“We see it as a central Zionist ideal to make reunions possible,” said activist Yael Eckstein.
The arrival of an Ethiopian Airways jetliner at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport earlier this week set the scene for an emotional reunion between family members, some of whom who hadn’t seen their relatives in two decades.
The operation, spearheaded by Israel’s Minister of Immigrant Absorption Pnina Tamano-Shata, is designed to help the remaining community of Jews living in refugee camps in Gondar and Addis Ababa make their way back to Israel. So far, more than 5,000 people who have first-degree relatives already living in Israel have moved or are scheduled to move in the near future.
The flight consisted of 150 people and was made possible through a joint initiative of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ); Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration; and the Jewish Agency for Israel as part of “Operation Tzur Israel” (“Rock of Israel”).
Escorting the group back to Israel, Yael Eckstein, president of the IFCJ, said helping to bring the final remnants of Ethiopian Jewry home to Israel is a central part of their mandate.
“It’s a source of great pride to be able to assist hundreds more olim to come home,” she said. “The most powerful part of this flight is knowing that many of these passengers have been waiting for decades for this moment, and we see it as a central Zionist ideal to be able to make these types of reunions possible.”
Among the arrivals was 50-year-old Astabal, who said that he hadn’t seen his parents in 18 years since they moved to Tel Aviv. Azanu Geremay Melesa similarly hasn’t seen her mother in nearly 20 years. She lost her eldest son recently after he fell fighting in the nation’s civil war, which helped spur the family’s decision to make the journey to Israel.
“When this awful thing happened to me, I was very lonely,” she says. “My mother, who I was very close with, was not with me, and when I couldn’t share my pain with her, it made the pain even worse. Coming to Israel was always our dream, and we believe only good things are going to happen to us there. I believe we are making a great choice, and it opens up a great opportunity for our children.”
‘Bring Our Brothers and Sisters Home’
Tamano-Shata said that “to be able to unite families who have been separated by thousands of miles allows us to finally address a failure that has affected the Ethiopian community for many years. These families have been waiting for this moment for decades.”
“Through the partnership between our ministries, the Jewish Agency and the IFCJ we are able to witness another historic moment in Israel’s history where we have reaffirmed our commitment to do everything we can to bring our brothers and sisters home,” she added.
Ranging in age from 6 to 50, the new immigrants will first live in five different absorption centers around the country, where they will be provided with Hebrew-language courses and other training to help them acclimate into Israeli society and join the workforce.
“The Jewish Agency will continue to lead the aliyah efforts from everywhere around the world and for every Jew who wants to move to Israel,” said chair of the World Zionist Organization and acting chair of the Jewish Agency Yaakov Hagoel. “We deeply appreciate the work of all the partners who have made this possible and know that with every new oleh who comes home our country becomes that much stronger.”