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Locals lead the exodus from Ethiopia to Israel
By Claire K. Racine
Nancy Kansler of Rye Brook plays travel hockey with Mengistu Bewuket as a way to take his mind off the upcoming flight to Israel.
Rabbi Jaymee Alpert of Congregation KTI in Port Chester escorts Ethiopian Jews to the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
People who are surprised by the notion of Ethiopian Jews may be even more shocked to know that for decades thousands have been immigrating to Israel. With the final chapter of the modern-day exodus wrapping up, Rabbi Jaymee Alpert of Congregation KTI in Port Chester and Nancy Kansler of Rye Brook helped shepherd some of the remaining Ethiopian Jews to the Promised Land.
This was the Jewish Federations of North America's last escort of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and as a member of their National Young Leadership cabinet, Kansler jumped at the opportunity to participate.
"It was an overwhelmingly emotional and meaningful experience," Kansler said.
For her, there were two aspects of the trip that made it unique to any other excursions she has gone on. Kansler got to see firsthand Ethiopian Jews leaving behind everything they knew to go to Israel, something they sacrificed for and prayed for to happen.
In addition to being there to see the Ethiopian Jewish relocation wrapping up, this was the first Third World country Kansler has visited.
"It was the kind of trip that every day you had to chew on what you saw and think it over. Everything every moment was so different from what we're used to living that you were always adjusting," she said, explaining that it was like travelling back in time. "Part of it was just coming to terms with how people live on a daily basis. How hard they work just to survive."
The National Young Leadership routinely visits Jewish communities around the world to see where the funds they raise are going. Whenever possible, Kansler likes to participate and see people in different places with disparate lives, but with the same heritage and beliefs. About nine years ago, Kansler's friend went on one of the missions to Ethiopia and, ever since hearing those stories, it has been on Kansler's bucket list.
"No matter how inconvenient and how challenging it felt for me as a mom and a wife to leave at that time, my children and my husband knew that it was truly a dream come true for me," she said. "It wasn't just seeing a current community of Jews living in the Western world. This was an ancient world. This was history."
Jewish life in ethiopia
The five-day whirlwind trip started in Tel Aviv, Israel on June 9 before quickly relocating to Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, and then Gondar in the northern part of the country.
More than 80,000 Ethiopian Jews have already relocated to Israel, but some of the remaining ones gather in Gondar and wait in temporary houses to relocate. Sometimes it takes as long as four years before they can make the transition.
"It was a very powerful moment to visit this home that was made of mud. It was one room, maybe 10 by 10, and 10 people live in it," said Alpert, the only rabbi to go on the mission. "It didn't matter that it was made of mud and there was very little that this family had. They just showed us so much hospitality."
In addition to home visits, the group visited schools in the area and the Jewish Community Center in Gondar. Compared to KTI and other centers in New York, the Jewish Community Center with its open walls and shed-like setup was a shock for Kansler. Just like during morning prayer services back home, however, Kansler, surrounded by hundreds of African Jews dressed in the traditional blue-striped Jewish prayer shawls, sang songs and prayers in Hebrew, including Am Yisrael Chai and the national anthem of Israel.
"I can't really describe to you the feeling of being in a foreign land with foreign people. It's indescribable the feeling of community when you can sing a song of hope together in the common language," she said.
Travelling with the group was the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, a Jewish woman whose family emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel when she was 17. While in Ethiopia, they travelled with her to visit the village she grew up in.
"She hadn't been back since she left Ethiopia as a kid," Alpert said.
While they were walking towards her home, an elderly woman called the ambassador by her older sister's name. Even though the ambassador's family left 30 years ago, the old woman recognized the ambassador because she looked so much like her older sister.
"She remembered every single name of her family," Kansler said. "I just thought it was unbelievable that this woman, this Christian woman, since there are no Jews there anymore, remembered all their names. She spent hours with us walking and experienced the ambassador seeing her family's home again."
After spending the afternoon at her former home, a very modest house made out of sticks, they joined the ambassador and her family for dinner at their modern home in Addis Ababa and Alpert found the contrast profound. "To see where someone starts and see where they end up in life, it was very moving," she said.
