Being There: A Year After Launch of Emergency Campaign for Ethiopian Jews

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Federation Real Estate Fund awarded a grant to Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry to build and operate a medical clinic in Gondar, Ethiopia. Courtesy of SSEJ

When the Israeli government voted to welcome 3,000 Jews from war-torn Ethiopia in 2022, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia knew it needed to act. Joining the Jewish Federations of North America’s national campaign, the local Jewish Federation assisted in the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel and their reunification with families after being apart for decades.

Since the launch of this initiative, called Operation Zur Israel, more than 2,215 Ethiopian Jews have made aliyah to Israel and are making a life in a country where they can practice Judaism without fear of being persecuted and have more opportunities for employment. Facilitating their acclimation, the olim (immigrants) receive assistance and services starting in Ethiopia with medical and wellness checks as well as in 15 absorption centers in Israel supported through the Operation Zur Israel campaign, Jewish Agency and the Israeli government.

Felegush and Navra, last names omitted for privacy, were two of the first olim to be reunited with their three daughters who had immigrated to Israel years prior. As a result of war and rampant antisemitism, limiting the couple’s work opportunities and forcing them to live in a crowded apartment in Ethiopia, the hope of making their own aliyah to be with their daughters was a far-off dream – until Operation Zur Israel.

Michael Markman, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s board member, traveled with his wife Lynne and heard and saw countless first-hand stories like Felegush’s and Navra’s when they visited Ethiopia with local Jewish Federation President and CEO Michael Balaban on a JFNA emergency mission last year.

An Ethiopian child receives medical attention at the Jewish Federation’s JFRE-supported medical clinic. Photo courtesy of SSEJ

“When my wife and I visited the synagogue and facilities in Gondar, we watched a Jewish mother and daughter struggle to find a place for the child to go to the bathroom,” Markman reflected. “Ultimately, the child was forced to go to the bathroom on a patch of grass, and we were completely heartbroken. There are very few bathroom facilities, let alone medical facilities, that must be shared by hundreds of Jewish residents waiting to make aliyah to Israel.”

Due to the lack of quality health care in Ethiopia, children between the ages of five and 10, as well as women who are pregnant or nursing, often are not seen by health providers. According to the National Institute of Health, Ethiopia has one of the world’s highest rates of pediatric deaths and disabilities, with more than 700 children dying every day from easily preventable diseases.

When Markman returned from the mission, he was left with a desire to do more for the 12,000 Ethiopian Jews waiting to make aliyah to Israel and who continue to endure hunger, poverty and disease.

Patients receive care at the media clinic in Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of SSEJ

Driven to make a difference, Markman sought a grant from the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Federation Real Estate Fund to support the nonprofit Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry’s project to establish and fund a medical clinic in Gondar, Ethiopia, to care for the Jewish population. Not only was that grant awarded, but Markman inspired each of JFRE’s Executive Committee members, of which he is the former chair and current member, to make a personal donation to the project.

In its first year, the clinic today has provided health care to more than 2,000 Jewish children and adults. One of these recipients was Lea, last name omitted for privacy, an Ethiopian Jew and mother.

“When I became pregnant, I did not know what to do,” Lea said. “Luckily, SSEJ provided me with food during my pregnancy and after my daughter was born. They also feed my child twice a day. Without SSEJ, I would be lost. Now I have hope.”

Being there for Jews like Lea, who are subjected to discrimination and lack of resources, is an essential part of the Jewish Federation’s mission to support global Jewry.

“As the Jewish people, we must stand together to protect one another against hate and help each other thrive,” Balaban said. “We stand united and committed to being there for the Jewish people, whether they be at home or across the world in Israel, Ethiopia and other countries.”


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