AJW Staff Report
Minnesotans who played a role is the mass aliya (emigration to Israel) of Ethiopian Jews were remembered in a Nov. 28 event in Minneapolis, which was co-sponsored by Temple Israel and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Among the speakers at Temple Israel was Rabbi Jerome Epstein, president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ) and former vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group of Conservative congregations in North America.
William P. (Bill) Halpern, a Minneapolis native who died in 1982, was a seminal figure in raising awareness about the plight of Ethiopian Jews. He met Baruch Tegegne, an Ethiopian Jew, and introduced him to Steve Shapiro, son of Rabbi Max Shapiro, the senior rabbi of Temple Israel. In turn, Rabbi Shapiro introduced Tegegne to Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who became President George H.W. Bush’s special emissary to Ethiopia, and helped arrange the second airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Tegegne died in Israel, in 2010; and Rabbi Shapiro died in 2009.
Operation Solomon, which took place in 1991, airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, in the span of 36 hours. Some 130,000 Ethiopian Jews now live in Israel.
Rabbi Epstein visited the AJW offices prior to the Nov. 28 event at Temple Israel, and discussed his October trip to Gondar province in Ethiopia. He accompanied a group of 52 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and later visited them at an absorption center in Ibim, Israel.
As it happened, fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas shortly after their arrival at the center located just a few miles from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The fighting added an additional layer to the culture shock felt by the new olim.
“They didn’t come with that experience in mind,” said Epstein, regarding the Ethiopians’ proximity to the conflict.
Epstein commented that Israel’s efforts in resettling Ethiopian Jews are “very praiseworthy… the highest form of mitzva.”
At the same time, Jews in North America must help out. “Israel needs support to enable these people to grow,” Epstein said.
The AJW has previously written about the amazingly heroic efforts of people like Dr. Rick Hodes, who has operated medical clinics in Ethiopia for many years under the auspices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
“There are a lot of heroes in this thing,” said Epstein, who also agreed that the issue of Ethiopian Jews has more or less fallen off the radar of the American Jewish community.
“That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he noted.
There are some 2,000 Ethiopian Jews waiting to come Israel, out of a group that numbered about 7,800 just 14 months ago, according to Epstein.
He mentioned that young Ethiopian Jewish students in Israel need backpacks, which could be an excellent mitzva project for young Minnesotans celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzva. Information on NACOEJ can be found at: nacoej.org. Harlan Jacobs, a local activist on behalf of NACOEJ, can be contacted at: email@example.com.
(American Jewish World, 12.21.12)