Immigrating to Israel
The group met with a group of about 60 people ranging from infants to the elderly preparing to make the trip to Israel in Gondar. Out of the group, Alpert found it easier to speak with the children, as many of them knew some degree of Hebrew from school, unlike their parents who only spoke Amharic. They reunited with the group in Addis Ababa and walked with them to the Israeli Embassy there before joining them on the plane to Tel Aviv.
Despite the language barrier, Kansler tried to explain what she could to the immigrants who had never seen a plane before. For them, flying in a plane would be like if Kansler had been put on a spaceship, she said.
"You could feel the anxiety from them," added Kansler, who showed many of them how to put on the seatbelts, that the blankets in plastic wrap could be opened and what the headphones were.
"I was witnessing people experience something for the first time," she said. "It was just so powerful. It was so fulfilling. It felt so good to show something to someone that was so simple but so foreign to them."
The travelers had to leave almost everything behind and could only bring with them whatever they could carry. For many, it was the plates used to cook injera, a spongy type of flatbread, and the traditional woven baskets it is carried in that they chose to take with them, Alpert said.
"We had the honor of watching many of these people walk off the plane and really touch down in Israel and realize their dream," Alpert said. Some of them actually kissed the ground.
"I can only imagine how terrifying and also exciting and full of possibility and sad-it's all those emotions all together," Alpert added. "You're giving up the place you know. You may love it. You may hate it, but you're giving it up for the possibility of a better life."
Viewpoint of R. B. emigrant to Israel
Once in the country, the new immigrants go to one of 17 absorption centers throughout Israel. They will live in apartment complexes for about 18 months while taking adult education classes, such as Hebrew immersion, for the adults while the children are integrated into the schools. In under two years, the families will be living in their own homes, part of everyday life in Israel.
The interim period where the Ethiopians can live in their own neighborhoods "helps them to assimilate more slowly and helps them feel more secure," said Stephen Abel, who grew up in Rye Brook and moved to Israel about 40 years ago.
During his time there, he has seen how the Ethiopian emigrants have integrated into Israeli society and the problems they faced along the way. One of the early problems was that although absorption centers were careful to label everything in Hebrew and Amharic, many of the immigrants could not read, Abel said, remembering visiting a center more than 25 years ago.
"They didn't really understand who they were dealing with," he said. "This incurred a lot of delays in helping them to become a part of Israeli society."
Back then, some people did not accept that the Ethiopians were fully Jewish and wanted them to convert. Also, some Orthodox rabbis would not recognize the authority of Ethiopian Jewish leaders.
"Today the Ethiopians are much more a part of Israeli society," Abel said. They, and their descendants, attend universities, serve in the army and marry Israeli citizens of European ancestry.
"There are phenomenal programs in place to help people transition," Kansler said. With less resources needed in Ethiopia, Kansler hopes they can be transferred to Israel to ensure that the transition is as smooth as possible because, while one chapter is almost finished, the story of the Ethiopian Jews is not over yet. "It's just as important for people in Israel to be given the support and the tools for them to thrive," she said.
Coming back home
After an intense five days, Alpert and Kansler returned home to Port Chester and Rye Brook respectively.
"I didn't have a lot of time to ponder and think," Kansler said. "I had to come back and be mother of two middle school kids in full swing of school year end and Western world stuff. It's literally like I landed on a different planet."
After traveling to Israel and Ethiopia, Alpert also led a mission trip of KTI members to Cuba, making June a very overwhelming month for the rabbi.
"It's given me a deep appreciation of the things we have here and take for granted, and I mean everything ranging from safe drinking water to how many material things we own to being able to speak openly and freely about political beliefs," Alpert said.
"At the same time it's highlighted some of the values I fear we are starting to lose in America," she added. Community and hospitality, as well as the importance of maintaining a Jewish identity, play a more crucial role in the countries she visited than Alpert sees in day-to-day life in the United States.
For Kansler, the trip reinforced the importance of thinking about other people and supporting them, as well as finding connections and similarities in other people. Although daily life in Ethiopia diverges widely from a traditional day in Westchester County, human nature is not so different.
"It doesn't really matter where you live and how you live. Your family is the most important thing," Kansler said.
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