Michael Balaban, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, with local philanthropists Lynne and Michael Markman, joined dozens of other community leaders from Jewish Federations of North America on a delegation to accompany 180 Ethiopian olim (immigrants) to Israel on June 1, following a special three-day mission in Ethiopia.
The following day, a second flight of 160 Ethiopian olim arrived in Ben Gurion airport.
“Excitement, wonder and, yes, a bit of fear. These are the emotions seen on the faces of our friends as they journey to begin their new lives in Israel,” Balaban said. “All are leaving the only place they have ever known with excitement to be going to a place they have only seen in their prayers.”
The two flights mark the resumption of Operation Zur Israel or Rock of Israel, an initiative approved by the Israeli government allowing 3,000 members of the Jewish community in Ethiopia to make aliyah and reunite with their family members in Israel. Some of the olim have waited over a decade to reunite with their loved ones and fulfill their dreams of aliyah.
“The Jewish people in Ethiopia are living in deplorable conditions without health care, basic plumbing or housing while they struggle to survive to achieve their dream of moving to Israel,” said Michael Markman, a Jewish Federation board member, who along with his wife, Lynne, have made contributions over the years to programs that support Ethiopian immigrants.
During the mission, the leaders met with Ethiopian community members in Gondar and Addis Ababa, who were waiting to make aliyah to become Israeli citizens.
Other organizations present during the mission included officials from The Jewish Agency for Israel, Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, the World Zionist Organization and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Outside of the organizational delegations, Minister of Aliyah and Integration Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian-born woman to enter the Knesset, accompanied the immigrants on their flight. Other notable leaders who participated in the journey included Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the WZO and acting chairman of The Jewish Agency, and Jeffrey A. Schoenfeld, chair of the Israel and Overseas Committee of the Jewish Federations of North America.
In addition to more than $100 million in core funding Jewish Federations raise every year for partner organizations such as the Jewish Agency, which allows them to both carry out their routine work and prepare for extraordinary moments such as these, Federations have launched a campaign of more than $7 million for the continuation of aliyah from Ethiopia and for humanitarian assistance for the community still awaiting aliyah.
“The North American Jewish community is proud of the way our community is stepping up once again to support Ethiopian aliyah,” Jewish Federations President and CEO Eric Fingerhut said. “These inspiring moments are a reminder of how important it is to invest in the infrastructure of Jewish support organizations, which Federations do year in and year out to ensure we are prepared to act when the need arises.”
As the new immigrants settle in Israel, there are still those remaining in Ethiopia who are anxious to make aliyah and reunite with their families. When that time comes, Jewish Federations are ready to continue to help facilitate that journey, providing hope for Ethiopians long awaiting their homeland.
After his experience in Ethiopia, Markman is even more passionate about investing in resources for the absorption of immigrants in Israeli society: “As a Jewish community, we need to band together to save and support these Jewish souls and work to move them to Israel.”