and came to Israel on the recent flight together with their three small children and her sister and sister’s family.
Not all of the family is allowed to come, though. Liya explained that her aunt – her father’s sister – would be left behind because her paperwork still isn’t being processed.
Why do they continue to wait for so many years?
“We are unquestionably Jews, so we want to go to Israel because that is where we belong. I want my children to stand for Israel. We want to go to Israel not only to have a better life but also to protect the people of Israel and its government,” Liya said.
The origins of Ethiopian Jewry are unclear. Many believe that they are part of the biblical tribe of Dan, that migrated south during the time of the destruction of the First Temple.
Adding another dimension, many also trace their lineage to the Queen of Sheba. The Bible says the Queen went to visit King Solomon to hear his wisdom (I Kings 10:1-13). Ethiopians say the Queen then bore Solomon’s son, who would lead an Ethiopian dynasty lasting thousands of years.
At first, the Ethiopian Jews were known as Beta Israel. In the 80s, Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, declared them to be Jews. Later, others who had throughout the years converted to Christianity under pressure, known as Falash Mura, were also included.
Since that time, the Israeli government has mounted various operations to bring Ethiopian Jewry and their descendants to Israel often declaring it the last round.
In 2015, the government voted to bring 9,000 Ethiopians to Israel but only about 4,000 were brought. Now, the numbers of those waiting have reportedly grown from around 5,000 to 8,000.
Last November, the government voted to bring 3,000 this year. About 1,000 of those have made the journey so far.
Currently, a first-degree relative in Israel must request the family member to come and their family stories must match. Grown children of those who are coming must still be single or they and their spouses, and children cannot come. They must be first in line to be approved because the number is limited.
Balewuken Tegegne couldn’t go with his parents to Israel because he was already married. Balewuken lived in a seven-foot by 10-foot, mud floor room without plumbing with his wife and three daughters in Gondar for the last few years. He saw it was much better than the one they had lived in previously.
“My grandfather made Aliyah to Israel 11 years ago. My parents and my brother went two years ago. My wife is very happy we are going, and she wants to raise our children as Jews,” Balewuken said.
He said that since they are already keeping Jewish tradition, adapting to life in Israel shouldn’t be a problem.
“When I arrive in Israel, I want to find work and I want to give a better life to my kids and live happily there,” Balewuken said. “I can't believe that this day is actually going to happen. I'm living in a dream now and I'm afraid to wake up.”
And when the day came, he, his family, and his five siblings went to Israel on the IFCJ chartered flight. And his last sibling is due to follow shortly.
Nearly, 150 new immigrants to Israel boarded that flight in Gondar, transferred in Addis Ababa and headed home on the Fourth of July.
Workie arrived at the airport with a traditional Jewish prayer: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment,” and then she knelt to kiss the ground.
Dozens of 86-year-old Rabebo Shivesh’s offspring were on the plane. The reunion was very emotional with a lot of hugging and tears.
“I’m very blessed to meet my children after so many years,” Rabebo said.
“It’s hard to describe in words. I feel like it’s a dream. I’m very, very blessed,” said Kokanesh Girmay, one of her daughters.
Biniyam Zewudie and his family were delighted as they arrived in Israel
“We’re so excited. We waited for long. I couldn’t describe really how I’m feeling. It’s really tremendously, amazing, extremely exciting. We’re all happy,” Biniyam told CBN News as he arrived. “We’re going to be reunited with all of our family members.”
At the airport, the new immigrants received their paperwork and a small amount of cash. From there were taken to centers where they’ll live for two years, study Hebrew and be trained in Judaism as well as receive help in finding an apartment in Israel and a job.
“Home is where (the) heart is. So, we came home. We’re happy. Now everything feels OK – a dream come true,” Biniyam said.
Though it’s unclear how many Jews remain in Ethiopia, the Jewish Agency and its Christian supporters stand ready to help fulfill God’s word to bring his people back home.
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